Make ’em Sweat

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When it comes to the kinds of activities to provide for kids, after-school programs have been getting two loud and competing messages.

First: Focus on academic enrichment to help boost kids’ grades.

Second: Provide exercise to improve their physical and mental health.

It’s not impossible to do both, but it’s not easy. While many sports and recreation programs have found ways to add academic elements such as tutoring, it’s usually harder for programs that don’t focus on recreation to find a way to weave in regular physical activities.

Nevertheless, more and more youth programs are finding ways to do just that – driving teenage mothers to health clubs for workouts, giving elementary schoolers African dance instruction and guiding locked-up youth in yoga.

There’s good reason to try. The number of children considered obese in the United States has tripled in two decades, to nearly one in five kids, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. “We have an epidemic of childhood obesity,” Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said in 2003.

The problem isn’t just that kids can’t run a mile or climb a rope ladder. Health research links the onset of lifelong chronic disease to behavioral patterns set in childhood.

Factors such as fast food, sugary snacks and sodas are often cited by the media as culprits in the decline in youth fitness. In response, many youth programs have decreased their junk food offerings and increased the availability of healthy snacks. (See “Snack Attacks,” April 2004.)

But health experts also see trouble with the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of youth. Kids spend more time with TV and video games, while physical education and recess time have been cut back in many schools, because the schools are struggling to meet higher state and federal standards for academic achievement.

After-school programs also feel the pressure – often from funders – to focus on academics, such as homework and tutoring.

It shouldn’t seem so difficult to provide a remedy. Many doctors say kids need 30 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise a day. Yet in an age when adults sense that unstructured activity is risky for kids, old-fashioned child’s play – spontaneous running, jumping, chasing – is disappearing.

“Adults have taken on a greater role in what used to be kids’ discretionary time,” says Robert Halpern, author of “Physical (In)activity Among Low-Income Children and Youth,” a 2003 report for the After School Project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study found the youth obesity problem to be worst among low-income families. “It’s a combination of all kinds of variables,” says Halpern, a professor and the research chairman at the Erikson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development in Chicago. “Working parents’ schedules, a lack of knowledge of good nutrition, lack of access to grocery stores that sell healthy food and the fact that fast-food operators tend to purvey themselves in low-income areas.”

Even the National Automatic Merchandising Association, which represents the vending machine industry, is on the fitness train. It has partnered with America Scores, a New York City-based nonprofit that promotes soccer and poetry in after-school programs, on a youth fitness campaign focused on diet and exercise. (See

In response to the problem, corporations are signing on to sponsor some fitness efforts. Home Depot, for example, has joined forces with KaBOOM! – a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes playground building – to create or refurbish 1,000 play spaces in 1,000 days. The program, a partnership with local schools and community groups, kicked off in July.

Ironically, health clubs are trolling the youth market, targeting kids as young as 9 for exercise activities that many adults find captivating, such as spinning , ramping, powerballing and Pilates classes. The National Federation of Professional Trainers reports a 50 percent rise in the hiring of trainers for children.

But those trainers serve primarily kids whose families have the money to pay for the services.

That leaves youth programs to fill the gap for many kids, especially poor ones. In the Bronx, N.Y., for instance, a program sponsored by The After-School Corp. at a public elementary school began regularly conducting play activities such as basketball and Frisbee after the school’s gym teacher retired and no one replaced him.

That’s just one way youth programs that are not based on recreation are weaving physical activity into their routines. The challenges include finding space – a field or a gym, for instance – and instructors who are qualified to teach various activities and who are willing to work for free (or finding someone to foot the bill).

Following are examples of youth-serving programs that have injected physical activities into their routines. Some have found that the rewards of fitness reach beyond physical health.

Jim Myers is a freelance writer based in Washington.
Joe Enoch contributed to this report.

Stepping Stones
Houlton, Maine
(207) 532-6689

The Approach: Stepping Stones runs residential programs for runaway, homeless and at-risk young women ages 15 to 25 who are pregnant or parenting, and teaches them skills to raise their babies, if they choose to do so.

The staff has long recognized the benefits of exercise in combating depression and improving the health of young mothers. Many mothers arrive at Stepping Stones soon after giving birth, and staff members say those women are often depressed because of their circumstances and hormonal changes.

“The depression is something we look for from the beginning,” says Susan York, Stepping Stones’ systems and education analyst.

Doctors say that getting into an exercise routine after giving birth is important for women’s physical and mental health. It helps to get their bodies back in shape after the physical stress and changes of pregnancy. The very process of exercising provides stress relief, and the results help the women’s mental and emotional outlook.

Stepping Stones collaborates with a local franchise of Curves, the national chain of fitness salons for women, to offer its young women an organized exercise plan. Curves offers the service for free to anyone who agrees to attend Curves sessions three times a week during their stay at Stepping Stones.

Stepping Stones staff members drive the women to and from Curves, which is 15 minutes away.

Curves’ fitness workout is based on a circuit system of exercises that alternate work on exercise machines with aerobic movement exercises. A circuit of machine work and aerobics takes 30 minutes.

