It’d be easy to believe that just about every girl is involved in some kind of physical activity, with all-girl teams crowding the playing fields every weekend and elite women athletes getting more attention than in years past.
Not so. Too often, girls give up on exercise as they head toward the tween years, notes Dr. Donna Lopiano, former director of the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Girls aged 11–17 surveyed for a 2006 Girl Scout Research Institute report, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living, doubt that they’ll ever be competent at sports like the “jock girls” are, and they often shy away from activities because they don’t think their bodies look good. Add in the growing numbers of girls who are already showing signs of obesity-related illnesses and health complications, and you understand why millions of girls don’t get the advantages—not to mention the sheer fun!—that comes from physical activity.
Getting active makes girls feel better because physical activity releases mood-elevating chemicals in the brain—and is a stress reliever. The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh, the Girl Scout Research Institute report notes. And studies link higher activity rates with lowered odds of substance and relationship abuse, teen pregnancy, and emotional and academic problems.
To get girls gung-ho about staying active, try this one-two plan with double benefits: Help her find an activity she likes, and then do it with her at least some of the time. “Combining physical activity with personal interaction works really well with girls,” says Lopiano, who founded GoGirlGo!, the WSF program aimed at getting inactive girls active.
Many parents find that something as simple as a regular walk together yields surprising benefits. A dad who goes with his 14-year-old daughter on a daily 20-minute dog-walking stroll finds that “we talk about nothing in particular and things just come up, like boys, drugs, grades, mean girls, teachers, problems, other family members (good or bad), successes, failures, goals, and dreams.”
Another dad finds when he and his eight-year-old girl take their regular after-school walks, his interest can unleash some great parent-daughter conversations: “I ask her the same three questions: What did you learn today? Did you have fun? What cool things happened? It’s almost a game for us, but it also gives us a window to talk, which opens up to other things.”
The kind of activity doesn’t matter much as long as a girl likes it, says Lopiano. Inactive girls often dislike highly organized, competitive sports, so consider starting with solo activities or very low-key classes. Have a conversation with her about all the possibilities: Yoga class? Dance videos in the living room? Saturday bike rides together? Then begin activities slowly, and offer lots of praise and encouragement, Lopiano advises. And before you know it, you’ll both bloom from the benefits of bonding through exercise.
Double the fun! Boosting mom-daughter health
A girl learns much from what she sees. If she sees her parents abandoning exercise (or treating it as a grim chore) and relying on unhealthy drive-through dinners as part of a hectic lifestyle, chances are she’ll adopt similar attitudes and behaviors. But what if instead she and her parent took a step toward better health—together?
That’s a key component of the Steps to Healthier Girls program used by many Girl Scout troops, with nearly 2,000 Girl Scouts participating since 2005. Girl Scouts USA, in partnership with the US Office on Women’s Health, sought engaging ways to get girls eating better, exercising more, and avoiding cigarettes. Girl Scout volunteers discovered that “bringing moms and daughters together for activities was much more effective and beneficial,” says Carmel Quinn, director of teen programs for the Girl Scout Council of Vermont.
The success of the Vermont Steps program is based on simple tactics that could be adopted by any group hoping to get inactive girls active. The girls and their moms walked—and talked—together, cooked healthy meals side-by-side, and chatted about smoking risks. This simple process strengthened emotional connections and transformed health practices at home, which ensures better health outcomes for all family members.
Vermont troop leaders recruited girls and moms in an underserved rural area where inactivity was common. Dubbing the program “It’s a Girl Thing,” they invited the girl-mom duos to begin a walking program with the eventual goal of covering the equivalent of a marathon, 26.2 miles. Many participants were skeptical they could accomplish even the first step—circling a quarter-mile track—but their tune quickly changed.
“We gave girls and moms questions to ask each other while they walked, such as ‘What makes you feel most powerful?’ or ‘Tell me about your best friend’ or ‘What makes you most like your mom?’” Quinn says. “Everybody was chatting away, and when we told them how far they had walked, they were blown away!” It’s important that both mom and daughter ask and respond to questions. “The daughters loved hearing things they’d never asked their moms, and the moms loved talking about it,” she says. “Plus, the discussion helped them articulate values and goals.”
Girls and moms were also motivated by donated pedometers that helped them track how far they walked during their meetings and in their daily life. A local running group offered encouragement, advice, and medals for milestones such as reaching another five miles. Nearly everyone in the group either ran the cumulative 26.2 miles or ran the local marathon. Quinn still gets calls from moms proud of the miles they continue to log at work and home.
Moms and girls found the healthy eating lessons enticing as well, enthusing about the “taste tests” of fruits and vegetables new to them. They learned new ways to use produce to make everything from smoothies to dips to facial masks. Forming partnerships with the local agriculture extension service, the schools, and a food security organization, the troop launched a special mom-daughter healthy eating curriculum. Mothers and daughters gathered for cooking classes at a school kitchen and bought healthy foods at the supermarket with donated gift cards. Innovative nutrition lessons, such as measuring out the sugar contained in a can of soda, inspired girls and moms alike to change unhealthy habits. One mom went cold turkey on Mountain Dew and found that kicking the habit resulted in the weight loss recommended by her doctor.
Yoga instruction, stress-relieving tactics, and mom-daughter chats on the risks of smoking helped class members adopt small changes to boost physical and mental health. The group celebrated their victories at a hike at a nearby state park, which again got girls and moms paired up to talk about important issues.
The program paid off not only in better health practices, but in increased confidence in the girls and moms, Quinn observed. Several girls joined a leadership development program and some became coaches in a camp for younger girls. “This kind of program can be powerful because it builds in concentrated time for girls with their moms and increases a mom’s influence on her girl,” says Quinn. “And the mothers proved they could improve their lives and be good role models for their daughters.”
- Try games like Red Rover or sack races with younger girls.
- Give lots of things a try before deciding. Rent or buy used equipment for a trial run. Start a bracelet with different charms for new activities.
- Buddy her up with some pals; you could invite other parents, too!
- Keep a log or use a pedometer—totaling things up can cement a feeling of accomplishment.
- Take advantage of the seasons—ice-skating, anyone? Swimming?
- GoGirlGo! offers advice on finding a fun activity; a searchable database for local girl friendly activities; free curriculum to start a GoGirlGo! Group; and guidance about grants for programs that get inactive girls active again.
- The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, by Joe Kelly: Find ideas for games and adventures that build dads-daughters bonds.
- Real Fitness: 101 Games and Activities to Get Girls Going! (American Girl): A trove of tips to get younger girls, their friends, and their families moving to the beat of fun.