Have you noticed?

Friends get up early to log a few more miles on the track, drink water like it was beer at a frat party, stretch like a pretzel at every spare moment and, inexplicably, forgo doughnuts and sundaes like they were raw liver.

"Have they gone nuts?" you might ask.

Probably not: More likely they have joined the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office's annual Fitness Challenge, a month-long competition involving hundreds of participants on teams representing businesses, public agencies, service clubs, professional offices and schools throughout the county.

"It's really caught on," said County School Superintendent Joe Silva, who started the challenge as "an in-house, team-building exercise" four years ago.

At the time, dietitian Jodie Rodriguez suggested that Silva expand the competition to the entire community and it has grown steadily since. This year's challenge includes teams from Sonora Regional Medical Center, Diestel's Turkey Ranch, MRL Industries, The Union Democrat, the Sonora Police Department, the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, Front Porch, Kinematic, the Sonora Mountain Lions, about a dozen more government offices and more.

"We have more than 40 teams this year," said Silva, who is not above anonymously sending boxes of doughnuts to competing squads his own team hopes to undermine. "There's a lot of excitement out there."

Under the challenge's scoring system, points are earned for exercise (walking, running, swimming, cycling), stretching, light and heavy house and yard work, eating fruits, vegetables and fiber, drinking water, avoiding junk food, sugar, caffeine, fat, alcohol and tobacco, reading articles or books about healthy living and losing weight.

Amid the month-long competition, some participants, no doubt, live far healthier than they did before the challenge or will afterwards.

Still, said Silva, "we hope that those involved will develop good habits during the competition and that some will remain part of their lives."

If anything is missing from the Fitness Challenge, it is wide participation by the county's schools themselves. Tests annually show that both students statewide and those in the Mother Lode are not meeting physical fitness standards.

A 2007 report by the advocacy group Children Now found that fewer than only one in four Tuolumne and Calaveras county kids under 11 are fit. And fewer than half the two counties' elementary and high school students that took state fitness tests in 2006 met minimum standards in six areas.

If the Fitness Challenge can get sedentary adults out of their easy chairs and onto the track, imagine what a little competition could produce in school gyms or on campus playing fields. Good fitness habits, certainly, begin at home, but occasionally it takes something from the outside to get kids motivated.

Joe Silva, it turns out, is ahead of us: He said several student teams from Soulsbyville School are participating in this year's challenge and that next year the event will be expanded to even more schools.

Which shouldn't be a surprise. Silva has made fitness a cornerstone of his administration.

Held since 2003 and scheduled for a fifth edition on Nov. 2, annual Healthy Schools Summits sponsored by his office have examined childhood obesity, school cafeteria fare, building fitness into school curricula and other steps Tuolumne County schools can take to make students healthier, fitter and, thus, better learners. The summit typically attracts scores of teachers, administrators, health professionals and other experts.

But it doesn't take a post-graduate degree to realize that the Fitness Challenge has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of its many participants. Extending it to our schools is a natural and commendable next step.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.