Fitness Project Promotes Health for Oglala Lakota Schools

For more than a decade, members of Rotary District 7870 (New Hampshire, Vermont, USA) have been helping residents of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The district’s service projects have ranged from making upgrades to the local nonprofit radio station, to providing laptops for students, to delivering materials for traditional quilts. District Rotarians have also partnered with South Dakota Rotary clubs to fund a makerspace for native artists.

This past fall, we were contacted by Doni DeCory, director of health and wellness for the Oglala Lakota County School district. She was looking for a way to help students and teachers get healthy together. She wanted to make wellness a priority. Her idea was to give each student and teacher their own Fitbit.

Fitbits are fitness trackers you can wear on your wrist. The devices have sensors underneath that monitor your blood pressure, your pulse, your heart rate, and the number of steps you take. The core functionality in all the trackers is a pedometer: a three-point accelerometer that tracks your movements, gathers data, and translates the information into digital signals to measure your physical activity.

Getting healthy together

To jumpstart her “Let’s get healthy together” program, DeCory needed 1,200 trackers for staff members and students. Three past district governors – John Siemienowicz, Venu Rao, and Tony Gilmore – heard about the need and donated the funds.

DeCory encouraged each school to develop their own wellness plan that took into consideration the emotional, social, mental, and physical well-being of their staff and students. Some set up fitness centers in their schools. Others created wellness rooms, while others incorporated their Lakota culture into their wellness response.

Oglala Lakota County has four elementary or middle schools, a high school, and a virtual high school with 435 staff and close to 1,800 students. With the 1,200 trackers, every staff member and as many students as possible are able to use them in physical education classes or other class activities. One of the schools held a competition for most steps.

Walking to stay fit

At another of the schools, staff participated in a fitness challenge and took a virtual walk to Rapid City and back. One competitor lost 48 pounds. DeCory said the trackers have encouraged a lot of students who don’t get involved in organized sports to find ways to become more active and improve their fitness.

One of the goals of the project is to get students interested in healthy habits like walking. The devices have helped build self-esteem and given all students – even those who are reticent to participate in new activities in gym class – another way to stay fit.

Some of the staff who were diabetic were able to improve their nutrition, lower their blood sugar, and come off their medication. The district was able to avoid an increase in staff health insurance rates for the first time due to fewer claims and increased attention to fitness.

It’s our hope that this project will encourage the students to engage in more physical activities and aim to achieve a target of 10,000 steps a day, a goal recommended by the National Institutes of Health.

By Martin Cohn, Rotary Club of Springfield, Vermont, USA