Fast food, inactivity, and unhealthy eating habits are the usual suspects in childhood health problems. However, a child’s health may also involve something intangible, like low self-esteem, a distorted perception of one’s body, or a sense of loneliness. Through a partnership with a local organization, graduate students in UT Knoxville’s sport psychology program are helping girls improve their physical and mental health through a program that pairs exercise sessions with coaching on topics like teamwork, nutrition, and identity.
Girls on the Run Knoxville is an independent council of Girls on the Run International, a nonprofit program for girls in the third through the eighth grades that aims to help girls develop lifelong habits that promote health and self-respect. Each spring and fall, the organization runs a ten-week program that meets after school twice per week. During the sessions, the girls exercise in preparation for a 5K running event held at the end of the program; at the same time, they learn about how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and develop habits that will help them establish good decision-making skills later on in life.
Girls on the Run Knoxville comprises two programs, stratified by age: Girls on the Run, aimed at elementary school–age girls, and Girls on Track, designed for middle school students. The exercises and lessons are tailored to the age group of the participants.
“The programs are run the same, but the material for the older girls is more focused on middle school-aged girls, and the topics of each lesson are more advanced than those for he girls in elementary school,” says Raellen Simpson, executive director of Girls on the Run Knoxville. “For instance, Girls on the Run might talk about peer pressure in magazines and on TV, whereas the middle school girls would talk about peer pressure on the Internet and Facebook.”
Girls on the Run Knoxville began in 2005, and UT became involved in the program several years ago, after a student who volunteered with the group told Dr. Leslee A. Fisher, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise, Sport, & Leisure Studies at UT, about it. Fisher was impressed with the program’s mission and curriculum.
“I think the girls are learning how to have fun while at the same time making physical activity a greater portion of their lives. I also think they learn valuable lessons through the curriculum about self-esteem, body image, bullying, gossip, healthy eating, hydrating, and other issues,” Fisher says.
After learning more about Girls on the Run, Fisher decided to pair graduate students in her sport psychology program with the organization. Currently, all students in her Health and Exercise Psychology class—part of UT’s sport psychology and motor behavior graduate curriculum—volunteer with the program, where they help coaches lead sessions (all coaches with the program are volunteers).
Last spring, thirty-one schools and 330 girls participated in Girls on the Run Knoxville, and Simpson notes that the program is always looking for more volunteers. The fall season starts the second week in September.
—by Meredith McGroarty, photography by Jack Parker