As an organizer of the Big Sur International Marathon, Susan Love knows what it takes to run 26.2 miles. She also knows what it takes to run across the entire United States.
The PreventObesity.net Leader is the program administrator of the youth fitness program Just Run, which is provided to schools and after-school programs across the country that are looking for ways to get students physically active. Headquartered in Monterey County, Calif., Just Run is offered for schools and programs at no-cost, funded by marathon revenues, grants and private donations.
“We want to encourage the concept that physical activity and exercise should be part of a daily routine,” Love says of the program. “There’s no negative, ‘I’m not good enough, I didn’t make the team.’ Every child can run.”
Love and her colleague Mike Dove launched Just Run about eight years ago as a way to combat childhood obesity. Love and Dove were concerned that the rise in childhood obesity was happening at the same time many schools were cutting physical education because of tightening budgets or the need to find additional time for academic instruction.
With that in mind, the pair designed Just Run to be easy-to-use and flexible to suit individual schools or after-school programs. “Because it’s free, it offers a solution to the financially strapped schools that are in need of providing physical education to their kids,” Love says.
Any one teacher, coach or after-school leader can sign-up for Just Run. Registrants are given instructions on how to implement it at their school or program site.
At its core, Just Run is pretty simple: Students run for a period of time and keep track their mileage.
That mileage is then logged on an interactive online map, and together each class or after-school group travels from California to the East Coast. During the journey, the students reach a diverse range of national landmarks, from the Artichoke Capital of the World to the birth site of Malcolm X to the Empire State Building. Information is provided on the map about the landmark, providing a geography and history lesson to the kids.
Just Run also includes nutritional lessons that encourage students to try out healthy foods, and a citizenship component asks kids to perform 26 good deeds, such as helping their parents with chores or volunteering in their communities.
But running is the heart of the program. Just Run coordinators encourage site leaders to take an active role in helping the kids run, including by coordinating fun relays and providing awards such as medals or T-shirts when kids reach certain milestones.
“We like the leaders to bring them up in front of their peers,” Love says. “These kids, some of them feel like they’ve won the Olympics, they’re so proud.”
About 50,000 children have participated in the program since it launched, logging a collective 1.5 million miles, Love says. Roughly 9,200 kids took part last year, and organizers hope to attract 11,000 participants this year, she adds.
Just Run also has received a slew of honors for its efforts, including a Community Leadership Award from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger awarded Just Run with a Gold Medal from the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and Running USA named it a Model Program and Youth Program of the Year.