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Kids in Motion Are Happy Kids

Kathleen Tullie, director of social purpose at Reebok International, is the cofounder and executive director of BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success). The physical activity program aims to jump-start children’s brains, improving academic performance and overall health by promoting exercise and nutrition knowledge. The program is run by moms, dads, teachers and volunteers, 2–3 days a week before or during school. Since BOKS launched at one school in Natick, Massachusetts, in October 2009, Tullie has led it to become the signature initiative of The Reebok Foundation and has helped expand the program to more than 1,000 schools worldwide.

ACE: How do you see the obesity epidemic affecting our society and, in particular, activity and performance in schools?

Kathleen Tullie: The obesity epidemic is severely affecting the longevity and successful development of our society. Childhood obesity in particular has led to an increase in diseases that previous generations did not experience until adulthood. For the first time in our country’s history, our children potentially have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Obesity is correlated with lack of physical activity and [poor] nutrition choices, and our educational system has systematically reduced access to physical education to the point that, on average, it meets only 25% of the U.S. recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children.

As for activity and performance in schools, it is a sad state of affairs when one considers the impact obesity brings: more nurse visits, more absences due to obesity-related illnesses, more social problems.

A study being conducted by the National Institute of Out-of-School Time, at Wellesley College, surveyed teachers of children who exercise using the BOKS program and found that

  • 72% of teachers agree or strongly agree that BOKS students are doing better in class;
  • 85% agree or strongly agree that BOKS students seem happier; and
  • at least 70% agree that these students are better able to concentrate, control impulses, engage in class discussions, stay alert and remain ready to learn.

ACE: How do you feel physical activity among children can have a positive impact on families?

Kathleen Tullie: From our success with BOKS, we know that children are now the ones educating their parents on nutrition lessons or asking them to go out for a run or a hike on the weekends. If kids learn to love physical activity at an early age and know they are empowered to make healthy choices, they will lean toward healthy choices in adulthood.

BOKS is predominantly run by parents; we’ve also found that those parents are becoming more physically active. We live in a fast-paced society with dual-working parents, increased emphasis on academics and multiple after-school activities. There is no better way to unwind than to have the family take a walk together after dinner or on the weekend.

ACE: What misconceptions—if any— do you believe our society has about people who may be struggling with their weight or finding it hard to adopt healthy habits? Why is it important for us to overcome those misconceptions?

Kathleen Tullie: Research shows that weight bias runs deep in our society and that generally “fat” is considered bad and “thin” is considered good. Being “fat” or “thin” doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy—there are many more factors involved. Obesity leads to discrimination and greatly affects those suffering with their weight. It also often leads to loss of self-efficacy. One of the largest misconceptions is that individuals who are obese are lazy and lack the willpower necessary to change.

The promotion of physical activity as fun and inclusive of everyone helps change the perception our society holds about obesity and those affected by it. Physical activity needs to become pervasive in our society—in schools, workplaces and homes. It also needs to be framed as accessible and fun for everyone—not as intimidating or exclusive. We need the cultural mindset to change so that people recognize the importance of being active as part of their lifestyle, and are aware of the different types of physical activity available and appropriate for them.

ACE: How do you feel health and fitness professionals can do their part to help children get more physical activity and knowledge about nutrition?

Kathleen Tullie: Fitness professionals can be champions of change in their own communities and start a movement
by providing more access to physical activity for children. These professionals already have the passion for fitness and understand the benefits. I believe if they stepped a little outside their comfort zone to work with children and give back to their communities with free physical activity opportunities and information about healthy nutrition, we would really start a movement in this country. Professionals could volunteer an hour or two of their time at a local school, a YMCA or a health club, and offer to run a class that incorporates basic nutrition information.

When 1,100 kids were surveyed at BOKS classes, 96% wanted to come back for the second session. There is clearly a demand for fitness programming among youth; we just need more volunteers to deliver it.

ACE: What advice would you give to families who may be having trouble engaging with their overweight or obese children about the importance of healthy habits?

Kathleen Tullie: We know the earlier you start, the better. Our family spends a lot of time outside and will take any opportunity to go for a walk or a hike. We started when our children were babies, and now it is a natural thing for us to enjoy together. Evidence shows that kids
learn their habits by age 8. If we introduce physical activity and knowledge of nutrition at an early age, it will be ingrained as part of their culture and world.

Educating children on the importance of exercise and proper nutrition gives them context for making healthy choices. As kids get older, they need to think of exercise as medicine and understand all the positive effects it has on the mind, body and community. You don’t have to be a full-time fitness professional to help others around you to live healthier lifestyles. Parents, teachers, community members, brothers, sisters and friends can all play an important role in influencing others and creating a cultural shift toward healthier choices.

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