Kathleen Tullie of Natick does not view life as a spectator sport. She’s far too passionate about the cause that’s become her life’s work to ever stand on the sidelines.

This explains why Tullie ended up creating an international free physical activity program for children out of a seed of an idea, as well as why she’s lacing up her running shoes to tackle the Commonwealth’s premier sporting event this month.

What started in one Natick elementary school has blossomed into the BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success) before-school free physical activity program, which in six years has expanded to 1,800 schools in five countries, including a partnership with Canada’s public health agency and the Canadian Football League.

Multiple studies have validated the program’s success in improving children’s classroom performance and physical fitness with a 45-minute program of before-school exercise, play, and healthy living education over 12 weeks. Her organization, now an initiative of and funded by the Reebok Foundation, provides the curriculum and training for free; all a school needs to supply are volunteers and the children.

Last year, the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College, which conducted a three-year study of BOKS in the Natick schools, reported the program had improved students’ memory and executive function and shaved an average of 16 seconds off their 400-meter run times. Another study, authored by Quincy College Exercise Science Director Wayne Westcott and published in the Journal of Exercise, Sports & Orthopedics, showed that students in Weymouth got fitter and healthier after three 50-minute sessions a week for nine weeks. And more study is on the way: Harvard Medical School is undertaking a long-term study of 2,500 children in the program at school districts south of Boston.

One might expect the driving force behind focusing attention on the benefits of increased physical activity for children would have a background in exercise science or nutrition. Not quite. While it’s true Tullie enjoys Crossfit and describes herself as a passionate runner (“My favorite thing in the world to do is go for a run in the woods,” she says) she came from the world of real estate finance, in which she had a successful 19-year career.

But two events in 2009 sent her life in a different direction. First came a skin cancer diagnosis, for which successful treatment included minor surgery.

“Once you’ve had that diagnosis, it is life changing,” said the 46-year-old mother of two. “It was absolutely a game-changer for me in my perspective of life and my drive to do something I was passionate about and with my kids.”

Then came the news that one of her children was diagnosed with a reading disability. Tullie took these two things, and the downturn in the real estate market, as a sign that it was time to change her focus. First, she decided that maybe it was time to try being a stay-at-home mom.

“That lasted for about two weeks,” she said with a chuckle.

It was only two weeks because life had another surprise waiting for her around the corner, which came in the form of a book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John Ratey, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The positive correlation between exercise and mental health had been studied before. But Ratey found that even moderate exercise sharpens thinking, improves memory and reduces ADHD, anxiety, depression, and stress.

“In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information,” Ratey wrote.

Here’s how it works: There’s a protein in the human brain called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps neurons survive and encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses. It’s the connections between neurons that allow you to read this sentence, assemble your kid’s bicycle, or brush your teeth.

BDNF is most active in areas of the brain where learning and long-term memory happen. And certain kinds of exercise have been found to significantly increase production of BDNF.

In Spark, Ratey likened BDNF to Miracle Gro for the brain, and said certain kinds of physical activities were best for growing those connections, improving learning and mental health. “This is why learning how to play the piano makes it easier for kids to learn math,” he explained. “The prefrontal cortex will co-opt the mental power of the physical skills and apply it to other situations.”

Tullie was convinced by Ratey’s thesis and took action. She and a group of moms at Natick’s Memorial Elementary School asked for permission to host supervised play for 45 minutes before school twice a week. After meeting some initial resistance, they won permission for the nascent program. And within a couple of weeks, positive feedback filtered back.

“Teachers started to reach out and parents said, ‘Hey, I heard about your program, can I have a copy of the curriculum?’” Tullie said. “I didn’t have anything at that time and I thought, ‘Gee, maybe this is my a-ha moment.’”

Tullie, along with friends Cheri Levitz and Jen Lawrence, decided to start the process of forming a not-for-profit and building a curriculum. And when an email to Ratey earned a quick, enthusiastic reply, “That’s when I knew I have to do it, I’m obliged to,” she said.

The new initiative’s quest for support led to Reebok headquarters in Canton. Tullie had been promised 10 minutes with Matthew O’Toole, then the shoe and athletic apparel giant’s CEO, about supporting the effort with a T-shirt donation. She got a lot more than she bargained for.

“After two and a half hours, he said, ‘I actually love this idea so much that I want you to come and help with the two other moms you started this program with, and take this idea across the country,’” she recalled.

By 2010, BOKS (bokskids.org) was operating as an initiative of the Reebok Foundation.
How it works
The 12-week program hits on functional fitness exercises such as squats, sit-ups, and lunges, physical literacy skills such as throwing and kicking, and a game to close out the session. Running is also a big part of the program. Thanks to Tufts Medical Center, the kids (most sessions average 20 students per trainer) also learn nutrition nuggets, like how many sugar cubes are in the average sports drink.

But the structure isn’t strict. “I tell the trainers if the kids are having fun, play the game the whole time,” Tullie said. “Just keep their heart rate up and keep them interested.”

And there’s a definite need as many schools are reducing or eliminating recess or physical education, and childhood obesity remains a significant health problem in the U.S. and elsewhere.

To be clear, BOKS is not trying to replace a school’s existing physical education program. The goal is to add more activity to children’s daily routines, to help meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s physical activity guideline of 60 minutes per day, five days a week. And Tullie is truly passionate about filling that need.

“We truly have a physical inactivity epidemic in this country,” said Tullie, who would like to see school districts face more accountability for the health and fitness of their students. “It’s very sad how many schools I visit where the kids can’t run for a half mile, they can’t even do one push-up. I feel very, very fortunate that I am given the opportunity to chase my passion…(and) that people believe in us. It’s very cool that a little tiny program anybody could have done has grown into such a massive movement.”

Rubber meets the road
While the BOKS program is parent-volunteer-run in schools across Massachusetts, Tullie would love it established in every elementary and middle school in Boston. However, not every school can offer it. Funding is needed for stipends to pay teachers and staff to supervise the program at schools where there are obstacles to parent involvement, and Boston schools’ budget problems for 2016-17 are front-page news.

What better way to raise funds for promoting physical activity in a sports-crazy city than by taking part in one of the state’s signature athletic events? Tullie and four friends are gearing up for the famous 26.2-mile jaunt from Hopkinton to Boston’s Copley Square as part of an effort to raise $10,000 to fully implement BOKS in Boston schools.

“I don’t think we’ll have success until we have quality physical education in every school,” Tullie said. “We’ve had some success, but now that we’ve proven ourselves, we really need to make the impact.”

How To Bring BOKS To Your School

1. Find a champion. BOKS sessions are led by a volunteer lead trainer (or trainers). Trainers do not have to be fitness professionals, but rather parents or other community members who are passionate about the program, can lead a class, and can demonstrate the basic moves.

2. Get school approval. Bringing the BOKS program to a school requires no money or staff time if volunteer-led, two giant pluses when pitching the idea to a principal or administration. A Help Pack, which features everything from the program overview and sample lesson plan to a draft email to a principal, can be downloaded free at bokskids.org/enroll-school.

3. Get trained. Trainers are highly encouraged to attend a one-time, four-hour free training session at Reebok headquarters in Canton. At training, they will learn how the program works and how to lead a session. Free tools, resources, and plug-and-play curricula are available for trainers to use in their school’s program.

4. Recruit volunteers. In addition to the lead trainer, it’s helpful to have two or more volunteers per session to assist the trainer and children, help run games, and demonstrate moves.

5. Fill the session. Advertise signups in your school. A ratio of 20 children to 1 lead trainer is recommended; more trainers or volunteers mean larger sessions, if desired.