childhood, most young girls are outgoing, self-confident, curious adventurers
interested in exploring the world and all it has to offer. Happy with
themselves and their place in the world, they interact positively with their
families and friends.
All this drastically changes as girls
approach their teen years. Adolescence becomes a war zone girls must navigate
as they constantly dodge societal pressures to be thin, to fit in and to mold
themselves to the cultural ideal of beauty.
Navigating these hurdles can shake the
self-confidence of even the most assertive girls. For those less confident,
teenage pressures cause lasting damage. Some of the more serious consequences
include bulimia, anorexia, compulsive overeating, depression, early sexual activity,
teenage pregnancy, drug use, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.
How can fitness professionals help
preadolescent and adolescent girls during this turbulent time? You can help by
understanding their experience and leading them in sports or fitness programs.
By introducing girls to the love of physical activity and motivating them to
adhere to it on a consistent basis, you can tremendously impact their lives.
To assist you
in working with this group, this article will address what is happening
with today’s female teens, how sports and fitness can benefit them and what
types of programs will work best for them.
girls enter their teenage years, their worlds turn upside down. Mary Pipher,
PhD, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,
likens adolescence to the “Bermuda Triangle.” She explains, “Something dramatic
happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear
mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in
droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle. . .
. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and [less]
inclined to take risks. They . . . become more deferential, self-critical and
depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies.”
relatively happy or unconcerned with their bodies as children, become obsessed
with body image as teens. According to research conducted jointly by the
Melpomene Institute for Women’s Health Research and Shape magazine, the
more a teen becomes aware her figure is developing, the more she begins to
critique its every detail. In a survey of almost 3,800 females ages 11 to 17,
subjects were asked what they would change about themselves if they could. Here
were their top answers, published in the November 1995 issue of Shape :
11-year-olds: nothing, hair
stomach, height, butt and personality/attitude
legs, abs, gain muscle/lose fat/tone body, butt, hips and waist
these replies, 11-year-old girls are not primarily concerned with their bodies;
preoccupation with body image increases by age 14 and is in full bloom by age
groundbreaking 1991 study by the American Association of University Women also
illuminates girls’ dissatisfaction with themselves. While 60 percent of girls in elementary school
reported they were always “happy the way I am,” only 29 percent of high-school girls agreed.
Percentages for boys dropped less—from 67
elementary-school boys to 46
percent for high
Why do girls
as a group lose so much confidence? Pipher points to the developmental and
hormonal changes occurring within their bodies; societal pressures to be thin
and beautiful; and, especially for American girls, the expectation that they
distance themselves from their parents just when they might most need their
families’ support. Pipher adds that in the 1990s these pressures are even more
intense than in past decades, because divorced parents, chemical addictions,
casual sex and violence against women are more prevalent.
Physical Activity Can Help
good news is that preadolescent and adolescent girls’ participation in sports
or fitness can counteract these negative influences and help on physiological,
social, emotional and mental levels.
of the previously mentioned Melpomene/Shape research looked at 953
girls ages 11 to 17. The research (included in the Summer 1996 Melpomene
Journal) reported that girls who were “more physically active” (engaged in
some activity 6 or 7 days a week) were more likely to feel positive about their
appearance and weight and felt more competent. Their self-esteem was enhanced
through achievement and team affiliation.
Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls, a research review from the President’s Council on
Physical Fitness and Sports, concluded that exercise and sports participation
can be used as a therapeutic and preventive intervention for enhancing the
physical and mental health of adolescent females. Published in 1997, the
report also suggests that physical activity is an effective tool for reducing
stress and depression among this population.
echoed statistics compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation showing that 50
percent of girls who participate in some kind of sport experience higher levels
of self-esteem and less depression than those who don’t.
activity gives girls a different context [in which] to look at their bodies,”
explains Lynn Jaffee, program director of the Melpomene Institute. “Instead of
looking at their bodies and thinking, ‘I’m too fat,’ or ‘I’m getting breasts,’
they think about how fast or strong they are. Discovering their own physical
competence is tremendously valuable. It helps them take risks in other
situations,” she adds.
