Boost the self-esteem of female teens and preteens through fitness and wellness programs.

Many women whom you train or teach struggle with body image issues, eating disorders and inactivity. While most try to change destructive behavior patterns as adults, this is often a very lengthy and painful process. The key is to prevent these behaviors from forming at all. One way to do that is to address self-esteem issues during the preteen (9-12) and teen (13-17) years.
As a fitness professional, you can play a significant role in improving girls’ self-esteem. Encouraging physical activity helps stop destructive behaviors from developing. Here’s a look at the types of fitness activities girls prefer, some ways you can incorporate self-esteem-building activities into your work and reasons why it’s important to focus on fitness andwellness.
What’s the Problem?
Simply, adolescent girls often lack self-esteem. According to one study, health educators working with teenage girls thought that while these girls were more independent than their baby boomer parents were as teens, today’s girls had less self-confidence and a weaker self-image (Vagisil 2000).
Another study found that boys were more likely to say “I am happy with the way I am” than girls of the same age (American Association of University Women 1991). For example, 46 percent of high school boys were happy with themselves, while only 29 percent of high school girls felt that way.
This lack of self-esteem can lead to depression among some girls. One survey found that adolescent girls were at higher risk than boys of suffering from depressive symptoms, and 29 percent of the girls reported having suicidal thoughts (Commonwealth Fund 1997). Interestingly, there seems to be a positive connection between physical activity and self-esteem. In one survey girls with low self-confidence were found to be less likely to exercise every day than girls with high self-confidence (Common­wealth Fund 1997).
So could it be that participating in fitness and sports can actually improve girls’ self-esteem? One report suggests this may be so. Commissioned by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the report found that exercise and sports participation can enhance mental health by offering adolescent girls positive feelings about body image; improved self-esteem; tangible experiences of competency and success; and increased self-confidence. Moreover, the report cited research indicating that physical activity is an effective tool for reducing symptoms of stress and depression among girls (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports 1997).
But the unfortunate reality is that many girls are turned off by traditional exercise programs and turned on by interests that don’t involve exercise. Your challenge is to motivate these girls to try—and continue with—a physical activity program so they can reap the physical and psychological benefits.
How You Can Help
You can help boost girls’ self-esteem by including specific self-esteem-building activities and providing wellness information—on topics like healthy eating and nutrition, smoking prevention and healthy body image—in your existing fitness classes or personal training programs. You can also conduct separate self-esteem or wellness workshops (either alone or with wellness and counseling professionals).
“The strength of our program is that we address exercise, smoking prevention, nutrition andbody image,” says Susan McDonald, executive director of GirlForce, an outreach program for adolescent girls ages nine through 16 that is based out of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “These issues work in [tandem] with each other. If you deal with one of these issues separately, your effectiveness is weakened.”
Here’s a look at some programs designed to positively influence girls’ self-esteem.
GirlForce Workshop
McDonald created GirlForce in conjunction with medical, nutrition, wellness and counseling professionals to help prevent negative body image from being ingrained in girls at a young age. McDonald and other women volunteers lead half-day GirlForce workshops for adolescent girls at their schools during the school day. Each workshop is divided into four main components: exercise, nutrition, body image and smoking prevention.
Half the girls (usually about 100 students) break into groups to participate in the three wellness sessions, while the other half take part in the exercise session. (To allay the girls’ worries about being sweaty in front of boys, the boys are sent on a field trip during the entire workshop.) Midway through the workshop, the groups switch activities. Each volunteer mentor is in charge of a group of five or six girls and participates in everything the group does.
Exercise Component. Each mentor takes her group through different circuit stations. The activities, taught by certified fitness instructors, include high-low impact, step, kickboxing, rope jumping, upper- and lower-body strength work, stability ball work and Forza samurai sword fighting using Nerf® swords. Generation X music is played at high volume, and the workout concludes with a cool-down, sometimes a yoga stretch.
Nutrition Component. Nutritionists, or volunteers using materials developed by GirlForce’s nutrition consultants, teach the girls about intuitive eating—that is, learning to recognize true hunger and to understand why they eat when they’re not physically hungry. The goal is to prevent girls from ignoring their internal hunger cues.
Body Image Component. A psychologist or social worker talks about the cultural origins of body image, the ways body images have changed over time, the media’s influence over these images and examples of healthy role models. Then the girls share their thoughts. “This issue has been taboo,” says McDonald. “Just talking about this is a huge step forward for them.”
Smoking Prevention Component. One segment of the smoking prevention component shows some of the girls’ photos “morphed” 20 years into the future to predict what the girls would look like as two-pack-a-day smokers. This activity gets the girls laughing and facilitates discussion about the negative health effects of smoking.
At the end of the program, everyone comes together and then each mentor talks to her group of girls about their experiences that day.
ElectriGirl Multiweek Workshop
Kristen DeLeo offers her ElectriGirl workshop to girls ages 11 to 13 at schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District in Los Angeles. This for-fee, afterschool program is taught once a week for six weeks. The 90-minute program addresses fitness, team building, communication skills and self-esteem. Here’s a typical six-week schedule.
Week One. DeLeo starts with introductions and icebreaker games, leads a girls’ empowerment game and talks about the program’s goals.
Week Two. This fitness day might in­clude a traditional group warm-up, hip-hopping across the floor, an attitude walk (“Imagine you’re strong, you’re tough and you mean business”), kickboxing, partner stretches and team-building exercises.
Week Three. DeLeo teaches the girls to have a critical eye when looking at popular magazines. Participants divide into groups, taking a pile of magazines with them, and tear out ads that promote negative body image. Then, group by group, the girls stand up, talk about why the ads made them mad and rip up the ads. Next they look for positive ads in Jump, Sports Illustrated for Women and Women’s Sports and Fitness. Lastly the girls make a “girl power” collage of the positive images.
Week Four. During this “spa day,” DeLeo talks to the girls about the importance of nurturing themselves. She leads basic yoga poses, experiments with aromatherapy and, as the girls relax, puts cucumber slices on their closed eyes and plays an affirmations tape.
Week Five. The girls make a video that addresses some of the issues important to them, such as how hurtful gossip can be.
Week Six. DeLeo leads a rap session. Before class, she puts slips of paper labeled with different topics, such as smoking, body image, academics and celebrities, in a bag. During class, each girl draws a slip of paper and talks about the topic for 30 seconds. This opens up conversation. Then the girls watch the video they made the week before and talk about what they’ve learned.
