Farmington gym teacher Joe McCarthy has broken into the world of professional basketball. Well, sort of.
This fall, the Timberwolves and Lynx are sponsoring Get Fit, a pilot program that encourages kids to be active outside of school. The program is based on the Century Club, which McCarthy created for fourth and fifth graders at Meadowview Elementary.
Get Fit, like the Century Club, is "a program that's designed to get kids to be active every day," said McCarthy, also a national speaker on the benefits of physical education and a coach at Farmington High School.
With Get Fit, which runs through Dec. 15, kids can earn a Timberwolves ticket, a poster and other prizes for exercising outside of school. For every 15 minutes of activity they get a point, and 75 points earns them the ticket and prizes.
So far, 20,000 Minnesota kids in second through eighth grade have signed up from 60 school districts, said Joanna Opitz, a Timberwolves account representative who helped start the program.
"The beauty of it is that kids choose their own activity … No matter what they do, it counts," McCarthy said of both programs.
The Timberwolves, who have donated prizes to the Century Club in the past, approached McCarthy last spring because they wanted to create a fitness program that would reward kids for being active, he said.
With kids' activity levels decreasing, it's more important than ever to get them moving outside of school, Opitz said.
The Timberwolves are among the first teams in the NBA to create fitness programming for kids, Opitz said, though the NFL has something similar.
The original goal was to involve 10,000 kids, but twice that number are already participating, McCarthy said.
The power of fitness
Get Fit is similar to the Century Club, which runs from October through March, with kids trying to earn 100 points to win prizes.
Tiffany Young, a fifth-grade Century Club member who plans to participate in Get Fit, said she exercises at home every weekday. Without the club, she probably wouldn't be playing volleyball or hula-hooping as often, she said.
McCarthy started the club five years ago to supplement his gym classes. He only sees kids for 25 minutes every other day for PE, and that's not enough, he said.
With childhood obesity on the rise — about 40 percent of kids nationally are overweight or obese, with similar rates in Farmington — getting exercise outside of school is essential, he said.
But being active has other benefits, as McCarthy's programs at Meadowview have shown. He has instituted efforts to combine exercise with academics, like Lit PE, a voluntary activity for fourth-graders that has students exercising and doing reading activities simultaneously, said Lisa Edwards, principal at Meadowview. About 90 percent of fourth-graders participate in that program on Friday mornings.
McCarthy's passionate about his belief that exercise improves school performance, and there's plenty of research to back up his claims, he said.
Whenever kids are physically active, the brain grows new brain cells, which help kids learn. Endorphins are also released, "which give the body a calming feeling," he said.
At Meadowview, test scores have gone up, along with positive behaviors, he said.
Edwards said McCarthy is "very motivating" and that his programs have empowered students.
McCarthy's enthusiasm and fame — in 2012, he was named the teacher of the year by a statewide group of physical education educators, and he also won a $25,000 grant — are also why the Timberwolves wanted to work with him, said Opitz.
"We're so excited to be working with him because he's such a big player in physical education in Minnesota," Opitz said.
Though it's unknown how many Get Fit participants will meet the program's goal, the organization is pleased with how things are going, she said. The Timberwolves "have high ambitions for future seasons to grow the program and get more and more kids involved," Opitz said.