COLUMBIA — On a recent weekday at the Hallsville Primary School gymnasium, dozens of children in yellow shirts laughed and shrieked.
"Clap once if you can hear me!" Lindsey Stinson shouted above the rising noise level.
She directed the group through warm-ups — big arm circles, high knee jumps and heel kicks.
It looked like a physical education class, but Stinson is not a P.E. teacher. These children belong to the Hallsville Roadrunners, an after-school running club, and she is their coach.
“I really want to encourage kids to stay healthy and learn healthy habits from the get-go,” she said after the class concluded.
Several youth running clubs — including the Roadrunners, Girls on the Run and clubs at Parkade, Russell, Paxton Keeley and Blue Ridge elementary schools — have popped up in Boone County in recent years. Altogether, they serve at least 400 children.
Kids on Track is an annual project through Boone Hospital that encourages children 14 and under to run the equivalent of a marathon throughout the summer. Last year, 300 participated.
With an emphasis on health at a young age, the groups have embraced a nationwide fight against childhood obesity. More than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2010, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
That same year, Michelle Obama started Let's Move!, a campaign aimed at children that advocates more exercise and healthy eating.
Running is a healthy habit
Stinson, 31, founded the Hallsville Roadrunners in September. In its first year, 130 students in kindergarten through fifth grade have participated.
“I never anticipated there’d be this many people,” said Stinson, who received a certification in personal training four years ago.
The club meets every Wednesday with the goal of running at least one mile. The children also receive “healthy homework,” including eating a new fruit or vegetable each day, drinking water in place of sugary drinks, turning off the television and getting more sleep.
For every two miles they run, participants receive a small charm to mark their progress. After running 20 miles and receiving 10 charms, they receive a certificate and an even bigger charm, which many put on their shoelaces.
“If I can get them from the ground up, I'm able to show them some of the right things to do before they get older,” Stinson said. “And I love the younger kids; they’re a lot of fun.”
Girls on the Run is an international after-school program for girls in third through fifth grade that combines weekly lessons about self esteem with exercise.
Research published by the American Psychological Association found that by the time girls enter school as kindergartners, they already live in a culture where peers and the media negatively influence their development of body image and self-esteem.
“Body image concerns have been linked to numerous pathological problems, including depression, obesity, dieting, and eating disorders," the study said.
Girls on the Run seeks to stop that kind of negative thinking.
“Every girl needs to know that she is amazing,” said Maggie Mayhan, who works with the local chapter. “What you have to say is valuable, and your thoughts are valuable, too.”
Self-esteem is part of the package
Mayhan was among a group of 11 women who brought the local chapter to Columbia in the fall of 2011. The program hosts 80 girls at seven elementary schools in town.
They have been training since February for a 5K on May 11, which they see as a public display and celebration of their hard work.
Each session has a central lesson that the coaches incorporate into the girls’ training.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on positive self image,” site coordinator and assistant coach Christy Perkey said. “We cover topics anywhere from looking at ads and figuring out what they are really saying to standing up to a bully.”
Volunteers from the community, many of them MU students or teachers, act as coaches, leading the girls to be physically and mentally strong.
“My friend told me I’d be great as a coach because I’m a teacher and a runner,” Perkey said. “So when I heard it was about creating a positive experience around running for young girls, I wanted to join because running has done a lot for me.”
It’s far more than a running program, Mayhan said. “It’s about confidence building.”
One of her students, a little girl with a mass of curly dark hair, was initially too shy or withdrawn to speak when the program started.
"Although she seemed to enjoy the activities, she seemed hesitant," Mayhan said.
But as the 10-week Girls on the Run program progressed, she noticed a change in Amelia, a fourth-grader.
“I would look over at her, I would see her face instead of just her hair,” Mayhan said. “Her voice was still quiet, but she was speaking without being called upon.”
'Healthy homework' extends to families
Stinson was inspired to start the Hallsville running club because she wanted to foster the habit of regular exercise in her own three children. Since September, she has coaxed a significant number of children in town to join the Roadrunners.
The club will hold a one-mile family run May 8. At the finish line, kids will receive a charm and a special certificate.
Kristen Strouss, a parent and substitute teacher who has attended several practices, said she benefits from the club just as much as the children.
“I love to see how excited the kids get about exercising and being healthy,” Strouss said.
Parents have even helped turn "healthy homework" into a family effort.
“These kids are including their families and turning it into something anyone can do,” Stinson said. “It is such a good thing for the family to get motivated together.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.