Newtown Girls Club
Girls ages 10 to 14 may join the Girls Club at the Newtown (Pennsylvania) Athletic and Aquatic Club. Daughters of club members may join the Girls Club at no charge; daughters of nonmembers may participate for $125 per nine- to 10-week session.
“We often do circuit type workouts one of two ways in the Girls Club fitness classes,” notes Laurie Alstrom, the club’s group fitness director. “In the first type we do the same activity together. A class might include a warm-up, kickboxing, exercising on the PowerBoard, multistepping and a cool-down with some light weights, vertical floor-work and stretching. In the second type of circuit, four or five girls at a time go to different stations and then rotate. Circuit stations might include bouncing on a stability ball and hitting a punching bag with gloves on.” Often before class starts—or during the cool-down—the instructor leads a discussion on a wellness topic.
Nia Classes
Marie Moreland, a Nia blue belt instructor who teaches in Corunna, Michigan, invites her adult Nia students to bring one female teen to class at no extra charge. Most students are women, and they bring daughters, nieces and neighborhood girls, who have come to love Nia. “I see wonderment on the faces of these girls as they sit in a circle of women [Nia often starts with a short discussion, with students in a circle], soaking up their comments about their bodies, their struggles with life situations and the support they share,” says Moreland. “Sometimes the girls begin a new activity by giving me a look that says, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ but once they see there is no judgment, they open up and blossom.”
Self-Esteem-Building Activities
Not sure how you can intentionally incorporate self-esteem-building activities into programs? Here are some suggestions you can use when training or teaching girls:
Prompt Girls to Make Up Their Own Moves. “Girls like creating their own steps,” says Alstrom. “It makes them feel grown up because they are doing something the role model [instructor] is usually in charge of.”
Get Girls to Talk. By giving girls a voice, you show them that what they say is valued. Lead a five-minute talk at the beginning of class or a longer talk during a work­shop. Talk about issues that are meaningful to the age group and/or important for a healthy lifestyle: body image, boys, popularity and dieting, for instance.
Make Girls Question What It Means to Be Female. DeLeo leads an exercise called “Sugar and Spice.” Divide participants into small groups and have them write down whatever comes to mind related to being a girl. Usually things like lipstick, miniskirts and boys come up. DeLeo then talks with the girls about expanding their view of what females are about, and ideas like intelligence and athletics are added. This activity shows girls they can be valued for many qualities—not just looks.
Let Teens Serve as Role Models. Vikki Van Hoosen is the girls’ sports programming specialist with the Girl Scouts Golden Valley Council based in Fresno, California. She often asks teenage girls to help younger girls in activities. “The older girls feel like they are contributing, which makes them act like leaders and helps their self-esteem.”
Teach Girls to Question the Media’s Authority. Debunking the myth that only models and actresses are worthy is hard to do. You might connect with the Go Girls!TM program for help in this area. Part of Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention (EDAP) Inc. in Seattle, Go Girls! helps high school girls serve as advocates for responsible advertising and positive body images of youth in the media and by major retailers. The girls strengthen their own self-esteem and body image while discovering they have power to effect change. “The girls might meet with a given advertiser or retailer either to ask for greater representation of size diversity or to commend the business for doing a good job,” says Holly Hoff, EDAP program director.
Positive Impact of Programs
Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of quantitative data showing that these programs actually increase girls’ self-esteem. But GirlForce is in the process of analyzing data from a year-long pilot study. The preliminary results? McDonald says, “Girls are crying out for support, mentoring and knowledge that will help them process the barrage of cultural messages that promote disordered eating, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, and self-esteem that is contingent upon appearance or the opinions of others.”
While quantitative data are lacking, there are plenty of qualitative data. One GirlForce participant wrote, “I enjoyed all the activities. They were fun and motivating. They all helped me feel better about myself and [helped] me build up self-esteem.”
Similarly, a 12-year-old ElectriGirl participant wrote, “I learned that . . . you shouldn’t feel bad that you don’t look like other people (magazines, stars and the popular kids). I am powerful and no matter what anyone says I am me and no one can change that. [And while] I’m not skinny, I’m beautiful on the inside in my own way.”
Tips for Creating a Program
When creating self-esteem programs, consider these suggestions:
Carefully Choose the Person in Charge. Female teachers will likely be most successful. Girls need strong, positive female role models. Instructors must be able to relate to teens and preteens and be “cool” and “on their level” without losing control of the class.
Ask for Help. Invite other fitness and wellness professionals, parents and teachers to assist you. Also keep in mind that you don’t have to create a program from scratch. Some organizations listed below in “Girls’ Resources” sell program templates.
Target Specific Age Groups. Whom do you want to reach with the resources you have? McDonald found that GirlForce worked best with fifth and sixth graders because girls that age could learn to avoid negative health behaviors before they started. Judy Notte Howard, MEd, a fitness professional who teaches for the Richmond School Board and is the owner of Fit Kids Productions in Vancouver, British Columbia, coordinated a two-day Planet Girl conference for girls ages 10 to 14. “Next time I would do grades five, six and seven [together] and then eight, nine and 10 together. A 10-year-old is very different from a 14-year-old,” she says.
Separate Cliques. DeLeo makes sure she has girls partner with girls they don’t know. “This helps make the group more cohesive and ensures that the ‘popular’ girls aren’t all together,” she explains.
Invite Girls to Serve as Your Advisory Board. Before Notte Howard conducted her Planet Girl conference, she took a group of girls out to eat and asked them what they wanted in a program. They told her they wouldn’t come to a weekend workshop that started before noon!
Bring in Role Models. Bring in powerful women speakers to serve as role models. Van Hoosen involves athletes from California State University at Fresno and female news anchors in her programs.
You Go, Girls!
Your support and guidance can help girls increase self-esteem and avoid problems like obesity, eating disorders, smoking and poor nutrition. There is a tremendous need for women to step in as healthy role models and lend a hand. How will you help the current generation of girls grow up healthy and active?
April Durrett is an award-winning health, fitness and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at
American Association of University Women. 1991. Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America. Washington, DC.
Commonwealth Fund. 1997. The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls. New York.
President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. 1997. Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Young Girls. Washington, DC.
Vagisil Women’s Health CenterSM. 2000. Teenage girls today more independent, yet lack self-esteem.; retrieved August 17.

