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BENJAMIN PROJECT FIT 2 SAS

Benjamin Elementary School students walk to an assembly during the opening day celebration of new playground equipment as part of Operation Fit America. Second grade students Denton Nebel, left and Tanner Dowd lead teacher Shelly Fisher's class at the start of the event at the Bloomington school on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY

STEVE SMEDLEY

BLOOMINGTON — “Exercise should be fun, not hard work,” students at Unit 5’s Benjamin Elementary School were told Thursday.

But both were evident as a ribbon was cut at the McLean County Unit 5 school to officially open an area of new playground equipment, received as part of a Project Fit grant sponsored by OSF St. Joseph Medical Center.

A similar ceremony took place earlier in the day at Bloomington’s District 87’s Oakland Elementary School.

On a sunny, somewhat warm September day, students demonstrated how the outdoor equipment could be used, cheered by fellow students who waved orange and black streamers.

Principal Marlys Bennington inspired chants of “Ben-ning-ton! Ben-ning-ton!” as she displayed her hula-hooping skill against Superintendent Gary Niehaus and leaders from OSF St. Joseph — not to mention mascots Reggie Redbird from Illinois State University and Corny from the Normal CornBelters baseball team.

For the record, Reggie out-hooped Corny.

Despite the hoopla, the event was about more than fun and games.

Dr. Paul Pedersen, chief medical officer at OSJ St. Joseph, noted that studies have shown “a healthy body leads to a healthy brain, too,” with students who exercise getting better grades.

Pedersen hopes the program encourages students to build healthy fitness habits not only while in school but throughout life.

OSF St. Joseph sponsored two grants of $17,800 each, through Project Fit America, a nonprofit corporation with the philosophy, “Fit kids, one school at a time.” The medical center also provided both schools with $5,000 to help cover installation costs.

Erin Kennedy, director of OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s Center for Healthy Lifestyles, said Project Fit is “an opportunity for health care and schools to partner to help enhance the importance of physical education at school and help decrease childhood obesity and improve mental health as the kids become more and more active throughout the day.”

Jo Myers, a physical education teacher at Benjamin, said, “We’ll be able to reach students on a broader level.”

While the new playground equipment is the most visible sign, indoor equipment and curriculum guides are also part of the program, she said. Students can earn bronze, silver and gold medals for meeting certain exercise standards, such as how many times they can climb to the top of a pole, she explained. The challenge standards are based on grade levels.

Todd Delveaux, another Benjamin P.E. teacher, said the benefit goes beyond physical education.

“It’s a life lesson for the kids about community service,” said Delveaux, pointing to the support from OSF St. Joseph. “Some of the younger kids don’t understand that yet, but the fifth-graders do.”

Benjamin and Oakland schools were selected after a lengthy application process, Kennedy said. She called it “a community effort” and expressed hope that one or more other businesses will join in so the program can be expanded to other schools.

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