First lady ‘Let’s Move’ fitness campaign targets 50,000 schools

First lady Michelle Obama exercises with children from Chicago Public Schools, in her hometown of Chicago, as she makes a major announcement helping to bring back physical activity to area schools, while celebrating the third anniversary of her 'Lets Move' program , Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

First lady Michelle Obama exercises with children from Chicago Public Schools, in her hometown of Chicago, as she makes a major announcement helping to bring back physical activity to area schools, while celebrating the third anniversary of her 'Lets Move' program , Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Chicago, Ill. – First lady Michelle Obama on Thursday announced the launch of a program that the White House hopes will bring her “Let’s Move!” campaign to some 50,000 U.S. schools. And she brought several prominent allies to Chicago for the launch.

“Let’s Move! Active Schools” is part of a broader White House initiative to enlist the help of schools and community members in the goal of getting kids to do a total of 60 minutes a day of physical activity before, during and after school. That initiative got a $70 million kickstart with commitments from a number of organizations and private corporations, the largest of which is Nike, Inc. Nike announced Thursday that it is committing $50 million to fund initiatives related to promoting physical fitness, including Let’s Move! Active Schools.

It’s a milestone for Mrs. Obama, who launched her Let’s Move fitness campaign three years ago.

Nike president and CEO, Mark Parker, said Thursday that the company is committed to working with partners across the country to encourage kids to get active. He said the funds the company is committing will go “to support teachers and coaches and administrators at the local level.”

“A piece goes to supporting schools directly,” Parker said. “A piece goes to communities providing access to sports at a community level, and there’s a part that’s about advocacy and getting the word out, and building a community of partners, because we can’t do this on our own. The White House can’t.”

Parker also praised Mrs. Obama for championing the idea of getting kids healthy and fit.

“She is just an amazing force of nature,” he said of the First Lady. “She’s got such an energy level and such a passion for this personally. She understands how important this is — [that] we’ve got a generation that’s the least active in decades.”

Studies have shown that just 1 in 3 American children is physically active on a regular basis.

In addition to Nike, Let’s Move! Active Schools has attracted funding and resources from the GENYOUth Foundation, ChildObesity180, Kaiser Permanente, and the General Mills Foundation. The program will be administered jointly by The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (PCFSN), the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (AAHPERD) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

The program has set a goal of getting half of the nation’s 100,000 public schools on board.

Participating schools will have access to a 6-step process that includes conducting an assessment of their current programs and creating a customized “action plan” for getting kids more active before, during and after school.

“All of the research shows [that] when students have a chance to play, when they’re active, they do better,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Thursday. “This needs to become the norm.”

“Let’s Move! Active Schools” will not be funded by the Department of Education, though Duncan said money is just one component of what schools need to reverse trends like reduced physical education, and massive teacher layoffs that have left many schools without a gym teacher.

“Money is important but it’s a small piece of it,” Duncan said. “It’s about a culture change.” Duncan talked about schools that are using innovative techniques like exercising in the classroom during lessons, or holding recess indoors, particularly in neighborhoods where adults don’t feel comfortable allowing children outside.

“I’m from here in Chicago,” Duncan said. “And we have schools that say, we can’t take our kids out on the playground. That’s a tragic barrier. … I hate that we have to deal with that barrier, but it’s not an insurmountable barrier.”

Duncan said that when he was superintendent of the Chicago school system, he “pushed very hard that in communities that are not as safe, schools should be community centers. Schools have a library, schools have computer centers, most schools have a gym. We have to make our communities safer, but while we’re working on that, schools have to be a resource. We can be creative. I can take you to south side and west side schools here in Chicago who are doing some really creative things.”

The bottom line, Duncan said, is that “children have to be children.”

Duncan was in Chicago, where he and Parker, along with sports celebrities like tennis champion Serena Williams, Olympian Alyson Felix and San Francisco 49ers player Collin Kaepernick celebrated the launch of the program with a pep rally featuring Mrs. Obama and more than 6,000 Chicago-area school kids.

Williams said she wanted to be involved in the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign from its inception. “She’s a real role model for these kids,” she said of Mrs. Obama. “When you see these girls who can relate with someone like Michelle, and who can appeal to kids of all backgrounds, it makes you think that what she says matters.”

What mattered most to the kids who packed into Chicago’s McCormick place, however, where the celebrities. The convention center erupted with high pitched approval as sports stars took the stage, with some of the loudest screams for Olympic Gold Medal winner Gabby Douglas, and Michelle Obama.

“I’m in my home town!” the first lady told the crowd. And she said she wanted the kids to know that the star athletes who came to Chicago with her were there “because we love you.”

Mrs, Obama spoke  passionately about growing up in a household without a lot of money on Chicago’s south side.

“If you guys remember just one thing from our time today it is this: although I am the First Lady of the United States, this is the truth. I am no different than all of you. I grew up in the same neighborhoods and sent to the same schools, and the only reason  am standing up here today is that when I was your age I made a set of choices.”

“I chose not to listen to the haters and the doubters,” Mrs Obama said. “I focused on the things I could control, staying active and getting good grades.” She said she focused on “doing everything in my power to prepare myself for great things,” and encouraged the assembled kids to do the same.

“You all have every reason to be optimistic about your future,” she said, before reminding the kids that they also have to turn off the TV, get active, and stay fit and healthy. After that, the first lady got off the stage and onto the floor, where she and 6,000 kids got a workout in, to very loud music.

Mrs. Obama has made childhood obesity, nutrition and fitness her signature cause, along with her and Dr. Jill Biden’s work with military families. Before the pep rally, Mrs. Obama said she will continue to champion causes like “Let’s Move” because they are important to her both as a mother and as first lady.

“Whatever I do I can guarantee you will always involve kids,” she said. “That’s my passion.”