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This seems an appropriate time of year to focus on nutrition and fitness, and on an organization that helps young people make the right choices for healthier lives.

Sabra Zirkle, a registered dietitian, and Lelia Davis, a registered nurse, founded StarFit Kids in 2009 after becoming alarmed about the long-term consequences of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. It's no secret that childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis, plus the attendant financial burdens.

"A lot of the research shows that kids who are overweight or obese, by 6 years old, half of those kids go on to be overweight or obese adults," Zirkle says. "We kind of feel like while they're little sponges, when we can have the greatest impact, we want to get in as early as possible while they're making these choices."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese, triple the rate from 1980. The 2011 Colorado Health Report Card, issued by the Colorado Health Foundation, shows that just 64.1 percent of school-age children participated in vigorous physical activity for four or more days per week, putting Colorado 34th in the nation. And 14.2 percent of our children are obese, for a ranking of 23rd.

Eat this, not that

Zirkle is no food cop, checking lunchboxes in school cafeterias or bursting into homes to inspect the refrigerator contents. Nor does she quote statistics when she visits elementary physical education classes.

Her free program uses hands-on games and a tunnel made of metal and fabric that simulates a clogged artery — popular with the kids — to make learning about nutrition enjoyable for elementary students.

StarFit Kids encourages children to play at least one hour a day and keep hydrated; choose low-fat foods and healthy fats; eat three balanced meals every day; cut down on sedentary activities such as computer games; choose water over sugary drinks; and eat junk food in moderation.

Zirkle applies those lessons to her own children, who are 8 and 6.

"If a kid says, 'I want some chips,' is that the end of the world? Probably not," she says. "But I don't want them to sit down and eat the whole bag."

The program illustrates portion guidelines in ways everyone can understand, recommending a serving of fruit the size of a yo-yo, a serving of veggies the size of a tennis ball, a serving of whole grains the size of a CD, and a serving of meat the size of a box of eight crayons. Students take home information about the importance of a balanced breakfast, healthful snacks and outdoor activities, and Zirkle participates in family wellness nights in schools.

The program is in more than a half-dozen schools currently, with connections made largely by e-mail outreach and word of mouth. And PE teachers Joe Wetters and Janice Ruybal can attest that it works.

"Lots of the parents that come in say, 'My child is making better choices,'" says Wetters, who teaches at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy in School District 12. "StarFit has been in this school long enough that some of those kids that started in kindergarten are now second- and third-graders, so they've been exposed to it for a while."

Ruybal has witnessed improvements in her students at District 11's Bristol Elementary.

"I've seen them at lunchtime say, 'Oh, remember? You're supposed to eat that.' When StarFit comes back to speak to the kids, they still know what food groups are and what's healthy and not healthy. Hopefully, that transfers to healthier habits."

Sticking with you

StarFit Kids and the partner PE teachers don't track weight loss; instead, it's more about encouraging a lifetime of healthier choices.

"From all the research and what I've learned as a dietitian, you don't put kids on diets," Zirkle says. "If there's a child that's really obese and a doctor is involved, that's an extreme case. But that's not anything we do. Kids are going to retain weight right before they grow and right before puberty. It's looked at as a bad thing, but it's really just your body getting ready to make that next jump."

Interns from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs help StarFit Kids with data tracking and other behind-the-scenes work. But Zirkle, whose program operated on $12,000 in grants and donations last year, can always use volunteers with science backgrounds to help with presentations.

"I think what StarFit Kids does is unmatched by what we, as teachers, can give the kids," says Wetters. "It's really nice to have someone else come into the classroom, and the kids are excited about listening to what they have to say. It does make a difference for the kids; it's not just me telling them that routinely."

"I think you'd be crazy not to take advantage of it," Ruybal says, adding that her students always show improvement when they're quizzed about nutrition before and after the StarFit Kids presentations. Even better, they retain that knowledge from one year to the next.

As Wetters says, "I don't want the kids to end up being 35 years old and saying, 'I wish I would have made better choices as a 10-year-old.'"

newsroom@csindy.com

  • StarFit Kids shows students and families better ways to eat for life.

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