A project aims to improve kids’ health in southern West Virginia using exercise equipment and by promoting Zumba, Dance Dance Revolution and even Tchoukball.
Since it was founded in January 2013 with funding from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Highmark Foundation, McDowell CHOICES has worked to increase physical activity for the 3,200 public school students in its namesake county.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks McDowell the most unhealthy in a state that overall has some of the worst health indicators in the nation.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson 2014 rankings, which are the most recent available but include data from years prior to 2014, 37 percent of McDowell adults are obese, compared to about a third of West Virginians overall. In McDowell, the adult obesity rate has been trending up.
McDowell’s physical inactivity level — the percent of residents age 20 and up who don’t exercise in their leisure time — stood at 43 percent in the 2014 rankings, again compared with only about a third for West Virginia as a whole. Part of the reason for those figures may be because only 39 percent of McDowell residents have “adequate access to exercise opportunities,” the rankings say, compared with a slight majority of West Virginians overall.
McDowell CHOICES project coordinator Eloise Elliott said Highmark sought out the West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, where she’s a professor, and gave it $75,000 for six months of initial planning in 2013. Highmark donated another $200,000 to implement the program throughout the 2013-14 school year and most of last semester.
Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has chipped in more than $60,000 to carry on some program initiatives throughout the fall of 2015. McDowell CHOICES has been on break but is getting ready to restart programs in the county soon, Elliott said.
According to periodic reviews throughout the program’s initial run, it was able to achieve a goal of getting students at least an hour of daily physical activity in all but one of the McDowell public schools, which Elliott said are community hubs in a county lacking other recreational facilities.
“In terms of just like going to a gym or skating rink or somewhere, that’s not very reasonable in McDowell,” she said.