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Profiles in Fitness: Head Start Body Start

Within the last generation, youth physical fitness has gained significant ground in the political sphere. It's a given that promoting healthy living and physical activity is an important function of children's education.

But only until fairly recently, there wasn't much of a support structure in government or elsewhere to actually fund and implement effective policies.

So as childhood obesity rates steadily increase disproportionately in low-income communities, fueling demands for government action from the public and press, enter a big bowl of federal and non-governmental alphabet soup -- HHS, ACF, OHS, AAPAR, NASPE, and most notably, an eclectic organization with a name that's even too long for a complete acronym.

Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play, or HSBS in the interest of breath-saving, "aims to increase physical activity, outdoor play, and healthy eating among Head Start and Early Head Start children, families, and staff," according to the organization's mission statement.

Headed by Karin Spencer, Ed.D., education and health experts fill the agency's board and executive staff. There are also similarly qualified educators called master trainers, and also a large number of physical activity consultants.

Master trainers hold advanced degrees in physical education, motor development and early childhood physical activity. They develop training curricula and educational resources.

Physical activity consultants provide training and assistance at Head Start facilities. The HSBS website describes "a cadre of more than 240 physical activity experts with experience in early childhood education and movement as well as other related fields."

Head Start -- HSBS's mother ship that provides its four-year, $12 million grant -- is not at all new. The program dates back to President Johnson's anti-poverty push in the mid-1960s. After bouncing around the executive branch bureaucracy and several legislative overhauls over the decades, the current manifestation is the Office of Head Start within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

The official OHS line goes like this: "The Head Start program provides grants to local public and private non-profit and for-profit agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families, with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school."

In 1995, "the Early Head Start program was established to serve children from birth to three years of age in recognition of the mounting evidence that the earliest years matter a great deal to children's growth and development," the agency's website reports. Until Head Start Body Start, most of the OHS's efforts concentrated on academics "with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school."

Medical researchers have firmly established the link between poverty and obesity, so the 1 million 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in Head Start represent a key demographic pool on which the government focuses physical fitness and healthy diet education.

A May 2010 article by Barbara Anderson, health reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, underscores the need to start them young on the path to obesity avoidance:

"The low-income 'are buying what's available to them and affordable to them,' said Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program...Food habits begin in childhood, Islas-Hooker said. 'You grow up in a household where there is limited economic means and your caregiver is purchasing food on what they can afford...You become ingrained in that type of diet and that type of pattern.'"

As a real-life example of this, the story tells of a 30-year-old woman from Fresno, Calif. who is 100 pounds overweight with a combined family income of $900 a month. She comes from a large family that could mostly afford only starchy, relatively inexpensive foods -- "spaghetti, tacos, rice, beans, potatoes."

"'I'm used to cooking and eating the way I was raised, when I was small,' she said."

At its core HSBS has three objectives:

• Administer and support grants for construction of improvement of outdoor play spaces at Head Start Centers.

• Provide resources, training, and technical assistance to Head Start and Early Head Start grantees.

• Inform and assist OHS in setting national priorities and developing policies.

As far as actual HSBS goings-on, in October the agency debuted Take It Outside! Week. This annual affair only emphasizes and attract publicity for youth physical fitness, but also unify the growing number of Head Start centers around the country.

Take It Outside! Week is also a great way to spotlight the many exercise activities HSBS personnel has designed.

In the area of playground quality and safety, HSBS publishes an annual Preferred Provider List.

The 2010 list, which is actually more like a 61-page catalog of heavily vetted playground equipment and manufacturer profiles, was published in April. It consists of "31 playground and play space companies, equipment manufacturers, and other creators of playground and play space-related resources," according to a press release.

And keeping things political, the first HSBS Policy Guide is set for publication this summer. The agency's website says it will include:

• Policy recommendations based on research

• Expert knowledge and opinion

• Existing successful policies and sample model policies

If anything, Head Start Body Start is a vast resource for anyone interested in learning the ways of healthy, energetic living.

The website alone is quite an academic trove produced by highly qualified and experienced experts in the field of childhood health and education. It's new, so lots of interesting features, such as the Movement Activity Database, are still under construction.

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