in school or community sports teams is one way for girls to reap the benefits
of physical activity. Working one-to-one with a sports mentor provides another
Mentor Program for Girls—conducted by SportsBridge: The Center for Girls and
Women in Sports in San Francisco, California—is an example of an effective
sports mentorship program. This program empowers “multicultural” girls ages 11
to 14 through sports participation, and pairs girls from low- to
moderate-income households with multicultural adult women. The girls and
mentors meet for two to five hours each week to play sports, work on homework and
volunteer on community service projects. Each girl works with her mentor to
determine how best to spend their time together, based on goals the girl
develops at the beginning of the mentorship. Once a month, everyone in the
program takes part in a special group activity, such as attending a women’s
college basketball game and meeting the players.
If you’d like
to start a similar program, SportsBridge executive director Ann Kletz
recommends beginning with a small pilot program, having clear-cut objectives
and designing your program based on input from the girls involved.
Need for Fitness
sports and fitness can boost girls’ self-esteem, girls who don’t care to play
sports need special fitness classes targeted to them.
In Canada, a
1991 initiative known as On the Move is devoted to increasing the participation
of young girls in recreational activities. This initiative—which is gaining
momentum in Canada—urges professionals to develop programs that attract teen
girls who avoid sports because they lack certain physical skills or
self-confidence, dislike competition or are self-conscious about their bodies.
MS, adjunct faculty member at Mankato State University in Mankato, Minnesota,
and creator of the Girls in Motion (G.I.M.) program for girls ages nine to 12,
adds, “Sports enrich the lives of and help build self-esteem for girls who are
good at them, but they also have as much potential to devastate deconditioned
girls who aren’t [good at them].”
As a fitness
professional, then, you can fill a niche by providing an effective alternative
for those girls who don’t feel comfortable participating in sports.
type of class meets the physical needs of preadolescent and adolescent girls
and helps build their self-esteem? Here are some successful class models:
in Motion. G.I.M. is
a noncompetitive, non-appearance-based physical activity program targeting
girls ages nine to 12. It uses an all-inclusive, mind-body-spirit approach to
help girls unload societal pressures about body image and encourage them to
find and follow their individual paths to their health and fitness potential.
Ceniceros, the program creator, designed it with help from her oldest daughter.
The 60- to
75-minute classes meet once a week and are divided into three parts:
Ceniceros leads a discussion
group on a health
education topic, such as nutrition, eating disorders or body image. For
example, in one class she might bring in fashion magazines and explain how
photographs of fashion models’ bodies are often altered using computer imaging.
The girls feel better about themselves once they realize that even models
aren’t as perfect as they look.
the girls participate in a noncompetitive
which changes each week. The goal is to give the class a broad view of physical
activity by introducing movement choices as varied as walking, yoga, step and
Ceniceros demonstrates stress
such as deep breathing and guided visualization, and teaches the girls how they
can practice these at home.
the order of these three program elements is crucial because the exercise
dissipates the emotion that comes up during the discussion group and prepares
the girls for the relaxation phase of the class.
cited some reasons her program has been successful:
conducts the classes at times and places convenient for the girls—right after
classes are over at their schools and on Saturdays at a local health club.
She brings in other community
experts to help throughout the eight-week session. For example, a public health
nurse might talk about hygiene, a guest instructor might teach a funk class or
a large-sized woman might share what it feels like to be heavy. “Using other
experts shows girls the community cares about them,” remarks Ceniceros.
gives parents a syllabus describing what the girls will be doing throughout
the program. “This educates parents and helps them initiate discussion about
health-related topics with their daughters,” she says.
charges a low rate to make the class accessible to girls of all income levels.
Dance. Taught at The
Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, MTV Dance is an hour-long
class for girls ages nine to 12. Judy Notte, MEd, an elementary-school teacher
and fitness professional who specializes in this population, focuses on
teaching participants very basic, adapted hip-hop skills. “I want the girls to
leave feeling good about movement, not saying, ‘I will never get that step.’”
