Families across Nebraska looking for creative ways to stay physically active during the coronavirus pandemic have a new option. Nebraska Extension has created a virtual Marathon Kids club, so youth and their families can be active and gain confidence through completing the distance of a marathon, one mile at a time.

Marathon Kids is a national running program designed to motivate children by utilizing running logs; boost their activity; and introduce them to the joy of running. More than 2.5 million children across the nation have participated in the in-person running club. The club has proven to jump-start healthy, long-lasting change for youth across the country.

“Regular physical activity has many health benefits, both physically and mentally. Research shows that when kids feel healthy, they perform better in school and exhibit better behavior,” said Donnia Behrends, extension educator and registered dietitian in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences, part of the College of Education and Human Sciences.

When the coronavirus pandemic canceled sports and other outdoor youth activities, Behrends and a team from Nebraska Extension, led by assistant extension educator Mariah Newmyer, developed a virtual option for families to join Marathon Kids to stay active.

Beth Nacke, assistant extension educator and registered dietitian, has been working on implementing an in-person Marathon Kids program in Nebraska for more than a year.

“Now that families aren’t constantly racing between activities, every day feels the same,” Nacke said. “Marathon Kids is something fun that the family can look forward to on a daily basis.”

She’s developed different activity routes in and around her hometown of Ceresco to add variety and fun to her daily activity outings with the family.

“What’s great about Marathon Kids is that it encompasses all ages, so the whole family can participate together,” Nacke said.

To participate, families join the Nebraska Extension Marathon Kids Facebook page, print off a mileage log template or create their own, and then start tracking. The goal is for participants to be physically active for the distance of a marathon, or 26.2 miles, by tracking one mile at a time. For those not interested in running, walking or other physical activities are also encouraged. Every five minutes of heart-pumping activity or exercise is equivalent to a quarter of a mile. Those who complete a full marathon will receive a certificate from Nebraska Extension.

Beyond the health benefits of physical activity, and the social incentives, the program can help parents learn about their children. Hannah Guenther, an extension educator of food, nutrition and health, has used Marathon Kids to connect with her daughter, Charlotte.

“The daily walks have been great for our relationship,” Guenther said. “She tells me a lot about her day while we’re walking.”

The program is funded by Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska Nutrition Education Program, which includes funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—Education or SNAP-Ed.

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