Kids race to fight childhood obesity

City Park was cold and gray Saturday morning, but beneath the overcast sky and the live oaks draped with Spanish moss, hundreds of energetic children wearing bright orange T-shirts bounced around the park.

More than 800 students were fired up to run the ING Kids Rock race to help fight childhood obesity, in conjunction with the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon. Kids from kindergarten to seventh grade participated in the 1-mile, non-timed, non-competitive race. More than 14 schools were represented in the event.

Sonia Lombardino has taught physical education at Bissonet Plaza Elementary for 28 years. Saturday marked her third year participating in the fourth annual ING Kids Rock.

“I think this is great what they offer the students, especially for kids who never get a chance to run and participate,” Lombardino said.

“They feel like it’s the Olympics here, they’ve got their racing numbers, and they give them their medals. And I can guarantee you when they leave here, they’re looking for the next race.”

Every student who registers in the race must participate in a four-week conditioning program that includes interval and distance training. ING provides the registration and transportation fees for students.

Lombardino said her school tries to do as much as it can to integrate movement into the students’ school days.

“You think of a child — their whole day could be nothing but sitting at a desk, going home, sitting and watching TV — so we promote an activity in everything that we do in school,” Lombardino said.

Brent Bono, of River Ridge, brought his three children Haley, 12; Nicholas, 10; and Vincenzo, 6, who attend St. Matthew the Apostle School, to run the race.

“It’s a good, healthy, family activity. Between television and electronics, you have to find a balance,” Bono said.

Tracy Sundlun, founder of Rock ‘n’ Roll and senior vice president of the events division at Competitor Group, an active lifestyles group, 10 years ago created ING Kids Rock in cooperation with the with the insurance company ING.

“It is remarkable what’s transpired in the last decade with everyone’s basic health and the general levels of obesity at every age,” Sundlun said. “It’s a national epidemic, and any tool that we can come up with to fight that, and particularly to fight that early on, is essential.”

Sundlun said the goal of the race is not to be competitive, but to be inspirational for the kids.

“Not everyone is going to find that they’re brilliant runners out of this, and that’s not the key,” Sundlun said. “But can they have a good time, and can they have a sense of accomplishment? Because that’s also the beautiful thing about running in particular — success on the field can breed success off the field.”

Rod Dixon, an Olympic medalist and marathon champion was also on hand to cheer the kids on.

“A love of physical fitness starts early and sets kids up for success in life on many levels,” Dixon said in a news release.

“Running isn’t about punishment — it should be about having fun, getting outside and learning that being healthy feels great.”

Since the ING Kids Rock began a decade ago, 176,000 kids have run a total of 5 million miles in the events, according to event organizers.