Until now the class has been offered in four-week sessions on Fridays at 4:30 pm and on Saturdays at
noon, but Notte plans to offer eight-week sessions in the future.
Dance Jam. This once-a-week class showcases
a different style of exercise each week so the girls won’t get bored. Sample
activities include step, funk, high-low aerobics, circuit training and body
conditioning. “One way girls give input is by bringing their own music and
showing me moves they’ve learned from television or movies and want to
incorporate in class,” notes program instructor Mirabai Holland, MFA, an
international fitness consultant from Palisades Park, New Jersey, and creator
of the All WinnersTM Cooperative Fitness Play program
Clubs and Camps
way to reach girls is to offer special fitness clubs and camps, which can
foster a sense of safety and community.
Clubs. “As girls move into teen years, they are looking for a
more social environment and need a nurturing, safe, comfortable place to try
new activities,” says Notte. To meet this need, The Fitness Group is starting a
special “club” with programming for different age groups (8 to 10, 11 to 12,
and 13 and older). Opening this fall, the club will schedule classes similar to
MTV Dance (described above) during popular workout times for parents. It will
also offer membership cards, newsletters, and social events that focus on
learning a new activity, such as in-line skating. The club is tentatively
called Girls on the Move, but Notte will involve the girls in making the final
Fitness Camps. If you can’t offer a regularly
scheduled class for female teens or preteens, conducting a summer camp is
another option. Kristen Janikas, youth fitness director for Frog’s Athletic
Clubs in Encinitas and Solana Beach, California, facilitated a week-long day
camp for girls 12 to 15 last summer. The camp ran from 10:00 Am to 2:00 pm every day and
included three segments:
Blast, which offered supervised instruction on cardiovascular equipment
and Groovin’, which included activities like hip hop, self-defense instruction,
acting and—a camp favorite—creating music videos
and Body, which featured group discussions and exercise modalities such as
yoga. During the group discussions Janikas put slips of paper labeled with
different topics—like peer pressure, boys and homework—into a hat. Each of the
girls pulled out a topic, discussed it for a minute and then opened it up to
one-time workshops or classes can pique girls’ interest in health and fitness
so they explore activities on their own or want to participate in a program you
Classes. Holland and two other instructors offered a Fit Friday
class for 13- to 15-year-olds one Friday night. The instructors taught a dance
routine. After class, the girls ate healthy snacks and “vogued” (posed in dance
After-School Workshops. In addition to
offering events at your facility, you can also go into schools or community
centers. Notte teaches hour-long after-school workshops at local schools. She
targets nonathletic girls and focuses on exposing them to new activities they
can participate in successfully. Sample workshop topics include fitness
walking, hip hop, nutrition, circuit training, active living and the benefits
of exercise. She also shares her life story and her struggles with eating
disorders. Afterward she leads a discussion period, asking girls to write
questions and put them in a hat. She then pulls out questions and answers them.
In this way, personal questions remain anonymous and can be answered without
singling anyone out.
some girls enjoy the camaraderie of a fitness class, others feel shy, awkward
and uncomfortable exercising in front of their peers. The most effective method
of reaching these less confident girls is through personal training.
Kim Bundy, who
works with girls in Morgantown, West Virginia, and is the coproducer and
instructor of the “Extreme Teen Step Workout” videotape, trains many girls,
often in tandem with their mothers. She shows the girls how to incorporate
movement they love into their lifestyles, explains behavior modification
techniques and teaches them about body composition. “I have to explain that if
you weigh 123 pounds, this is not pure fat,” says Bundy. She believes
the mothers’ involvement helps the girls and their families adopt healthy
Hoosen of Personal Edge Training Company in Los Angeles, California,
specializes in working with teens, especially those in the entertainment
industry. She likes to go for hikes with new clients and talk to them to
determine their current activities and goals. When working with teenage girls,
she focuses on healthy eating and fun activities, and steers away from
promoting activity as a means of improving one’s looks.
