Girls on the Run: You Go, Girls!

Nov 17, 2011, 7:00 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

GOTR1 Girls on the Run 5k race in Washington, D.C.

What does a pair of running shoes have to do with healthy self-esteem and behavior change? Just ask Girls on the Run.

Girls on the Run is a national program for girls ages 8 to 13 that couples running and life lessons to help build self esteem and a healthy future for thousands of girls. The Washington, D.C. area chapters show off the program’s diversity with participating schools ranging from private academies with sky-high tuition to D.C. public school students whose families struggle to make ends meet.

The program’s 12 sessions combine training for a 5k run with curriculum-based lessons on topics such as bullying, healthy eating, body image and alcohol and tobacco use.

GOTR2 Girls on the Run Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy team, "Standing Up For Myself" lesson

The program concentrates on the 8 to 13 age group because studies show that girls between those ages are still receptive to adult influence, while beginning to feel peer pressure, says D.C. chapter head Elizabeth Hammond-Chambers. “Learning to value physical activity early in life increases the likelihood of participants staying physically healthy into adulthood,” says Hammond-Chambers.

National participation in the program is growing at about 20 percent a year, and while girls are proud of their physical feats, their emotional growth is just as significant. Hammond-Chambers says the girls have written testimonials saying they feel proud and able to stand up for themselves. “I love to watch the same look of pride on each girl’s face as they cross the finish line at our annual race.”

Non-competitiveness may be the ticket. Walking the 5K is as valued as running, and everyone gets a medal at the end. During training session girls are encouraged to cheer each other on. And they do. The point isn’t winning, it’s “moving with purpose” says Hammond-Chambers.

Although all chapters are modeled on the same national program, the D.C. chapter has some lofty neighbors cheerleading for the program. A special guest at the end of program run last year was Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The upcoming 5k run in Washington, D.C. takes place December 4, 2011. Find an event near you here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.