Winning Workouts for Girls

Help girls “warm up” to physical activity with the following ideas:
• Conduct circuits. This way girls get to sample different activities. They won’t want to do the same activity for 45 minutes.
• Introduce girls to activities they wouldn’t usually do in physical education classes and offer workshops that focus on different sports or activities.
• Teach activities that have a purpose beyond working out. For example, girls tend to like indoor cycling (because it prepares them for outdoor bike riding) and kickboxing (because it’s empowering).
• Lead programs that allow girls to express themselves. Nia works well because it encourages participants to do their own variations on moves and to “free dance” during certain sections of class.
• Keep choreography simple with straightforward blocks of movements so that every participant can perform the moves successfully.
• Let girls pick their own music. They’ll tell you what’s cool and what’s not.

Girls’ Resources

• The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS)/On the Move compiles research on girls and activity and sells a sample program. Contact or (604) 738-2468.
• Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention (EDAP) Inc. sells the curriculum for the GoGirls! media awareness program. Contact or (206) 382-3587.
• GirlForce has a Web site in the works and is designing a program curriculum that will soon be for sale. Contact Susan McDonald at or (615) 343-4789.
• Melpomene Institute has created special resources for sports and fitness for girls. Find the institute at The site includes links to powerful sites for girls (e.g., and lists resources that help girls appreciate their uniqueness (e.g., Lift Your Voice by Marisa Egerstrom).
•  200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem: An Indispensable Guide for Parents, Teachers & Other Concerned Caregivers by Will Glennon gives practical ideas for increasing self-esteem.
• The Women’s Sports Foundation profiles sports that girls can explore and offers a quiz that girls and young women ages 13 to 20 can take to find the right sport for them. Contact www.womenssports or (800) 227-3988.

Author: Amy