Southern West Virginia schools partner with WVU to promote physical activity

WELCH, W.Va. – Schools in McDowell County know there is work to be done.

The school district isn't dwelling on the county's frequent appearance on "worst of" lists, like poverty rate, life expectancy and childhood obesity. Instead, schools are working, along with West Virginia University, to shine light on the county's progress – delivered in the form of archery, karate, Zumba, dance and even active gaming.

The McDowell CHOICES program, an initiative of the WVU College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, works to improve physical activity opportunities for citizens of McDowell County in the school setting.

"McDowell wants to turn things around," said Eloise Elliott, Ware Distinguished professor and lead on the McDowell CHOICES project. "They have supportive local leaders who want to improve the high childhood obesity rates and other health disparities. There's a lot of support in place, and we wanted to help how we could."

Karate kids

Welch Elementary, one of 11 schools in the county that has participated in the McDowell CHOICES project, brought karate, gymnastics and Zumba, as well as a host of other activities and physical activity equipment, to the students.

Welch Elementary Principal Kristy East said her students filled out a survey and were thrilled to choose activities for the school – many of which students had only seen on TV previously.

"Oh, the kids just loved karate. It was great they were able to choose the activities they wanted to do," East said. "At first, we only had so many spots available, but more and more students kept wanting to join, and I didn't want to turn any away. So I would just say 'well, I'm sure someone will be absent one day, so we can fit just one more in.'"

Jacob Waldron, a fifth-grader, still practices some of his karate moves on his own time.

"I can chop!" he said as he slammed his hand down on a chair. "And I can kick!" as he moves toward to demonstrate his moves. A quick turn into his stance and a smile crosses Waldron's face before he sits back down

East said the project is important to her because she wants to be able to provide every opportunity available to her pre-k through fifth-grade students.

"The program not only gave the kids access to activities that we don't have here – some would have to drive 45 minutes to an hour away to attend karate or gymnastics classes, and that's if those resources are available to them," she said.

"But it also is helping to implement healthy eating habits early, so hopefully they can carry on to middle school, high school and adulthood."

McDowell CHOICES – coordinated health opportunities involving communities, environments and schools – received a one-year continuation grant last month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand access to physical activity in McDowell County for students and their families focusing on after-school physical activity programs.

The program was created with a  $204,000 grant from the Highmark Foundation to establish a comprehensive plan to increase physical activity in each of the 11 schools in the area with the guidance of McDowell County Schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer.

The initial grant helped the schools to implement two after-school physical activity programs and a family-focused program in order for children to receive the nationally recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Welch Elementary chose karate and gymnastics as its after-school programs and Zumba for the community program last spring.

"School should be the best place they have outside of the home; and for some kids, it is the best place," East said. "By offering these activities to them, they get to try new things they wouldn't have been able to otherwise."

Brain Breaks

In addition to the activities, the grants helped to establish physical activity during the school day and helped with purchasing new equipment.

"We have these 'brain breaks' during the day where students get up and move around a bit," East said. "If the teacher notices the students getting tired or putting their heads down, it might be time for a brain break – just long enough for them to get re-energized, refocus and get back to the task at hand."


Those "brain breaks" could look like a gaggle of kindergarteners in Mrs. Cassie Merkle's class dancing to Ylvis' "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)" as a projector dictates dance moves.

Or, it could look like a set of dice where one signals a certain exercise move (like arm circles, jumping jacks or squats) and another determines how many sets to do. The students quickly gather to the main center of the classroom and perform their exercises, anxious for the next roll of the die.

"It's a routine in our classrooms – whether it's a transition from one activity to another or if it's just 30 seconds when they're losing interest, they get up and do 10 jumping jacks or touch your toes and then they're back to work," East said. 

McDowell CHOICES also provided a professional development workshop for classroom teachers on Active Academics, a web-based resource for teachers to find short physical activities that they can incorporate throughout the school day.

Gym Gear

The new physical activity equipment has had an impact, especially with the physical education classes Michele Hairston teaches.

wv school

"I think it's a good thing, whatever we can do to get kids active," Hairston said. "In McDowell County, we're always at the bottom of the healthy lists, so if we can help the kids, we can help the whole community."

New kickballs, hula-hoops and gymnastics equipment all helped make recess a bit more fun at Welch Elementary.

"All they really had to do on the blacktop was run, really, so now the older kids have some games they can play and sports to do during the day," East said. "All of these activities are just part of what we're trying to do to help raise awareness for physical and living a healthy lifestyle."

East said since the schools in the county have been dancing, doing karate and practicing archery, she has also seen an uptick in the amount of 5Ks and other fitness competitions in McDowell County.

"The whole community is turning toward a healthier lifestyle – maybe it's because we're promoting it in all the schools and kids are going home and telling mom and dad 'I really liked this,'" she said.

Things are changing.

"We can't wait to see what the new grant has in store," she said. "We want to keep providing opportunities for our students, and a healthy lifestyle is key."

For more information about the program visit or contact Elliott at or 304-293-0869.

Story by:

Candace Nelson

University Relations/News

Video By:

Scott Lituchy

University Relations/News