MODESTO -- At La Loma Junior High School, tradition leads the charge to a fitter future. Students competing for stars, bars and a place in school history led to top physical fitness scores for Modesto City Schools seventh-graders.
La Loma! "Pride!" Lancers! "Rock!" is the responsive cry teachers use to bring even a large and loud physical education class to instant attention.
PE teachers Ian McBay, Tom Nelson and Beth Kanaly said pride fuels results in their program. Those who show great skill or great improvement get iron-on stars on their gym clothes. Students chosen to lead exercise sessions or supervise the locker room get leadership bars.
Athletes who make the highest standards see their names on "the board," signs that have hung on the gymnasium wall for decades.
"What better thing than to leave your name here permanently?" said Nelson. Watching eighth-graders skipping or scuttling sideways across the gym, he said he now has kids who see their parents' names on the exclusive roster.
"Not every student was born an athlete, but we can get them in shape," Nelson said.
To help that happen, running, push-ups and stretches are standard fare for all PE classes, Nelson said. Kanaly folds in first aid, anti-alcohol and tobacco education and AIDS awareness. The mix of exercise and education seemed to resonate with eighth-graders stretching their hamstrings after running drills.
Jaylen Sleatherwood said staying fit just feels good. "Running the mile increases your health," she said.
"I like being athletic," said Anne Stuart, who plays soccer, track and volleyball.
For Emily Knolls, exercise gets her brain pumping. "It's easier to get good grades," she said.
The eighth-graders topped Modesto City's three other junior highs in physical fitness tests taken in the spring, when they were in seventh grade. The school was not tops in Stanislaus County, however. Middle schools in Denair, Turlock (Dutcher) and Hughson (Ross) had higher scores.
Several Ripon Unified School District elementaries, which span kindergarten through eighth grade, also tested among the physically fittest.
All students in fifth, seventh and ninth grades take the fitness tests each spring. The California Department of Education released the results for 2012 last month. The categories:
Aerobic capacity, checked with a one-mile run or walk
Abdominal strength, checked with curl-ups (modified sit-ups)
Upper body strength, checked with push-ups, modified pull-ups or arm hangs
Body composition, using body mass index and other measures
Flexibility, checked with sitting toe touches and other exercises.
Trunk extension strength, checked with trunk lifts
Stanislaus and neighboring counties fared about average in aerobic capacity, a measure of overall fitness, with more middle schools beating the state average. State numbers came in slightly higher than the mid-mark for area elementary and high schools.
But in body composition, which weighs in on obesity, area students fared worse than state averages.
Only four elementary schools had fewer than 20 percent of their students at high risk for health problems from being overweight. At nine schools more than half the fifth-graders tested fell in that group, compared with a state average of 34 percent.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.