Puberty. The opposite sex. Video games. The end of recess.

All of them conspire against the health of children when they leave the fifth grade and enter the brave new world called middle school.

Now, the YMCA and numerous local businesses as well as the Missoula County Public Schools district are conspiring against the conspirers, with the development of the "Active 6" program.

Launched early last month, the after-school program gives all sixth-graders in Missoula County a free pass to the Y, and an opportunity to learn healthy habits and compete in everything from basketball to floor hockey.

"We want to make sure that being active is part of their daily thing, that it's something they want to do and not something they have to do," said Keri McHugh, coordinator of the Active 6 program at the Y.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at the South Russell Street activity center, sixth-graders play dodgeball, volleyball, basketball, floor hockey and other sports, and also swim and lift weights, depending on the schedule that day.

And they also hang out in the Teen Center at the Y, perhaps to play a little "Dance Dance Revolution."

There are more than 800 sixth-graders in Missoula County in both public and private schools, as well as kids educated at home. The program is open to every one of them.

So far, more than 160 of them have signed up, and the Y usually gets around 50 of them a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, said McHugh.

Community Medical Center (as well as the Missoulian) are major sponsors of the program. Kara McCarthy, community relations coordinator at the hospital, said the health and well-being of Missoula's children made the program a natural fit with Community's mission.

"We can truly show the importance of all these businesses to have a positive impact on kids in a safe and healthy environment," she said.

The program became especially poignant after a University of Montana study released last year. The study, by exercise science professor Steven Gaskill, found that physical activity dropped from an average of 200 minutes a day in elementary school to a mere 30 minutes per day in high school.

The biggest drop, he found, occurred between the fifth and sixth grades.

The YMCA program also teaches kids about nutrition and other healthy habits besides exercise.

Such habits become part of an active lifestyle, and not just a one-year program.

"We try giving them a life view, rather than just tell them, ‘Don't get fat,' " said McHugh.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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