A surefire way to impact children is to empower their teachers. That is the philosophy behind Project Fit America, a national initiative that helps children in the United States develop lifelong skills to be active, healthy and fit. Since it was founded 25 years ago, the nonprofit has assisted more than 1,000 school systems in 46 states, including a few districts in western Pennsylvania.

“We believe the best person to teach and train is the teacher. One teacher can impact thousands of students,” says Project Fit America executive director Stacey Cook.

For proof of the program’s success, you don’t have to look far. Homer-Center Elementary School and Marion Center Area School District’s McCreery Elementary and Rayne Elementary have implemented the Project Fit America program.

How Does it Work?

Project Fit matches schools with local businesses and organizations that have a vested interest in the health of their communities. These stakeholders help fund fitness training, programming and equipment for the schools. In Indiana County, Indiana Regional Medical Center sponsors Homer-Center Elementary and McCreery Elementary.

Project Fit works with the schools to train teachers and provides curriculum and fitness equipment.

“We emphasize that it is outdoor fitness equipment—not a playground. But it is very fun for the kids and they love using it,” Cook says.

Teachers who have been previously trained act as trainers and mentors for two years with new schools, and help them adapt the programs for their own students’ needs. The programming and curriculum focus on lifelong fitness skills, sportsmanship, good citizen skills, team building and empowering all children, Cook says.

“We want to change the students’ attitudes about fitness and health. We just don’t want to teach classes,” she says.

10 Years and Going Strong

Homer-Center Elementary is celebrating its 10th year as a Project Fit America school. One advantage, according to physical education teacher Scott Bauer, is that the curriculum incorporates activities that focus on individual accomplishments, not just team sports or competitive endeavors.

“The kids love it,” he says. “Kids can go at their own pace and they aren’t intimidated.”

The outdoor fitness equipment is a huge bonus for the school, allowing children to engage in true exercise when they might otherwise chose a less strenuous activity.

“The kids will be doing situps and pullups on the equipment and I’ll say to them, ‘You guys were having so much fun. You do realize you just exercised, right?’” Bauer says.

Indoor equipment includes weighted hula-hoops and Cardio Cups—cups given to students as earned “currency” that they can use to build into stacks as part of teamwork challenges. Bauer says at first he wasn’t so sure about the new programming.

“I was a bit skeptical at first. I mean, fitness cups? But then I saw how much the kids love it. They would run in and ask if they could get out the cups today, and it really motivates them,” he says.

Bauer became convinced, and has since served as a teacher mentor and was voted a Project Fit America All Star Teacher in 2008.

Thanks to the project, Bauer has seen a marked improvement in students’ strength and cardiovascular endurance. He has also seen a real change in student attitude.

“We want kids to think exercise is fun and that they can do it anywhere. It is working,” he says.

Project Fit also provides ongoing support, something that’s important to Bauer.

“Their support is around the clock. If you are introducing a new activity or have a problem, you can just call for assistance,” he says.

From One School to Another

P.E. teacher Adam Rising is just introducing Project Fit America programming to his K-6 students at McCreery Elementary School in Marion-Center School District. The program was implemented at the district’s Rayne Elementary School in 2014, so Rising knows the benefits.

“I saw what it did for our students at Rayne and was so excited to get this for our McCreery students,” he says.

Rising saw “drastic improvement” in the strength of the students, particularly upper body strength. But, perhaps even more important, he saw a dramatic change in another area.

“As their levels of strength developed, so did their confidence. That was great,” he says.

Like at Homer-Center, students at McCreery have access to outdoor fitness equipment that they can use during recess.

“It is the chance for a real workout during recess. Recess is now awesome,” he says.

Like Bauer, Rising likes that the program allows for individual effort and a chance for all students to shine in P.E. Individual success is noted and recognized with the Chart and Challenge sheets on the walls, allowing students to mark their accomplishments as they progress at their own rate.

“I’ll hear, ‘Hey, Mr. Rising, I finally climbed that pole!’ And I hear the confidence,” he says.

A Fit Community

Both teachers are overwhelmingly appreciative that IRMC has made this opportunity possible for their students.

“We could never do this without them, and it truly is promoting a healthier community,” Bauer says.

For Rising, the program is a shining example of how communities can work together to improve community member health and fitness.

“Such a collaborative effort and teamwork shows what local agencies and schools can do together,” Rising says. “We can help solve childhood obesity and make activities available for families.”