The Stepping Stones women have incentives to mark their fitness achievements: Curves marks the loss of each 10 pounds or other achievements with Curves T-shirts and gifts. After two months of attending sessions, each Stepping Stones woman writes an essay about what the program means to her, and gets another Curves T-shirt.

After four months in the exercise program, the women earn gift certificates to a nearby mall or a local restaurant.

Young women can stay at Stepping Stones for up to 18 months; the average stay is about four months, the agency says.

History: In 2003, a Stepping Stones staffer who was exercising at Curves recognized the broad benefits she got from exercise and asked the manager if memberships could be given to young women from the program. The Curves franchise agreed, says Julie Flewelling, Curves’ manager in Houlton.

Youth Served: Nine women have entered the Curves program so far. In the past fiscal year, Stepping Stones’ residential programs served 23 clients and their children.

Funding: An annual Curves membership is valued at $387, so the arrangement amounts to an in-kind contribution by Curves to Stepping Stones.

But the young mothers have trouble finding the time for exercise because of the many demands on their time during the day, including jobs, appointments with agencies, parenting and life skills classes and caring for their children. Stepping Stones believes it would help if the exercise equipment was on site, and has applied for a grant to buy equipment for the residence.

Indicators of Success: Those who attend Curves regularly report that the exercise program makes them feel good and that they consider it an important part of their day.

Flewelling says some of the girls from Stepping Stones have lost 10 pounds or more. “But the thing that means the most to me is the increased self-confidence,” she says. “You can see it very clearly.”

Recently, one young woman who enthusiastically participated in the Curves program and completed the Stepping Stones Transitional Living Program – meaning she was out her own – was given a scholarship by Curves for the balance of the year.

Elementary After-School Program
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
Chapel Hill, N.C.
(919) 967-8211, ext. 295

The Approach: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have woven regular fitness sessions into their after-school programs for elementary school children at three locations – two in schools and one at the Hargraves Community Center, run by the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department.

While the youth all do structured academic work, they also engage in regular enrichment components that involve cultural, recreational and artistic activities. The physical activities have names like Jazzercise, Music and Movement, Capoeria and Step Dancing.

Jazzercise is an exercise form that combines elements of jazz dance, resistance training, Pilates, yoga and kickboxing. Capoeria is an increasingly popular Afro-Brazilian dance style that was developed by slaves as a form of martial art. Step dancing is an African-American tradition that combines jazz and hip-hop moves with the precision of a military drill.

In a component called “Moving Toward Fitness and Teamwork,” children work in groups of six or seven to build human pyramids, run relay races and engage in other games that require them to work together.

“Fitness has been a concern district-wide and statewide, and it’s a reason why we have emphasized physical activity in the after-school program,” says Adam Eigenrauch, the school system’s coordinator of extended learning.

The programs use school gyms and stages for the exercises and audio equipment already available at the schools and community center.

Some instruction is conducted by teaches who are familiar with the disciplines, especially Jazzercise, Capoeria and Step Dancing, which is popular among African-American college fraternities. The instructor for “Moving Toward Fitness and Teamwork” was hired from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA.

Each of the enrichment components is carried out over a six-week block, through a two-hourlong session each week.

History: The after-school programs, including the enrichment components, are in their fourth year.

Youth Served: These three programs are free to participants. Last year, 217 of the 253 served (86 percent) were minority youth. Other elementary schools in the system have after-school programs but charge a fee.

Approximately 70 students in grades one through five attend the programs each day. Each enrichment class is designed to serve 10 to 15 children at a time. Youths are not required to take the components that entail physical activity.

Staff: The centers are operated primarily by classroom teachers and school support staff. Instructors from the communities are hired for components that require special expertise. One teacher who was a star track and field athlete in college ran a component called Track and Field for the youngsters.

Funding: The three after-school programs are funded by a four-year, $1.3 million 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC) grant. The school district covers some costs, including supplies and instructors. A six-week enrichment course typically costs the district around $300 in instructor fees and supply costs.

The grant runs out after the current school year, and the district is searching for new funding to continue the after-school program.

Indicators of Success: Students and parents are surveyed at the conclusion of programming and often give positive reports about the enrichment courses. “In general, we ensure that the enrichment activities are of high quality through observation of the activity itself and talking with the students who are participating,” says Eigenrauch. “It becomes evident very quickly what is working and what isn’t.”

Fit Nut
Children’s National Medical Center
Washington, D.C.
(202) 884-5780

The Approach: This fitness and nutrition mentoring program encourages 12- to 14-year-old girls from a low-income, African-American neighborhoods to incorporate exercise into their daily activities, to explore appealing food options within a balanced diet and to participate in activities to build fitness and self-esteem.

The mentors – most of whom are pre-med students at George Washington University – created a Fit Nut curriculum under the guidance of two doctors associated with the Children’s National Medical Center. The physicians – Dr. Terry Kind and Dr. Victoria Garriett – practice at local clinics operated by the Medical Center in an African-American neighborhood in Washington.

The Washington endeavor is one of three Fit Nut programs run by Project Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that focuses on the health of children in low-income families. Other Fit Nut programs are in Boston and in New York City’s Harlem.

