To get those results, West Virginia kids would need equivalent physical activity time, Mary Weikle said. "You have to have 20 consecutive minutes to get cardiovascular benefit," she said. "We're not there. You've got to intentionally have that time," she said, whether it's in physical education class or less formal physical activity sessions.
"If we get to five days a week, we'll start reaping benefits." For now, they're aiming for 15 more minutes of activity per day. "That's not enough to change the numbers," Weikle said, "but we're starting. We're getting people comfortable with the idea."
It could require legislative change, she said. "We at least need to meet the national guidelines from [the National Association of Sport and Physical Education]. From that point, individual schools could design a daily program based on their facility and staffing."
West Virginia has already done a few things Kearney did, she noted:
Kearney kids face many challenges that West Virginia kids face. More than 60 percent qualify for free and reduced-price school lunch, compared with West Virginia's 52 percent. Kearney's per capita income is $23,071, compared with West Virginia's $16,477.
In 2007, 63 percent of Kearney kids spent between one and three hours a day surfing the net and texting. Thirty-one percent of West Virginia kids watch three or more hours of television a day, not including the Web and texting.
Thirty-six percent of Kearney children were obese or overweight in 2006. Today, 47 percent of West Virginia fifth-graders are in the same boat, 29 percent obese and another 18 percent overweight.
Seventy-five percent of Kearney students did not eat green salad more than three times a week. Eighty percent of West Virginia kids say they do not eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
In 2005, 62 percent of the Kearney kids had zero phys ed per week. In 2009, 67 percent of West Virginia high school students had no PE in an average week.
Nebraska legislators worry about the rising cost of health care, as do West Virginia legislators.
Can W.Va. change the future?
Can a whole state like West Virginia lower its future heart disease and diabetes rates by getting kids more active?
There are 772 West Virginia public schools, with 283,000 students. State Superintendent Jorea Marple is signaling local schools that more physical activity is expected, but it is not policy, so far.
The local level is where it happens, said Ginny Ehrlich of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance, sponsored by the American Heart Association, works with 14,000 schools nationwide to promote physical activity, including more than 130 West Virginia schools.
"It's really important to have that state support and policy," she said. "Then each school needs to create their own magic. Each needs to customize their plans in a way that suits their students."
It will be clear that the state is serious when they put measures of physical fitness in places that count, she said. At this point, there is no measure of fitness on West Virginia's state, county or school report cards that determine whether school systems get accredited.
Melanie Purkey, director of the Office of Healthy Schools, said her staff is in conversation about that subject with the state's education information system staff. "We're talking about fitness data sets that might be included on the report card."
"What gets measured gets done," Ehrlich said. "If the state sets the bar -- as West Virginia has a history of doing around foods and beverages -- schools will find innovative ways to meet those guidelines."
Meanwhile, in Kearney, Neb., grant funds are running out. Franzen is scheduled to be laid off at the end of this school year.
The coordinator, the person who kept stirring the pot, will be gone. "I hope we've set it up to sustain itself," she said. "We'll see."
Kearney Schools have been bombarded with requests for information. They expect to release a detailed report this spring.
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or katel...@wvgazette.com.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.