Girls on the Run fosters health, confidence and friendship through exercise
It’s common to hear someone claim to do their best thinking during or directly after exercise, and there’s plenty of research that suggests moving helps people learn and remember.
Jamie Hughes sees that in the dozen or so third- to fifth-grade girls she coaches two afternoons a week for Girls on the Run of Butte County. Hughes and longtime friend and co-coach Jenny McCaig start each lesson at Hooker Oak Park with something practical, like how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. After forming a circle for a highly adorable warm-up stretch, the girls run laps while the lesson sinks in.
Claire Johnson, executive director of GOTR of Butte County, says that that’s the whole idea.
“When somebody’s learning while they’re moving, it’s something that stays with them a lot longer,” she said. “In all of our lessons, physical activity is woven into the curriculum. We give them scenarios: ‘What if there’s a kid in the back of the bus taking everybody’s lunch?’ They take a lap to think, then come back and give us an answer.”
The program was founded in 1996, starting with a pilot of just 13 girls in North Carolina. This year, it will serve its 1 millionth girl nationwide, as it’s become “more of a movement than an after-school program,” Johnson said. The intent has remained the same—to help girls understand and pursue the confidence that comes with accomplishment.
Ideally, that development starts at a young age. As Johnson explained, the self-esteem of young girls tends to peak around 9 or 10 years old, and then plummets.
Locally, GOTR started with 28 girls going to Notre Dame School and Sierra View Elementary School in the fall of 2010. Now, 300 girls from 25 different elementary and junior high schools are enrolled. Graduation from the course, which is offered each spring and fall, is capped by a 5K fun run. The GOTR 5K on Saturday (May 2) at Durham High School is open to the general public, and participants are encouraged to dress up; the more ribbons and sparkles, the better.
GOTR emphasizes lifestyle basics like healthy eating and physical activity as the foundation of social and emotional growth—developing self-esteem, choosing positive friendships, deflecting gossip and standing up for oneself in the face of peer pressure and bullying. It all aims to prepare girls for middle school and life beyond. (A closely related program for sixth- to eighth-grade girls, Heart and Sole, covers high school pitfalls such as unhealthy relationships, emotional eating and other eating disorders.)
It all starts with getting along with one another.
“They learn that they can be supportive of other girls,” Johnson said. “A big issue for girls right now is empowerment and self-confidence. They’re combating so much—including each other. It’s an age-old thing; girls and women don’t know how to lift each other up. Boys tend to stick together, whereas girls see each other as competition.”
That’s one reason that running is the exercise of choice—it doesn’t have to be competitive.
“Some girls are really turned off by competitive ball sports,” Johnson said. “With running, you’re really only competing against yourself. But in some ways, there’s a team [aspect], too. It’s independent, but you’re surrounded by a lot of support.”
Running is also inexpensive compared with most team sports, since all one needs is proper footwear before hitting the trail. But it’s the ideal activity for GOTR’s lessons, Johnson said, mostly because the perseverance necessary to push through discomfort and place one foot in front of the other “is such a metaphor for the lessons you learn in life.”
This spring season is special for Hughes and McCaig, who are coaching a team of students from Sherwood Montessori and Rosedale Elementary School—including both of their daughters.
“Jenny and I met at the age our daughters are now, and we see them coming together and forming a relationship,” Hughes said. “We’re able to teach them these tools we never had.”
Tools they could have used. Back when Hughes and McCaig were classmates at Chico Junior High School, Hughes was bullied by both boys and girls.
“I was skinny,” Hughes said. “Like, really, really skinny. Jenny, she would stand up for me. I wish I had been able to say something, to stand up for myself, but I didn’t. When I felt like saying something, I just couldn’t.
“I want my daughter and all girls to be able to say, ‘No—you don’t treat me that way.’”
To that end, Hughes wanted her daughter to participate in something that nourishes body and soul, not a purely academic or athletic activity, and she says her daughter’s confidence has grown since getting involved with GOTR.
“She had a couple problems with friends, before, and now her friends are the ones that she chooses,” Hughes said. “And we talk about it: ‘Remember that situation? I’m so glad you have the friends you choose, and you don’t feel stuck in that situation where they aren’t being nice to you.’ I see it in her confidence, her friendships and at home.
“And the lessons she learns, she’ll throw them right back at me if I’m not behaving. I love it.”