Running laps in gym class used to be seen as a punishment in bygone days.
But students at Tzouanakis Intermediate School are more than happy to run or walk those laps on their outdoor nature trail.
In fact, many of the students in grades three to five are "fitness fanatics." And, by the end of the school year, they will have accumulated 21,000-plus miles walked.
That is equal to walking twice around the boundary of the continental United States, or around the State of Indiana 23 times. It is an average of 40-plus miles per student.
Principal Dan TeGrotenhuis is impressed by how many miles the students have walked this year.
"The third grade has been spectacular," he said of the 9,166 miles they totalled by early May. "They are big on getting the prizes."
The Fitness Fanatics program began three years ago as a recess assignment to get kids moving. Students earn a lanyard as their first participation prize and receive feet-shaped tokens to add to the lanyard for logging each additional 10 miles. They receive a water bottle at 50 miles, and a T-shirt at 100 miles.
Monitors watch the walkers' progress, handing out round tokens for each lap walked. Three tokens means one mile, and each class keeps a tally of how many miles the students have walked. Every two weeks, a map of the U.S. is printed and distributed to show the progress around the exterior boundary of the 48 states.
The fourth-graders this year have accumulated more than 5,600 miles, while the fifth graders have passed the 6,100-mile mark.
The records are maintained so that by the time a fifth-grader finishes three years of walking, they will know how many miles they have accumulated on the TZ trail.
It is a friendly competition that motivates the students to stay active, TeGrotenhuis said. "Kids compete with each other, and some kids jog the whole recess."
In fact, there are several students this year who have passed the 200-mile mark.
The program gets its start each fall with physical education teacher Trish Lowe setting the guidelines for the students and monitors and PTO parents. Staff member Sharon Hoskins then does the tallying and the bulk of the work on certificates and tracking the prizes and mileage.
In the first year, TeGrotenhuis said the program saw 12,000 miles walked. Last year, the students accumulated 14,000 miles. But this year the program has exploded with interest.
In a society where childhood obesity is a growing concern, TeGrotenhuis said fitness initiatives are much-needed in schools.
"We want kids to be active and busy at recess time. If they're not playing a game, then we want them walking. No standing around and talking," TeGrotenhuis said. "Let's move our legs in addition to our gums when we're outside."
Students are encouraged to play games such as football or soccer when outside on recess, but if they aren't playing, they still need 20 minutes of activity per day, he said.
And keep in mind that the miles accumulated also figure in some school days when it is too cold for students to go outside, or too rainy.
The program also helps reduce the discipline problems that can be seen on the playground. Since students have an activity to work on, they are less likely to be milling around and getting into trouble.
The success of Fitness Fanatics will be emphasized Friday when the TZ students are encouraged to participate in the annual Walk-A-Thon. Family members are invited to go to school to walk with a child at an entry fee of $3. The goal is to raise $1,500 for the American Diabetes Association.
The 40-minute Walk-A-Thon also counts toward each student's miles accumulated.
TeGrotenhuis said next year's program might set the additional goal of walking around the world. That's only 24,859 miles. It's a distance worth walking.