Saturdays Getting Stronger, in Body and Mind

I recently joined the Meeting House team after ten years as a teacher at a New York City high school, where I was also the girls cross country and track coach. Every season, a good number of girls would join the team with no running experience at all. In September, competing in a three-mile race seemed impossible to these girls, but over the course of the season, with dedication to their goal and the support of their teammates, they built up not only their physical strength and endurance, but also their belief in themselves.

For adolescent girls, this combination -- participating in activities that make them feel healthy and strong, having the support of a group of their peers, and overcoming a challenge -- is a recipe for increased self-confidence, and it’s how we’ve designed the Fitness and Friendship program. Through incorporating exercise, team-building activities, and health and wellness discussions, the program emphasizes the connection between healthy minds and healthy bodies and facilitates the growth and development of peer relationships while fostering independence.

One of our primary goals is to demystify what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. An inevitable part of being an adolescent girl is increased awareness of and concern with appearance, but unfortunately, girls of this age often aren’t quite sure how to break that down into making healthy decisions about nutrition, fitness, emotional health, and relationships. As adults, we know it all works together -- that when your mind and emotions are balanced, you make healthier decisions and take good care of yourself, which in turn emanates outward in your relationships -- but when you’re a teen or preteen girl, all of that can get lost in the mix.

So our focus is on the small decisions that lead to a healthy lifestyle, and on empowering the girls in the program to gain the knowledge and tools they need to choose wisely. We want the girls in our program to know that being healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need to run a marathon, have a gym membership, or follow specific diets to be healthy. This is particularly important given that recent research shows that teenage girls not only get less exercise than boys, but specifically that concerns about body image prevent them from participating.

Each Saturday session will have three components -- exercise, team-building activities, and discussion of a health-related topic. The exercise sessions will be lead by a personal trainer, but the routines she’ll be teaching are ones that the girls can practice on their own, in their bedroom or in the backyard, or at a neighborhood park with a friend. We’ll incorporate bootcamp-style moves, as well as yoga and stretching, all at a level that meets the needs of the participants. The team-building activities will promote the development of peer relationships, emphasizing skills like communication, teamwork, and respect. Finally, wellness discussions will cover a broad range of topics, with the goal of helping the girls develop familiarity with and a language for making healthy decisions. We’ll end each session by going to lunch together -- giving the girls an opportunity to strengthen their relationships in a fun and relaxed environment.

Hopefully the knowledge they gain and habits they develop in the program are ones they can take with them forever. We hope that they’ll learn that making good decisions is not hard, and that they all have within them the capacity to live a happy, healthy lifestyle. They’ll come away from the program having discovered their own strength, as young women who trust that they’re capable of taking risks, making tough decisions, and growing from each challenge.