Getting Middle Schoolers to Exercise

Joel Shpigel’s dad was considered a “large” man. He was 37 the day he had a “heart scare.” “He didn’t have a heart attack, but his doctor said he was headed for one,” Shpigel recalls. His father decided to begin exercising. Joel, who was also overweight, decided to join him.

“We started walking in the evenings around the perimeter of a local cemetery,” Shpigel told Diabetes Health. “Once around was a mile, and eventually we got up to three times around.” The pounds melted off father and son. “My father didn’t have any more heart scares after that,” says Shpigel.

Fast forward a few decades. Joel Shpigel, RPh, is now co-founder and CEO of Focus Express Mail Pharmacy, a Pennsylvania-based Internet mail-order company that supplies medicines and products to people with diabetes and other chronic illnesses. It was late 2007, and Shpigel and his staff sat wondering what they could do to fight the national epidemic of type 2 diabetes. 

“We were trying to think of somewhere to start. We knew that it’s hard to change adults because so many people work at jobs where it’s difficult to get exercise. We figured it would be easier to start with kids…If we could find a way to get them active, they’d eventually get their parents involved.”

That’s how Focus hatched “Peds for Prevention,” a program that offered free pedometers to middle school students. The premise was simple: Give kids free pedometers and some basic instruction in the benefits of using them to track daily steps over a month-long program. Each week, introduce new information related to diet, exercise, and diabetes, all written at grade level. 

To sweeten the pot, Focus promised awards and grants to the students, teachers, and schools who did the best at taking pedometer-inspired exercising to heart.

“The basic message was that kids could lose weight if they got active, and that it’s fun to walk to school,” says Shpigel. “Remember, kids these days are not having childhoods like ours, where we ran around outside all day making up games as we went along. They sit indoors playing computer games, putting on weight, and setting themselves up for type 2.”

A Hard-to-Resist Offer Worth $25,000 

Earlier this year, Shpigel approached the Haverford School District, five elementary schools in suburban Philadelphia, with an offer to provide $25,000 worth of pedometers and instructional materials. 

Focus proposed calling the program “Stepping Out.” The idea was that students would help the district’s education foundation by committing to walk certain distances in exchange for pledges. “The district already had a 5K run. After listening to our proposal, Haverford decided to combine the two.”

The district’s fifth and sixth graders were each given a pedometer and a 10,000-steps-a-day goal (about five miles). “We deliberately chose children in that age group-10 and 11 years old-because we knew they were at the age when using a pedometer wouldn’t seem corny or unhip. Also, they were about to enter adolescence, when the dangers of an inactive lifestyle can have lifelong consequences.”

It wasn’t a hard sell. “The kids loved the pedometers. They had a high-tech feel to them, but they weren’t a distraction. They didn’t get in the way of kids making a game out of ‘how many steps is it to the water fountain?’ Pretty soon they were making it a habit to walk to school or to do things that piled up the steps on the pedometer. Best of all, they weren’t watching as much TV or sitting in front of it eating.”

There was a spillover effect, too. “Moms and dads got involved, walking beside their kids and using their kids’ pedometers to track their walks,” says Shpigel. “Teachers bought into the program right away. Some got involved and began walking to school or taking walks before school, trying to set an example.”

In April, at the end of the 30-day program, students gathered at the Haverford Middle School track and walked a final 2,000 steps. Focus then awarded individual honors to students and teachers who had taken the most steps and gave $3,000 in grants to the three top-performing schools. “The grants have to be spent on keeping kids active, such as buying balls or offering kick boxing classes,” says Shpigel. “There has to be outside physical activity-not watching videos but doing things.”

A Plan to Expand “Peds for Prevention”

Focus’s next step is to expand the program. “We’re going to advertise to school districts in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and have a contest. We’ll increase grant amounts and the budget-now it’s up to $35,000. We’ll put up a notice in November on our website: Here are the rules, here are the regulations. We’ll pick from among the applicants and then start the competition next spring.”

Shpigel has no doubt that there will be takers. “Students who talked to me about the program all reported having fun with it. They not only made games out of using the pedometers, but they also realized that they were feeling better simply because they were out getting exercise. They got closer to their parents, and some of them saw their weight drop. 

“For them, there was nothing to dislike.”


Focus Willing to Share Information, Sponsorship

Shpigel says Focus is working on a template for setting up a pedometer-based school exercise program that it will be happy to share by early spring 2009.

Focus is also open to collaboration or co-sponsorship with an association, manufacturer, charity, or educational association. 


Joel Shpigel, RPh, CEO
Focus Express Mail Pharmacy, Inc.
1250 Easton Rd., Suite S-101
Horsham, PA 19044

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