Teens and Preteens
designing programming, what ages should you target? Girls in their teens (13 to
17) need programs, but so do those in the preteen years (9 to 12). Programs for
teens provide positive benefits that can counteract some of the negative
effects of adolescence. Just as important, however, are programs that help
nine- to 12-year-old girls learn to love physical activity before they
reach the dreaded Bermuda Triangle years.
oldest daughter was nine, Ceniceros overheard her and her friends fretting
about being fat. She soon found this concern was common among girls that age.
In conducting research on girls nine to 12 for her master’s degree, Ceniceros
discovered that even though many negative health behaviors don’t surface until
later, they lie under the surface as early as age nine. “That’s why it’s
important for fitness professionals to jump in there and provide preventive
programming for those nine to 12,” she explains.
thinks it’s a good idea to start working with girls in this age range.
have a better chance of having them as a captive audience then. If they haven’t
started being active by 15 or 16, many girls have the attitude that it’s too
late,” she says.
designing programs for nine- to 17-year-olds, you need to decide if you offer
classes exclusively for girls or make your programs coed.
professionals think mixing boys and girls is fine. These professionals either
plan classes that appeal to both genders or design class content that appeals
mostly to girls without excluding boys.
Janikas felt justified offering a one-time girls-only camp, she is less
comfortable consistently excluding boys. She thinks that if fitness
professionals do offer regular girls-only programming within their facilities,
they need to educate members about why girls benefit from classes of their own.
fitness professionals believe offering programs just for girls is
crucial. Ceniceros says, “A lot of times girls don’t move or talk as freely in
a coed group. Once they get to be preteens, they need a gender-specific class.”
Van Hoosen adds, “Once girls hit 14 or 15, they are drastically different from
boys. Many girls just aren’t as competitive at that age.”
designing classes, keep in mind the followingpoints:
You want to bring together girls of similar ages so they can relate well to one
another’s experiences. “Don’t make the age groups too broad, even if you think
that will attract more girls,” advises Ceniceros. “The difference between third
and sixth graders is immense.”
With a Variety of Activities. Ceniceros teaches a different
activity each week, so if girls don’t like something one week, they’ll still
come back the next. Notte suggests offering different choices within a girls’
club. “Some girls will enjoy the fitness class approach, while others will want
to learn how to do activities like rock climbing or throwing a softball,” she
Incorporate Stress-Relieving Activities.
Teens especially need activities that can help them focus and be still. Guided
visualization, imagery, meditation and stretching are good choices.
Structure Activities That Promote a Sense of Personal
Competence. Notte ensures that the steps in her classes aren’t too
difficult. Bundy says girls might not be as fit as you would imagine. “You
might think they could easily do x number of minutes of cardiovascular
conditioning, but they might be able to do only half that. You need to be
flexible when teaching and immediately change a movement if you see girls
struggling. A big thing in teaching this group is to make sure no one gets
embarrassed,” Bundy explains.
Focus on Fun, Particularly At First. “Don’t preach why exercise is
important,” says Notte. “Girls will be apprehensive and nervous, especially in
the beginning. If you create a bond with them and they like you, you will have
plenty of time to educate them later.”
owner of Ironsmith Body Inc. Sports Training Center in Austin, Texas,
specializes in training athletes in small groups. To hold girls’ interest, she
advises alternating between meaningful and fun activities.
Social Interaction and Acceptance of All Participants. “Girls have been welcome to drop
into classes, but we have found this does not happen,” explains Notte. “They
tend to sign up with friends, and I have found their attendance is more
consistent if they do come with their buddies.”
that with a new class, conducting “icebreaker” games is essential to prevent
girls from “keeping walls up.” The purpose of icebreakers is to ensure
“popular” and “unpopular” girls mingle and talk to each other. As classes
continue, you should closely watch the group’s interaction; periodically, you
may need to introduce additional icebreakers. Sample icebreakers include asking
girls to pair up with other girls they don’t know and find out their partners’
favorite movie stars, or telling participants to form groups with girls they
don’t know. “It’s better to positively deal with cliques rather than just
ignore them,” notes Janikas.
