"I'm going to with my dad. I'm going to ask him if he could take me to the park, but running and then we walk," Jacquelyn said after Sweetgall's hour-long talk Thursday on the benefits of walking, which was attended by about 110 third-graders at Jefferson.
Sweetgall, who walked across the United States in a year and the U.S. perimeter in nine months, talked to Jefferson students about what it was like to walk from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and how walking can prevent life-threatening diseases, reduce stress and help them focus in class. "Walking, it's the one activity we can all do. We can all walk a little more," he said. "If we all walk, we will stay healthy."
"The country is on kind of a crash course heading toward higher and higher chronic disease and health-care costs, mainly because we're not moving," he said before his presentation. "A lot of Americans are eating too much and not moving enough."
Sweetgall also was scheduled to give presentations later to Cranbury Elementary School students, city employees and the general public. His visit was sponsored by the Norwalk Health Department through a grant from the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors.
Sweetgall told Jefferson School students that he was overweight as a child and had the nickname "Butterball." When he got older, he said he studied a lot and became an engineer, but continued to gain weight.
Then, after his father and several aunts and uncles died of heart disease, Sweetgall said he quit his high-paying job at DuPont, decided he had "something more important to do" and walked across the United States.
Sweetgall asked the kids if they would rather have $1 million dollars or a gift certificate that guaranteed them 75 years of perfect health, and nearly all the kids chose the latter. "The problem is, there are some diseases you can get in life that even one million dollars wouldn't cure," he said.
Walking burns five calories a minute, compared to one calorie a minute sitting at a computer, but it takes a lot of walking to burn off candy and fast food, Sweetgall said to the kids.
"I would have to get on the New York Giants football field and walk from one goalpost to the other goalpost to burn up one M&M," he said. He said he'd have to walk the football field 55 times to burn off a bag of M&Ms or a Snicker's bar and 150 times to burn off a Big Mac.
"If you don't do the walking and the exercise, the food has to go somewhere and it goes in the little fat cells in our body and they get bigger," Sweetgall said. The fat makes it harder for the heart to pump blood and impedes the ability of insulin to control blood sugar, he said.
Midway through the presentation, Sweetgall showed the students a pedometer, which measures how many steps someone takes, and organized a competition among seven groups of teachers and students to see which group could record the highest number of steps in about five minutes. The winning group recorded nearly 700 steps.
Sweetgall gave all the students pedometers at the end of his talk and encouraged teachers to take their students on a five-minute walk in the morning. He said schools in Connecticut that do that have students with improved test scores and better behavior.
Sweetgall also showed students slides of his walk across the United States and said he averaged about 31 miles a day. He said the students could use their pedometers to see how long it would take a class to walk that distance and gave them journals to record how many steps they took each day. When Sweetgall asked the students how many would join him on a walk across the country if they could take a year off from school, everyone raised their hand.
"It was interesting that he walked a lot of miles," Jacquelyn said afterward. "I never knew a person could walk that many miles."
Gisselle said she liked the photo of Sweetgall walking through a foot of snow on his cross-country trek.
After Sweetgall's presentation, the students headed out to Jefferson's parking lot to walk and run around Third-grader Diondre Trusty proudly proclaimed he had recorded 60 steps in just a couple of minutes. Diondre said the pedometer would encourage him to exercise and that he felt good.
"The main thing we want is for them to develop lifelong habits and this is like building a foundation on a rock wall," Sweetgall said after shaking all the students' hands. "Most Americans, they don't realize that small changes in one's life can make a big difference in the long haul, and the children especially. Developing these early habits can increase their chances of success in life."
Sweetgall, who lives in Idaho, is co-author of the book, "One Heart, Two Feet." His website is www.creativewalking.com