BROOKSVILLE — According to the Hernando County Health Department, nearly 40 percent of Hernando County sixth-grade students are overweight or at risk for becoming overweight. Mike Walker wants to do something about it. "I want to get kids off the couch, away from the video games and the computer screens," said Walker, the city of Brooksville parks and recreation director. About a year ago, Walker started searching for a solution — a perfect blend of technology and fitness, something kids would go for. His answer doesn't exactly get kids away from the television, but is a high-tech blend of exercise and gaming known as the GameBike. And in order to play the GameBike, you've got to buy in with a little sweat equity.
"Now (kids) can come to the (Jerome Brown) center to play video games, but they're going to have to ride a bike to do it," Walker said, flashing a wry smile.
One evening last week, Walker invited community members and the center's after-school program enrollees to see firsthand the newest addition to the center's activity list: the Fit-N-Fun 4 Kids program.
With a $2,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Hernando County, Walker and his team invested in two GameBikes and a few PlayStation 2 video games. They have also developed a program that gets kids ages 6 to 13 moving and shaking.
The Fit-N-Fun 4 Kids program begins with jumping jacks, stretching and jogging in place. For the participants last week, it seemed this moderate exercise worked like an elixir.
They were laughing within minutes of moving. Participants were then broken up into teams.
Several stations were set up along the perimeter of the gym. Between running laps, kids and adults dodged cones and jumped through an agility course, tossed a volleyball back and forth, dribbled a basketball, and finally tried with all their might to swing their hips, keeping a Hula Hoop aloft. Each team changed places when the whistle blew.
The high point of the fitness course was the GameBike, outfitted with PlayStation 2 game MX vs. ATV.
Participants pedaled and steered the stationary bike, while keeping their eyes glued to a big-screen television. They navigated a digital, but muddy, obstacle course while pedaling as fast as they could.
"It was tough," said a winded, but smiling, Brooksville Mayor Joe Bernardini. He was there to test out the new program and lend his support.
"It's hard to pedal and drive at the same time," Brooksville police Detective Bryan Drinkard said in agreement, "but everybody's a winner because (the GameBike) really got your heart rate up."
By completing each activity, teams earned points. And the group with the most points won "bragging rights," said Ann-Gayl Ellis, health education program manager for the county Health Department.
At the end of the 55-minute workout, everyone was given a congratulatory certificate, a bottle of water and a healthy snack — an apple or a banana.
When asked what she'd be doing if she weren't participating in the Fit-N-Fun 4 Kids program, Reuneisha Williams, 13, a seventh-grade student at Parrott Middle School, said, "I'd be at home watching TV and snacking."
Statistics support what she says. According to the Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a survey conducted in Florida public high schools every two years, about 40 percent of those answering the survey watched television three or more hours per average school day in 2007.
Additionally, only 38 percent were physically active for a total of 60 minutes a day, at least five days a week. That is the state's minimum requirement for "sufficient" physical activity.
The Centers for Disease Control report that nearly 24 percent of Floridians are obese. Florida ranks 40th among the 50 states.
The consequences for obesity stretch far beyond a larger waistline. According to the CDC, they include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and what the CDC calls "psychosocial risks," including social discrimination and low self-esteem.
Additionally, overweight children and teens suffer from increased rates of asthma, fatty degeneration of the liver, sleep apnea and Type 2 diabetes. There is also data showing that overweight children grow up to become overweight adults.
"Communities that promote fitness will have a community that's exercising," said Ellis, of the Health Department.
The department is partnering with Brooksville Parks and Recreation, offering in-kind support and education for the Fit-N-Fun 4 Kids Program. Ellis helped write the grant, and Health Department nutritionist Karen Gidden will offer nutrition education and support in the coming weeks.
"Anything we can do to attack childhood obesity will pay off in the long term," said Brooksville Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn.
After completing the obstacle course, she reminisced about her childhood in Brooksville. "Things have changed. We'd ride bikes and play outside — we had fun with the simplest things."
Of the GameBike, she said, "At least this is the best way of getting the best of old-fashioned exercise with modern technology."
JoAnn Munford, recreation leader at the Jerome Brown Community Center, said the kids "have so much fun they don't realize they are exercising."
"I think it was awesome," said Alexus Lucas, 11, a fifth-grade student at Brooksville Elementary School.
"I think it was tiring," added Jordan Brown, 11, also a Brooksville Elementary fifth-grader.
But when asked if they would be back for the next session of the program, both nodded their heads yes.