NEWBURY PARK : Students Take Part in Fitness Program

Instead of groaning at the thought of exercise, about 250 students at Manzanita Elementary School in Newbury Park giggled, sang and clapped their hands Thursday as they participated in a physical fitness program for schoolchildren.

Manzanita and four elementary schools in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are participating in a monthlong fitness program that includes twice-weekly workout sessions and will culminate in a race at UCLA's Drake Stadium one day before the seventh annual Los Angeles Marathon.

Tony Richardson, a 10-year triathlete, led the youngsters through jumping jacks, stretches and other exercises during the half-hour training session at Manzanita. Laker players A.C. Green and Vlade Divac have also led training sessions at participating schools.

Sponsored by PacifiCare of California, a health-care organization, the program was designed to teach first- through third-graders the importance of staying physically, mentally and nutritionally fit, said Michelle Lawrence, PacifiCare spokeswoman.

Manzanita was selected because Principal Phil Parish has run twice in the Los Angeles Marathon, and the school hosts an annual jog-a-thon to raise money, said Connie Hedstrom, the school's physical education instructor.

"They're trying to promote physical fitness," Hedstrom said of PacifiCare, which created the program in conjunction with its role as a sponsor of the Los Angeles Marathon.

But students had different ideas about the importance of physical fitness. "It's important because you don't want to be a bum," said 9-year-old Stephen Schiller.

Denny Norris, 9, said he began lifting weights two months ago to get a head start on attracting women when he is older. "I want a wife so I won't be lonely when I grow up," Denny said.

Students will participate in two more training sessions before the Feb. 29 race at UCLA. Participants will receive a T-shirt, ribbon and fitness guide, organizers said.

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