Elements to Boost Self-Esteem. In addition to increasing girls’
fitness levels, building self-esteem is one of the most important services your
fitness classes can provide. Here are some ideas for increasing self-esteem:
positive health behaviors rather than weight loss. Talk about goals like
building muscle and increasing endurance and flexibility. “Never talk about
which body parts girls hate most or which they want to slim down,” says
about how being healthy can help girls enjoy outdoor activities, such as
conducting discussions, act as a facilitator but don’t preach. Focus on getting
the girls to talk and tap into their own knowledge about themselves,
rather than telling them what you think is right and wrong.
the girls to be unique, notes Janice Ward, a certified NIA (Neuromuscular
Integrative Action) trainer and black-belt instructor in Fairfax, Virginia. “In
the beginning of my NIA classes, I tell [the students] there is nothing to get
right and no wrong way to move. I encourage them to come up with their own
styles of movement.”
their accomplishments and tell them they are beautiful inside, rather than
focusing on externals, like cute clothing, Ward suggests.
fitness professionals interviewed for this article suggest the following tips
for working with this group:
While many adult women enjoy being taught by a male instructor, preteen and
teenage girls are self-conscious about their bodies and usually feel more
comfortable with a woman.
to Girls on Their Level.
“To get a rapport going, you want to become like [the girls]. Use music they
like, and know what’s cool for their age. They should see you as a trusted
friend,” says Bundy.
adds, “With [girls in] this age group I am professional but try not to talk
down to them. I never tell them they are wrong or stupid.”
an Unintimidating Environment.
If possible, find a private space in which to conduct your classes. Notte also
recommends dressing in big, loose clothing and creating a supportive
environment that encourages acceptance of all participants.
“Make sure you
are careful with your language,” notes Bundy. “Girls at this age are very
sensitive. You might be teasing if you say, ‘Hey, Mary, that’s a big ol’ orange
T-shirt you’re wearing,’ but Mary might be hurt by this.”
a Good Listener. Girls
this age often need to talk about their feelings and experiences to an adult
who is not a parent. You can be an empathetic listener without crossing into
the counselor realm.
important to be compassionate and listen without judging. It’s not your job to
get the girls to talk, but you want to create a safe space if they do show
their emotions inside or outside class,” advises Ward.
makes a point of sharing how she feels about subjects like healthy eating. She
feels this opens the door for girls to talk if they so desire.
“Girls tend to
discuss things on a more individual basis. That’s why being available before
and after classes is important,” says Notte. “By the end of a four-week
session, I always have girls coming early to talk. That’s when they raise
Flexible, But Establish Some Simple Rules. “You want to be
sensitive to girls’ needs, but also provide them with boundaries,” recommends
Before Teaching a Class, Educate Yourself.
Janikas suggests reading child development books about preadolescents and
teens. Learning how to communicate well with these groups is especially
crucial. Scott believes you need to understand the unique anatomical
differences of girls in different age brackets. “You can’t just use a
paint-by-numbers approach,” she says.
Refer Girls to Other Health Professionals If Needed. If you suspect a young woman has
or is developing an eating disorder, immediately help her get counseling,
advises Notte. Because the subject of eating disorders is sensitive, Notte
recommends expressing your concerns to the child’s parent or guardian instead
of going directly to the girl.
Call for Action
has a chance to make a positive difference in the health and well-being of
young women. Developing programs to meet their needs will help us begin to lay
the foundation for a healthy, active lifestyle in adulthood,” Notte says.
As a fitness
professional, your special gifts can help you shed some much-needed light on
what can be a dark period in a young girl’s life. Through your expertise,
empathy and positive role modeling, you have a tremendous opportunity to
brighten the lives of coming generations of females.
Durrett is senior editor of IDEA Today. She has interviewed hundreds of fitness
professionals over the past 10 years.
by IDEA. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly
Building self-esteem is one
of the most important services your sports or fitness classes can provide.
Teens especially need activities
such as guided visualization, to help them focus
and be still.
Title IX: Has It Made a Difference?