BALTIMORE – Djenne Davis may not realize it, but what she does at recess could help save her life.
“I jump rope every day,” said Djenne, 10, from Baltimore County, amid the intermittent snapping of ropes across the floor at the Dundalk Police Athletic League Center recently. “It’s just fun.”
The idea that fitness can be fun is exactly what Maryland health officials hope to instill in children with a statewide jump rope and nutrition program that was recently highlighted at a national food nutrition conference.
Jump Rope, Eat Smart — or Jump Smart — is the brainchild of Lisa Lachenmayr, a nutritionist in the Food Stamp Nutrition Office at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
The program began two years ago in Baltimore City teaching jump-rope skills and healthier eating to children 9 to 13 years old. Now it’s gone statewide, grown to 35 programs in Baltimore and is adding more sessions in Baltimore County and other counties.
Once considered an adult problem, obesity is becoming epidemic among children, with one child in five overweight, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight children tend to become overweight adults who develop such health problems as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
The CDC also says 29 percent of Maryland low-income children between ages 2 and 5 are overweight or at the highest risk of becoming overweight.
This alarming trend is what Lachenmayr hopes to avoid.
Environment has a definite influence on a child’s nutrition habits, Lachenmayr said, recalling how a puzzled 12-year-old from an inner city once came up to her with an orange and asked her, “How do you open this?”
Children also learn by doing, Lachenmayr said, especially from copying each other. That led to demonstrations by the Howard County precision jump rope team, Kangaroo Kids. These youth, ranging in age from the first grade through college, show after-school providers and their charges routines and tricks. The neat feats range from double-unders, where the rope passes beneath jumpers’ feet twice, to side swishes, where the rope is swung from side-to-side. Then audience members are encouraged to form jump rope clubs of their own.
“It catches on like wildfire. Once the kids see them jump rope they want to do it, too,” said Haylee Staruk, Lachenmayr’s co-worker.
Even more remarkable than the tricks performed is the average cost per child in each club: $3.75. This shoestring budget for a typical 40-member club covers such items as CDs, CD players, books and, of course, double-dutch ropes.
Coupled to the jump rope clubs are nutrition classes where kids can learn such things as the fat content in typical fast foods — for instance, the difference in fat between regular and super-sized french fries.
Before the program was established, Jump Smart was a marketing study to determine physical activity patterns in African-American children.
“Our initial target was African-American girls, since there is a 7 percent decline in their physical activity every year after the fourth grade,” said Lachenmayr. “However, this is something that kids of all different ages, weights and sizes can enjoy.”
Even boys get in on the fun.
“We’re doing cool stuff,” said 10-year-old Mukkayah Forkpah as he practices doing handstands and crisscrossing the jump rope between jumps.
Yet, said Kangaroo Kids Head Coach Jim McCleary, “You don’t have to be gifted and talented at the sport to start. Everyone can pick this up.”
McCleary, a physical education teacher, said there are definite benefits of jumping rope including increased strength, improved balance and coordination and improved cardio-respiratory endurance.
But don’t say this to Djenne Davis and the other kids. To them, it’s just fun.