Weatherly Area Middle School students recently were applauded for their more active lifestyle.

In one year, students are noticeably thinner and a lot more aware of their health, thanks to a pilot program initiated last year by the state Department of Health.

Weatherly School District was awarded one of 40 Active School grants by the Department of Health through the federal Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant. Schools received a $5,000 grant from the department and an additional $10,000 from one of five supporting organizations. In this case Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania was the granting organization which provided the $10,000.

Leading the applause for the students' achievements was Everette James, secretary of health. James visited the school to commend students and teachers for their yearlong commitment to exercising for 30 minutes every school day.

"It's great to see the improvement these students have made in their level of fitness and hear how it has benefitted them," said James. "These schools are demonstrating that when the health of the students is made a top priority, scheduling at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day can be done. In addition, they are confirming the research that tells us physically active kids perform better in school."

James, along with Mitch Akeres, Center for Schools and Community, Pa. Department of Health, and Tina Amato of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, presented a plaque to the school for their implementation of evidence-based activity programs through the Active Schools program. The presentation was held recently during the middle school's first Wrecker Power Walk, an activity designed not only to encourage exercise but also to raise funds for the 2010-11 school year.

Also Brian Maiello, Jesse Chapman and Michael Grega were recognized for improvements they made to their fitness assessments and talked about how the program has benefitted them.

Schools were selected for participation based on their commitment to provide a health and fitness curriculum that adds 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

James said that according to a recent survey, only about 38 percent of the state's middle school students get that amount of daily activity.

In Weatherly, each student was assessed at the beginning of the school year by the school nurse at their present level and then reassessed at the end of the year to see the increase in their activity level. Those results brought James to the school.

A majority of the students made great strides in their activity level.

Monica Falatko, health and physical education teacher, said the district used the grant funds to purchase activity programs that she implemented into the student's school day to reap the results.

"The kids want more," she said. "They want more in school and more after school activities. It's all a matter of making activity fun and making time for it in the school day."

James pointed out that physical activity is essential for all children to develop healthy hearts, strong bones and sharp minds. Combined with good nutrition, physical activity is also important to address the childhood obesity epidemic.

James noted that childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 25 years. Overweight children face an increased risk of health programs as adolescents and adults, including diabetes, coronary hearth disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer.

"Obesity is more than a health risk; it also contributes significantly to the cost of treating chronic diseases which are responsible for a least 70 percent of all health expenditures," said James. "A 2009 study found obese Americans those who are 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight cost the nation an estimated $147 billion in weight-related medical bills in 2008, double what it was 10 years prior."

James said Weatherly's success proves that it can be done.

"By giving the schools the flexibility to fit it into their school day is the key to the program," James added.

James said he was grateful for the support of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania and the other organizations that joined as full community partners in the effort.

"Support from community organizations plays a key role in ensuring the health of our children," said James.

The state Board of Education voted in May to advance new physical activity standards that would require all schools to provide 30 minutes of physical activity to all students every day. For more information on the proposed regulations, visit the Department of Education online at www.education.state.pa.us.

For more information on the Active Schools Grant Program, visit the Department of Health online at www.health.state.pa.us/activeschools. The grant deadline for next year is June 10.

Slavic announced that to help Weatherly residents become more active, the school is putting in a health center for residents to use.

"We want the entire community to be fit," said Slavic. "The school board just approved the program last night."