Randy Clark's career has come full circle. He began as a physical education (PE) teacher and a hockey coach, became manager of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Health Sports Medicine Center's exercise science laboratory, and is now back to using his expertise to better serve the health needs of those he originally got in this industry for: kids.

“One of the things that bothers me is that a lot of people like to bash this generation [of children], and I disagree,” Clark says. “If you give these kids an opportunity they shine.”

And what an opportunity did Clark and his co-principal investigator Dr. Aaron Carrel give 50 Wisconsin kids. The duo found that middle-school students improved their fitness and cardiovascular health substantially when they took part in an “alternative” physical education class where they chose the activities they enjoyed such as biking, walking and cross country skiing. Furthermore, students in the lifestyle-based gym class had significant reductions in body fat and vast improvements in cardiovascular fitness and fasting insulin, an indicator of diabetes.

“Instead of labeling kids and focusing on body fat, using fitness as an endpoint and measuring cardiovascular fitness was really one of our studies' goals instead of weight loss or body fat loss,” Dr Carrel says. “It was pleasant that we saw [weight loss and decreased body fat percentage], but we see a lot of kids with type 2 diabetes and improvements in cardiovascular and fasting insulin levels are really important.”

The study was done at River Bluff Middle School in Stoughton after a pair of River Bluff staff members - guidance counselor Nancy Crassweller and physical education instructor Bob Hanssen - were concerned about the overall health of their students and approached Dr. Carrel for his advice. After the success of the lifestyle-based gym class, Carrel and Clark are planning to expand the study to sedentary, normal-weight children at other schools, and the research team is testing out GPS devices that track children's self-reported activity to their actual activity. Carrel also says he'd like to look at other adipose markers and how those are being affected by exercise.

What's most exciting though for both researchers is the public and media attention the research has received and the opportunity to partner with more schools.

“A lot of programs have been tried; school is a powerful influence and peer pressure is a powerful force, so if you can turn them onto to something in the school day that's a huge thing,” Clark says.

And at the end of the day, the family that plays together, stays together, Clark says. He hopes to see more families working out together either outside, at home or at a gym — and that doesn't including dropping kids off at daycare. Parents are the key role models, he says.

“We've had parents tell us, ‘You've changed our lives, you've changed our family,’” he says. “Instead of coming home and sitting in front of the computer or the TV, these kids grab their parents and go for a family walk or go for a bike ride. One of the most rewarding things I've experienced in my whole career here is talking to the kids and parents when they came back in for their final test.”