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Before-School Physical Activity Can Boost Achievement, Expert Says

BOKS Co-Founder x ED Kathleen Tullie.jpg

Letting students play outside for even 20 minutes before school can help boost their academic performance, health, and confidence, says Kathleen Tullie, founder and executive director of the BOKS before-school physical activity program.

I spoke over the phone with Tullie on Wednesday, less than a week after the Reebok Foundation announced a three-year, $30 million commitment to expanding physical activity opportunities for students at the Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington. BOKS, which stands for "Build Our Kids' Success," is part of the Reebok Foundation.

Tullie started the BOKS program back in late 2009, initially calling it "Fit Kidz Get Up & Go," after coming across Dr. John Ratey's book Spark, which focuses extensively on the science of the effects of physical exercise on the brain. After reading the book, she thought it was "kind of a no-brainer" (no pun intended) that getting kids physically active could help improve more than just their physical health.

With two elementary school-age children of her own at the time, Tullie approached her district superintendent with the idea to implement her before-school physical activity program and received his blessing. Parent volunteers helped run the program that first year, which often involved just kicking around a soccer ball or playing freeze tag.

"Parents are more invested in their kids than anybody," Tullie told me, which led her to be optimistic about the potential of the program.

Within weeks, parents and teachers began giving feedback about the positive benefits they noticed in the children who participated in the program, Tullie said. "Word of mom" began to spread quickly from there, which inspired Tullie to set up a nonprofit, develop a curriculum, and distribute it freely to other schools.

She pitched the Reebok Foundation for a T-shirt or sneaker sponsorship, but instead, the Reebok team ended up wanting to absorb the entire program. "Reebok's mission is very simple," Tullie told me. "It's to make people fit for life."

Now, the BOKS program is in 250 schools in four different countries. Students participate in a 12-week session (in the fall, spring, or both), three days per week, with each week focusing on a different "skill of the week" (such as push-ups, sit-ups, etc.). Each morning starts with a 10-minute running warmup, then moves to the skill of the week, before ending with a cool-down session to get students ready for the classroom.

As for that recently announced three-year, $30 million commitment: $2 million of the $10 million per year will be allocated to growing the BOKS program, with the other $8 million going toward fitness-related activities that Reebok will be doing with other partners. The goal is to get BOKS in over 1,000 schools by 2015, Tullie said at the Building a Healthier Future Summit.

"We are so excited to have BOKS as our newest partner at PHA," said Drew Nannis, chief marketing officer for the Partnership for Healthier Americas, in a statement. "We are dedicated to improving the health of our nation's youth and with BOKS' dedication combined with Reebok's support, we are another step closer to ensuring that our kids are getting access to the exercise and education they need to live a healthier life."

At the summit, First Lady Michelle Obama said that "when it comes to the health of our kids, no one has a greater impact than each of us do as parents."

Tullie appears to have taken that message and run with it.

Childhood obesity "is not only an epidemic, it's a pandemic," she said during our interview yesterday. "Everyone needs to collaborate."

You can see Tullie's speech from the summit below, courtesy of C-SPAN:

Photo: Kathleen Tullie, director of BOKS, announced on March 8 that the Reebok Foundation committed to invest $30 million over the next three years to promote physical activity and fitness. (Doug Van Sant Photography)

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