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  picture of African American teen girl exercising on equipment at Teen Esteem Health and Fitness Program site

Photos 2004-05
Photos 2005-06


A "Girls-only" Gym Alternative

In 2002, health educators at the Trenton Central High School approached the Women’s Heart Foundation with a request to create a wellness environment for teen girls. In addition to the high rate of obesity at the school, teachers observed poor health choices being made with skipped meals and poor overall performance. Youth need accurate information and guidance to help them make conscious, well-informed choices regarding health habits. They also need substantial encouragement to actively seek health care services.

Health Science - Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death and disability among American women (American Heart Association, 2001). Many of the risk factors for CVD such as obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and poor nutrition have their origins in childhood and adolescence. The United States is the world leader in childhood and adolescent obesity with 37% of children and adolescents categorized as overweight or obese (Dwyer al, 2000). Childhood obesity contributes to adult obesity, one of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Obesity has been linked to problematic asthma, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, social discrimination, orthopedic problems, early maturation, hepatic steatosis, cholelithiasis, sleep apnea, obesity hypoventilation syndrome, and skin integrity problems. Studies indicate that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to overweight and obese children and adolescents (Trolano et al, 1995). Poor nutritional and physical activity behaviors among adults have been demonstrated to begin in childhood (Mechanic, 1979; Nicholson, 2000).

The relationship among CVD, diabetes, and hypertension is becoming clearer and is now recognized as an important factor in women's higher morbidity and mortality from CVD (American Heart Association, 2001). Research has shown that prevention of cardiovascular disease is successfully begun in childhood and adolescence (Meininger, Hayman, Coates, & Gallagher, 1998). The adolescent transition is seen as a critical period for the formation of health-promoting behaviors that can greatly influence adult lifestyles (Pittman & Hayman, 1997). Researchers have found manifestations of unhealthy behaviors such as decreased participation in physical activity programs, skipping meals, smoking to control weight, and lack of fruit and vegetable consumption in girls as young as preadolescents (Santucci & Dowdell, 1996). It is much easier to prevent the continuation of metabolic syndrome (early diabetes) into adulthood, addressing factors in adolescence, then to treat adults with manifestations of diabetes later in life.

Justification - Prior to the program introduction October 2004 students were not participating in gym class, accepting a failing grade rather than exercising in the co-ed gym environment. The school reported as high as 60 percent drop-out rate.

A New Beginning . Over one hundred and twenty 10th-grade students voluntarily signed up for the program and the girls are changing into their gym clothes and participating. They enjoy a customized work-out routine in a same-sex environment. Certified fitness trainers work collaboratively with the head teacher, who is also fitness-certified. There are dedicated nutrition days with hands-on food preparation in the Teen Esteem kitchen, led by a registered dietitian. There are standard curriculum days for health class and a field trip to the grocery store. The girls exercise while listening to their favorite music and having fun. They learn about the importance of taking care of themselves. A research team from the Rutgers University-Camden Department of Nursing is gathering data. Now in its second year, the Teen Esteem Health and Fitness Program© TM; is beginning to shine as a program that offers a gender-specific approach to teen girls' health and wellness. At the end of the first year (June 2005), girls showed improvement in their health choices. At the end of the second year (June 2006), LDL levels decreased by 2 points -- a statistically significant finding as an indicator for metabolic syndrome. The program has been extremely well received by the girls and the staff and, in fact, helps keep students connected. The Teen Esteem drop-out rate is zero.

Start-up costs for the Teen Esteem Health and Fitness Program were provided by the New Jersey Department of Health & Senior Services Office on Women's Health and by the New Jersey Department of Human Services. The Horizon Foundation of New Jersey and the state of New Jersey provided funding for the 2005-2006 school year. WHF would like to continue the program and offer it to other schools. Interested sponsors please contact bonnie@womensheart.org


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