Health & Wealth Update
7:05 am
Wed January 18, 2012

The exercise commonly known as 'jumping jacks'

In all the political coverage lately, you may have missed Missouri House Bill 1063: it would make "the exercise commonly known and referred to as 'jumping jacks'" the official exercise of the state of Missouri. In this week's Health & Wealth update, could getting more kids jumping help reduce childhood obesity?

The bill was introduced by Pat Conway, a Democrat from St. Joseph. He introduced the bill for the second year in a row, even though he knew it might draw eye-rolls from a few of his fellow lawmakers. "I know that there are some members of the General Assembly that do not believe that the state bird, or the state rock, or the state river, or the state dinosaur is necessarily something that we want to put a lot of effort into."

But, it was, after all, constituents who pushed for the bill. Fourth graders, at Pershing Elementary in St. Joe.

"We took this thing all the way to Jefferson City," said Braxton Hardy, now a fifth grader. "We made brochures with pictures of us doing jumping jacks."  

Last session Braxton and the rest of the fourth grade class traveled to the state capital to lobby their elected officials. "What we're trying to do is because we know that if we have a state dessert, we should probably have a state exercise." In Missouri, 31 percent of children are overweight or obese.

The jumping jacks bill is the pet project of the two fourth grade teachers at Pershing, Kristy Lorenz and Sherri Nett. As well as drawing attention to physical activity, the project teaches kids about how state government works. "They didn't understand the process," said Lorenz. "And so we said, if we're going to do this, that means we have to contact our representatives in Jefferson City."

It took three years of relentless pressure, but Representative Conway finally introduced the bill. It did not get a hearing last session.

But Conway likes the fact that it honors a Missouri war hero, John J. Pershing -- the school's namesake, but also reportedly, the inventor of the jumping jack. "Jumping jacks was the exercise that General Pershing actually developed to train soldiers in the pre-World War I era, and so the jumping jack name actually came from 'Black Jack' Pershing," said Conway, who sits on the veterans committee in the Missouri House.

Fourth graders aren't the only ones doing jumping jacks lately:

As part of her campaign against childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has been jumping too, along with 300,264 students, teachers and parents (a big group of them on the White House lawn). In December she announced they'd broken the world record for number of jumping jacks in a 24 hour period.

But some have criticized the first lady's anti-obesity campaign for recently seeming to shift away from politically fraught battles with big food companies, and toward more election-year-friendly activities, like jumping jacks.

Marion Nestle, a well-known nutrition writer, blogger and professor at NYU, took on the first lady in a blog post: "Everyone loves to promote physical activity.  Trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying."

But eating right is more important than exercising, she wrote: it's much easier to overeat than it is to make up for those extra calories with exercise. Burning off a 20 ounce soda, for example, would require about three miles of walking or jogging. 

But when I called her up on the phone, Nestle said getting kids to do jumping jacks could be an important part of the puzzle.

"It can be a very important part," she said. "Kids need to be more active, and they would behave better if they were more active and could run around. And jumping jacks are a really good way to use up a lot of energy in a short period of time."

But after the jumping jacks, kids can't sit down to a big bowl of the official state dessert (ice cream), because that will likely have more calories than they just worked off.

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