Let’s play a game of pretend. What if you had to be a middle or high schooler today? Before you start screaming, “No! Never again!” think on it. Would you be the type who loves gym class and plays all the sports? Or, would you do everything possible to avoid making a sweaty appearance in your next class? If you answered “the second one” (and oh, me too!), then you’d be the ideal student for The FitWit Foundation, an Atlanta nonprofit that uses its after-school club to create communities of healthier, more confident kids. (Disclosure: WellATL’s publisher Josh Guerrieri is vice president of the FitWit Foundation.) WellATL chatted with The FitWit Foundation’s Executive and Program Director Megan Gilroy for this week’s Friday Five.
What makes The FitWit Foundation different from other organizations fighting childhood obesity and what does a typical afternoon at FitWit Club look like?
While decreasing obesity and improving fitness are important to us, our primary aim is to use fitness to help empower kids to believe in themselves and strive for success every day. Decreasing obesity is an added benefit of our program. We offer FitWit Club to both middle and high schools, which is not common. The Club is tailored for students who are not involved in sports and is designed to accommodate all fitness levels in a non-competitive environment. We give students a safe environment to try new things, learn to fail, experience success, and come to expect success. We also introduce kids to a variety of exercises and try to emphasize the community aspect of belonging to a club.
On a typical afternoon, students, advisors, and volunteers meet at the club advisor’s classroom and begin with a short teambuilder or game to get their blood flowing and laughter going. Then we warm up, do a workout, and cool down, all of this is led by the club advisors and co-advisors. After the cool down, students enjoy a healthy snack and journal around a theme that provides them with time for self-reflection and character building. We clap it up, give a cheer, and head home. Each session lasts an hour and takes place at least two times per week at each school.
These kids are actually signing up for extra physical activity! How do you manage to get kids to choose exercise over, oh, say, an Internet full of cat videos? Any motivation tips you’ve picked up that would be good for adults too?
Cat videos are entertaining, but incentives — such as FitWit Club apparel, fitness equipment, gift cards, and field trips, rewarded based on attendance — seem to get students going. After each workout, we really try to make the students check in with themselves to recognize how much better they feel. Although they won’t always admit it, they know it’s true.
We intentionally plan each club session to involve some type of interaction (partner workouts, teambuilding activity, etc.) and fun, allowing students to see that working out is enjoyable. Doing this not only creates motivation, but also community and accountability. Those things, along with a good playlist (and maybe an occasional cat video for kicks and giggles?), is important to any fitness program, whether for students or adults.
FitWit Club students learn about nutrition too. What are some healthy after-school snacks easy enough for anyone to make?
They all love smoothies, so we do those quite often. I also try to see what they regularly eat and how we can introduce them to healthy alternatives. For example, instead of chips, we introduce them to jicama; instead of sandwich bread, use a lettuce wrap. We provide healthy ingredients with a plan in mind, but I really encourage students to approach nutrition days and their creations with reckless abandon, giving them permission to taste every ingredient and every combination in order to discover what they like and are capable of creating. Perhaps this is why every dinner of mine is called, “surprise!”
When kids are with their friends, they are more likely to try something new (even if it’s healthy), than they may be with their parents at home. I once had a parent email me to ask how in the world we got her daughter to try zucchini, as she had been trying to convince her to try it for years!
We like a feel-good story more than the Hallmark Channel. What’s been your favorite moment working with the students?
Running my first 5K with our students continues to be a favorite moment for me. I had only been working with The FitWit Foundation for a month and had been running a program at Decatur High School for just a few weeks. I mentioned the possibility of running a 5K, which we had never done with a group of students before. I had six students commit to running together. They only knew it was a 5K; I never tell them that it’s actually 3.1 miles until it’s over. Despite the thunder and lightening that morning, all six showed up and we ran the race in the pouring rain. I don’t recall a single one of them complaining! Their spirits remained high as we pretended to be in Hawaii. Not only was this a test of fitness for them, but a test of character and I was very impressed by each of them. The coolest part of the race was seeing the bond created from the experience between the six of them, especially considering none of them were friends before the race. It was awesome.
We now incorporate at least one opportunity to participate in a 5K each semester. Two of the six students from that original race have run every single 5K we have offered (eight total), despite the fact we no longer have a program running. Keeping in touch with students like these, people who tell me that FitWit Club helped them to feel more confident in their ability to do another 5K, try out for cheerleading, apply to college, or face whatever thing they once thought was too challenging, that’s always the most rewarding part of my job.
We are excited for 2015, as we are taking a big leap in expanding FitWit Club into more schools. In 2015, we plan to run 10 FitWit Club programs. Our goal is to have 25 running by the 2018-2019 school year. This is ambitious, but I believe very doable. It requires volunteers and support in a variety of ways. A couple of ways to join us include:
- Start FitWit Club at your school. It’s a very easy process!
- Donate money.
- Tell your friends, schools, and community about The FitWit Foundation.
- Volunteer. (multiple opportunities)
All of these ways are also listed on our website as well as posted on our social media outlets and newsletters. Anyone with questions can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep up with The FitWit Foundation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.