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Pupils burn calories while learning

It was not the type of aerobics class that Joan Joens is used to teaching. The arms and legs of hundreds of first-graders at Pine Grove Elementary School flapped and kicked in different directions at different times.

The pupils banged into each other while moving from side to side and giggled as they tried to follow Joens' directions and movements during the class on a large blacktop area behind the school during Pine Grove's first Health Fair. It was sponsored by the Hernando County Health Department's Nutrition and Preventive Services.

It didn't matter that the pupils didn't move in unison. What mattered was that they were exercising while being taught the benefits of aerobic exercise, which increases the heart rate, burns calories and strengthens muscles. In a loud, energetic voice, Joens, an aerobics and fitness instructor at the Hernando County YMCA, asked the pupils why they should exercise every day.

"Because it makes you healthy," one pupil shouted back. "Because it makes you strong," another yelled out.

"That's right," Joens responded. "You should exercise every day to stay healthy, to make your heart strong and to make your muscles strong."

During the 20-minute aerobics class, the pupils marched in place, punched their arms above their heads and sides, and performed jumping jacks to up-beat tunes under the morning sun. The class was one of several programs that they participated in during the three-hour fair, presented as a pilot program in the Hernando County schools to encourage children to establish favorable health habits.

"Healthy lifestyles begin in childhood," said Karen Gidden, a registered dietitian and director of the health department's Nutrition and Preventive Services. "If good dietary and exercise habits are developed when we're young, it's a good possibility that those habits will continue into our adult lives."

Bad habits, such as eating high-fat foods and not exercising, are hard to break, Gidden said. Unhealthy adults most likely never developed good habits when they were young, she said. They suffer the consequences with a variety of ailments, such as heart disease, obesity and an overall lack of energy, she said.

An unhealthy diet and lack of exercise leads to cholesterol and plaque buildup in the arteries, Gidden said. The buildup begins in childhood. Gidden said she has seen teenagers with high cholesterol levels.

"We want to prevent this type of thing from happening," she said. "And education and nutritional counseling are some of the things we do to help people develop good health habits."

Pine Grove's health fair was designed with young children in mind, Gidden said. The lessons were kept simple so that the pupils could grasp and retain the information. The main idea was to instill in them the importance of exercising daily, eating a variety of foods from all five food groups, and staying clear of junk food, or at least limiting the amount consumed, she said.

A variety of activities and games were included to teach the pupils about healthy snacking, the importance of eating a healthy breakfast, the human digestive system and choosing fast foods that are low in fat.

The "5-A-Day" national nutritional program was introduced to the pupils during one of the activities at the fair. The 5-A-Day slogan was created as a reminder to eat at least five fruits and vegetables each day. The program is sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

A dancing skunk, and several health department volunteers who wore straw hats decorated with plastic fruits, conducted the program that included computer games projected on a large viewing screen for shared participation.

A group of fifth-graders competed in a game called Pyramid Warfare. Teams of pupils competed against a clock while placing food items into the proper food groups, which are arranged in the Food Guide Pyramid to emphasize the difference in recommended daily servings from each group. They also placed food items into a food analyzer to measure the amounts of vitamins A and C in each.

Dental health was also included during the fair. Presentations were given by dental assistants from the Hernando County Dental Clinic and dental hygiene students from Pasco-Hernando Community College.

Large, colorful cardboard boxes with two large holes in each were on display. As the pupils passed each box, they stuck their hands in the holes to feel the different textures of healthy teeth, plaque build-up and teeth with cavities. They also felt the difference between old and new toothbrushes.

"Eeewwww, that's sticky and yucky," said Leah Anderson, 7, when she felt the plaque. "I don't want that on my teeth."

Evaluations, completed by the teachers and pupils the day after the fair, will be reviewed by Gidden to determine the fair's success. Health department officials would like to expand the health fair to more schools next year, Gidden said.

"At this point, I feel this was a great success," she said. "The teachers said the children remembered a lot about what they had learned.

"We're very excited about this and hope to do more fairs in the future."