By  on February 28, 2013

CHICAGO — Nike Inc. on Thursday pledged $50 million to help boost First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to increase physical activity in school-age children.

The First Lady returned to her hometown Thursday to launch her latest initiative, “Let’s Move! Active Schools,” which is a multiorganization partnership meant to build on the earlier Let’s Move effort aimed at parents and communities. The new initiative will attempt to engage 50,000 schools in the next five years, with the goal of encouraging at least one hour a day of physical activity among school-age children.

The inspiration comes partly from studies that have shown children need 60 minutes of physical activity daily to stay healthy yet only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools offer daily physical education.

Nike will provide marketing and communications expertise. Other private and nonprofit organizations are providing an additional $22 million, and the U.S. Department of Education will reorient its $80 million Carol M. White Physical Education Program toward schools with the greatest needs. In addition to grant money, the program will provide participating schools such resources as professional development, technical assistance and communications tools.

During the event at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, the First Lady acknowledged the challenges that schools face in tough budgetary times to find time and money to promote physical fitness.

“But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should stop trying,” Obama said. “It means we should try harder. It means that…we all need to dig deeper and start getting even more creative. Quality physical education comes in all different forms and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. But it does take leadership.…That’s why Nike and all these other organizations today have stepped up.”

Obama recalled the “countless opportunities” that she and her brother had to be physically active growing up, adding that, “Playing sports taught me teamwork, it taught me how to be aggressive, it taught me how to win. Playing sports was important to our success in school and in life.”

Mark Parker, president and chief executive officer of Nike, said, “We must provide early, positive experiences for kids through play and sport.…We recognize there must be a greater sense of urgency to address this. We’re also pledging the engagement of our [corporate] family. I’m very optimistic about our ability to shape the future.”

Joining the political and corporate leaders at the event, who also included U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, were athletes Allyson Felix, Bo Jackson, Dominique Dawes, Ashton Eaton, Colin Kaepernick, Sarah Reinertsen, Gabby Douglas, Paul Rodriguez, Bob Harper and Serena Williams. Each talked briefly about sports and physical fitness experiences growing up, to the shrieking cheers of 6,500 Chicago public school students who surrounded the stage.

But no one got a louder reaction than the First Lady, when she reappeared at the end of the event to address the students directly. “You have the power to choose the life you want for yourselves,” said Obama, who closed out the event by dancing with groups of the school children. “Whether you fill your bodies with chips and candy or fruits and vegetables, that’s on you. Whether you sit around all day and play video games or get up and move your bodies, those are the choices you make.”

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