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Prairieland Elementary School fourth-grader Halie McMorris spins weighted hoops with fellow students as the school's new fitness equipment is dedicated on Monday. The school is a Project Fit America school in a program funded locally by OSF St. Joseph Medical Center.

NORMAL — McLean County got a little healthier and smarter on Monday, thanks to children at two elementary schools crunching, climbing, pulling, stepping, jumping and swaying.

Students at Prairieland Elementary School in Normal and Stevenson Elementary School in Bloomington dedicated their new outdoor fitness equipment by doing crunches on sit-up benches, climbing on horizontal ladders and parallel bars, stepping onto platforms, climbing poles, jumping over bars, doing pull-ups and modified push-ups and spinning weighted hoops.

The new fitness equipment — along with indoor equipment and curriculum to help physical education teachers work with students on the equipment — represent the second phase of Project Fit America in McLean County.

Project Fit is a nationwide effort to get kids fit and is funded locally by OSF St. Joseph Medical Center and its foundation. Project Fit expanded to Bloomington-Normal at Benjamin and Oakland elementary schools, both in Bloomington, in fall 2013.

Prairieland and Stevenson were added this fall, and OSF and school officials celebrated Monday with speeches, ribbon cuttings, students using equipment and even a few teachers and OSF officials joining in spinning the weighted hoops.

Students at Oakland and Benjamin have improved cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance and flexibility, said Erin Kennedy, director of St. Joseph's Center for Healthy Lifestyles.

With success at those schools, St. Joseph and its foundation agreed to expand the program, Kennedy said. "We reached out to two schools (Prairieland and Stevenson) that we knew had successful P.E. programs."

"If we want to be successful getting the community healthier, we need to get the kids more active throughout childhood," said St. Joseph President Chad Boore. St. Joseph and its foundation paid $60,000 for the outdoor and indoor equipment and curriculum for both schools, said foundation President Greg Cook.

"When you have healthier kids who realize that fitness can be fun, the benefits last a lifetime," Kennedy said. Research shows that physical activity helps students to learn, she said.

Jill Garneau, a Prairieland P.E. teacher, said the new equipment is used in P.E. classes, and the outdoor equipment also is available for students to use during recess and for anyone to use outside of school hours.

"At each station, there are challenges set up to get students to improve," Garneau said. "It's motivating and challenging for all ability levels. There's always another challenge. It's good for all ages and keeps people coming back for more.

"I want the students to take the skills with them so they can stay active for the rest of their lives," Garneau said.

Halie McMorris and Sam Descarpentrie, both 9-year-old fourth-graders at Prairieland, said they've enjoyed using the outdoor equipment since it was installed in late August and are working to improve at the various stations.

"It's really amazing," Halie said of the equipment. "It gets us more energized, more flexible and more fit."

"It's going to help kids get in shape," Sam said. "My brother and I have come here (after school) to practice and even my mom has tried it because it reminds her of what they had when she was in school.

"It kind of all pays off," Sam said. "We'll become stronger, fitter, smarter and better people."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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