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Here's a question for you: If 33 percent of girls play team sports, what are the other 67 percent up to after school? As moms, sisters and, okay, editors of a magazine called FITNESS, we worry about the state of the average girl's BMI as much as we do her GPA. Back when most of us were kids, if balls, bats and sticks weren't your thing, it's likely your options were the arts or the library. Today, teens don't have to focus exclusively on mind or body. After school is a time to get both into a better place, and hopefully the trend will be one that sticks. Perhaps no group of girls shows that spirit more than those in this story.
"I begged my mom to bring me here," says 13-year-old Brianna Garofalo, one of 200 to 300 teens who work out at Underground Fitness, a gym exclusively for kids in Scarsdale, New York. Never mind that Brianna, a self-described tomboy who admits to being overweight before she started coming to Underground, has shed 10 pounds in three months. The real reason she's hooked on the health club, she says, can be summed up in four words: "It's so much fun!"
Fitness-industry experts are realizing that girls who are turned off by traditional athletics can still develop a love of exercise -- so long as it's presented as entertainment. While child- or teen-specific gyms like Underground Fitness are in the minority across the country, YMCAs and other fitness centers are attracting young members with classes and interactive cardio equipment geared toward making exercise feel like anything but work (think Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution). According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, 24 percent of its clubs offer children's exercise programs, and kids ages 6 to 17 are the second-fastest growing demographic of gym-goer, accounting for 4.1 million memberships in 2007. Even corporate America is getting into the game: Goody Products Inc., in concert with a launch of active-teen hair products, has a program pairing sponsored athletes with girls during 5K races.
Parents, too, are understanding the need to encourage fitness in kids, even if it's not the traditional after-school sports team. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 14 to 15 percent of 15-year-olds in the U.S. are overweight, putting them in a high-risk group for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Too many kids are spending their free time in front of a screen-video gaming, iChatting, IM-ing, you name it. Healthier options are in demand.
The benefits of fitness-related activities are undeniable: Studies show that participation helps girls get stronger, stay leaner, and focus better in school. Yet according to a new report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, adolescent girls drop out of organized team sports at higher rates than boys. (The study cites an increased emphasis on competitiveness as a deterrent.) Nor are these girls finding a fitness outlet in gym class: Only Massachusetts and Illinois now require PE for grades K-12. Without a mandate, motivation to sign up for gym as an elective class is low: Girls' enrollment drops from 70 percent in grade 9 to 32 percent in grade 12.
The sunnier news: A growing number of public and private schools are recognizing what clubs like Underground Fitness have seen -- that "fun" goes a long way toward reconnecting girls with a more active lifestyle. At the all-female Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California, for example, an old gymnasium was recently rebuilt to include cardio machines, a rock-climbing wall, and a yoga studio. "After school, the place is packed," says Zoe Kornberg, 18, who graduated in June. "Senior year, everyone is stressed about getting into college. Going home and doing homework in front of the TV just fries your brain more. Working out for an hour makes me more motivated to tackle whatever I'm going to do next."
Fitness innovations are also under way at Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California. The new PE program is the brainchild of instructor Ruth Mohr-Silofau, who took action after reviewing student fitness scores from her classes in 2004 and finding them "horrific." The lack of enthusiasm for familiar games like volleyball and softball was obvious. So she applied for a grant to teach a pilot program based on a health-club model of cardio, strength training, and running. "It took off like wildfire," she says. Sasha Malbrough, an 18-year-old senior, was one of the many students to get hooked. "When I was younger, I played soccer, but I got bored by middle school, dropped out, and gained weight," Sasha says. Upon joining Mohr-Silofau's program in ninth grade, she discovered running and biking. She's since competed in two 5K running races and two bike marathons -- and lost 60 pounds. "This program appeals to me more than the usual sports because success and failure are totally dependent on the effort I put into it," she says. "And that makes it fun."
There's that word again. According to the Tucker Center report, three studies between 1995 and 2005 found that "fun" was the most prevalent reason girls give for participating in a sport. If the type of activity a girl does is less important than that she enjoys it, then "the more outlets we give girls, the better," says study researcher Nicole LaVoi, PhD. "Traditional sports are largely about outperforming others," which may not appeal to girls. What they do like: activities that offer a social outlet or allow self-comparison. "Learning to master a new skill set, on their own, is very appealing to teenage girls," LaVoi says.
Yet the absence of "team spirit" -- especially in a fitness-club setting -- worries some experts. "When you're working out at a gym, everything is focused on you," points out Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, PhD, a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of The Cult of Thinness. "You are surrounded by mirrors magnifying your body." If the focus of fitness becomes solely about looking good instead of feeling good, Hesse-Biber says, it ceases to be healthy.
While girls like Brianna and Sasha hit the gym for the fun factor, there's no question that others simply want to squeeze into size 2 jeans. Karen Jashinsky, founder of the teen-only 02 Max fitness club in Santa Monica, California, admits that for many kids who come to her club, looking better in their Facebook photo is a big concern. For girls at risk for an eating disorder, this motivation -- combined with increased cardio outlets -- is worrisome.
Still, the general consensus is that for most girls, any form of exercise will do more to boost self-esteem than harm it. When you consider the relative impact of obesity (affecting 15 percent of girls) versus anorexia (affecting an estimated 1 percent), it's hard to argue. And watching a daughter's transformation from couch potato to fitness fan is reason enough for most moms to encourage her to continue. "My friends and I played softball as kids, but I haven't picked up a bat in decades," says Kathy Young, 44, one of three moms who founded Healthy Girls, a self-esteem and fitness program for elementary- and middle-schoolers in Portsmouth, Virginia. "The other women my age who didn't exercise as kids still don't work out. We're all late on the fitness learning curve. We want our daughters to be ahead of the game."
In fact, it's the moms to whom Marla Past, cofounder of Underground Fitness, wants to reach out these days. "My dream is to have mothers come in for separate, adult-only exercise and nutrition classes," she says. "It kills me to see how many overweight, overworked women stop by to drop off their children but do nothing for themselves." As for the kids -- all shapes, all sizes, but all grinning with enthusiasm on a damp afternoon when they could easily be Web surfing rather than Spinning -- they're all right.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2008.