In Washington, Fit Nut girls and their mentors meet twice a week at the Eastern Branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington. Ten to 15 girls usually attend. The program runs in three, eight-week segments that correspond with the fall, spring and summer terms of the school year.

Most participants are patients recommended by Kind and Garriett. “It is open to girls who aren’t overweight, who just want to participate,” Kind says. “But our first priority is girls who are overweight or at risk.”

The sessions open with a 45-minute discussion about health and hygiene, covering such topics as healthy food choices, body image and self-esteem, and the importance of exercise. The second half of the program involves physical activity, ranging from sit-ups and jumping jacks to learning or practicing dancing to music.

“The girls in this group definitely use dance as a way of having fun and exercising, without feeling like they’re being forced to exercise,” says Taby Ali, Washington site manager for Project Health.

History: Project Health has run programs in several states since 1996 and has operated in Washington since 2001. The Fit Nut model, using college undergraduates to teach pubescent girls the benefits of healthy lifestyles, has been in use for almost 10 years.

Youth Served: About 40 girls have participated in Washington’s Fit Nut. “Because of the location of our health centers, we service a population who is mainly on Medicaid or Medicare,” Kind says. “We want to reach out to young teens who may not have a place to play or be in this kind of [group] activity.

“Many of the girls return for each session, and we also encourage them to share what they’ve learned with their families.”
Staff: The mentors and physicians volunteer their time.

Funding: The annual budget is $5,000. Most expenses are for healthy snacks and program supplies, and for transporting mentors between the university and the Boy and Girls Club. The program is supported by grants from Project Health and the Children’s National Medical Center. The Boys & Girls Club provides free space.

Indicators of Success: Pre- and post-project evaluations include heart rate monitoring, jumping jacks and a quiz. “It is meant to be lighthearted,” Kind says, “but we want to make sure we’ve had some sort of impact. We’re not focusing on weight, per se, but overall fitness and improved choices made.”

Kind reports that the most recent quizzes found a 100 percent increase in the girls’ knowledge of nutrition by the end of their segment, while parents regularly report that the girls read labels at the grocery stores and ask for more low-fat foods.

San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department
Community Programs Division

San Francisco
(415) 753-7800

The Approach: Yoga for locked-up youth? Tumbling and dance classes, too?

That’s some of what the community programs division offers youth who are detained in two probation department facilities: the Youth Guidance Center (YGC), where youth are held while charges are pending, and Log Cabin Ranch, a long-term placement facility.

The physical activities are part of an array of life skills, visual arts, dance, music, drama, spiritual counseling and cultural expression programs provided for detained youth. They include Afro-Caribbean and Hip-Hop dance, rope-climbing, yoga and other types of exercise.

The program uses volunteer and paid instructors from nonprofits and for-profits. “San Francisco specializes in multiple partnerships between agencies,” says Julie Posadas Guzman, director of policy and program development for the Girls Justice Initiative of the United Way of the Bay Area.

“The goal is to give youth the opportunity to participate in pro-social, active and creative opportunities that decrease their levels of stress, tension, isolation and depression,” Guzman says.

For example, volunteers from Acrosports, a San Francisco nonprofit that teaches physical, performing and circus arts, offer classes in break dancing, tumbling and “creative movement” at the YGC.

Why would Acrosports go into a juvenile detention facility? “We’re looking for diversity in the people we serve,” says Executive Director Dorrie Huntington.

Another volunteer – a college senior who is a former client of the probation department – teaches a yoga class.

History: For almost 15 years, the probation department’s community programs division has coordinated its rehabilitative programs. In 1999, working with the United Way’s Girls Justice Initiative, the Youth Guidance Center became one of the nation’s first juvenile halls to create a gender-specific unit for girls that combined expressive arts programs with crisis counseling, case management, peer support groups, mentoring and other services.

Other partnerships have evolved over the years. A ropes course and a service learning program at Log Cabin Ranch is run by Vision Youthz, a nonprofit that serves troubled youth and was founded by medical students who were teaching health to youth at the YGC.

Youth Served: Each year, 1,800 youths (ages 12 to 18) are housed, at least temporarily, at the probation departments’ two facilities. The YGC holds about 120 youth at a time in units of 30 each. Log Cabin Ranch houses 30 boys.

Enhancement programs are offered twice a day in hourlong segments. The programs take place separately in each unit.

Staff: While community-based nonprofits and businesses provide volunteers and contractors to run the sessions, one to three probation department employees handle administrative tasks, says Liz Jackson-Simpson, director of the community programs division.

Funding: The community programs division, which also oversees home detention and provides job readiness and literacy programs, has a $4.9 million budget, of which $520,000 is spent on the recreational and cultural programming, Jackson-Simpson says.

The city and state fund the department, which also gets donations of money and services from outside companies and nonprofits. Acrosports, for example, provides its services to the department for free.

Indicators of Success: Probation department officials believe their rehabilitative, recreational and pro-social activities decrease stress, depression and feelings of isolation among youth. “We just see the overall stress levels decrease, and we attribute much of it to these programs,” Jackson-Simpson says.