Girls on the Move in Michigan
Many middle school-aged girls spend a significant amount of time in front of a screen—whether a TV, computer, MP3 player, or cell phone. The increase in digital time has become an unhealthy trend that is contributing to weight gain and related health problems for this age group. Lorraine Robbins of MSU's College of Nursing is addressing this situation in her federally-funded intervention, "Girls on the Move."
Girls on the Move targets low-active 5th to 8th grade girls in large, diverse, urban schools, with the goal of seeing increased moderate to vigorous physical activity and a change in body mass index, body fat, and overall fitness.
The 17-week program includes two motivational counseling sessions with a nurse to assess the girls' needs and potential barriers to activity. Throughout the program, the girls also use an iPad to answer surveys and receive helpful suggestions tailored to meet their individual needs.
"This approach provides an excellent opportunity, not only for keeping them on track with physical activity but also for developing their reading, computer, and communication skills," said Robbins.
An important part of the intervention is an after-school physical activity club offered three days a week to keep the girls active and engaged. According to Robbins, one hour of moderate to vigorous activity a day is recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but many girls face barriers such as lack of transportation, limited finances, and personal negative perceptions about physical activity.
The after-school club addresses these barriers by providing a safe and supervised setting that is filled with fun activities and social engagement for the girls, while also helping to improve their fitness. Another important benefit is that the program transports the girls home afterward.
Changing Behaviors in the Middle School Years
Much of Robbins' professional career has focused on the health of children and teenagers—especially girls—in their middle school years. She is drawn to this age group because their behaviors are not yet completely established.
"They are young enough to be able to change their behaviors," said Robbins. "And they are also old enough to communicate with others and make some healthy decisions on their own."
Initially working with some local urban schools in 2009-2010, Robbins and her team found that approximately half of the students were overweight or obese. Marybeth Braddick, a nurse at the Lansing STEM Academy who had worked with Robbins on the program in the past, was very enthusiastic about it and noted the positive difference it made in girls' lives.
"The big difference I noticed was self-esteem," said Braddick. "Middle school is tough. If you don't have a social group, you really don't fit in. For many of these girls, this program became their social group."
The benefits of the program went way beyond the goal of increasing physical activity. "The girls learned to work together as a group," said Braddick. "Their body image improved, and many who had never participated in sports before were actually signing up to be in a sport." The benefits also continued when the girls went home: "Girls said that they were going home in a better mood, and many of them reported that they were better able to focus on their homework," she said.
Expanding in Michigan
From their initial work, Robbins and her team obviously saw positive trends, but needed a larger sample to work with. Now, with a $3.6 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they are expanding the Girls on the Move program over the next three years, to a total of 24 schools in Michigan, with 62 girls in each school.
Robbins is hoping that Girls on the Move will eventually be incorporated into regular after-school offerings, maybe in partnership with existing programs. "A lot will depend on school administrators—what they are interested in offering," said Robbins. "And on parents—what they feel is important for their children—and also on those responsible for other after-school programs—whether they are willing to integrate Girls on the Move into their offerings."
Robbins especially wants the program to have a lasting effect on the girls. "The goal is to help girls think about physical activity in a positive way so that they continue to be active throughout their lives, and not to just provide them with a one-time opportunity for 17 weeks," she said.
According to Braddick, the program is already achieving this objective: "I have girls who have moved on—past middle school—who are coming to me and asking if we still offer the program and telling me what a difference it has made in their lives."
Girls on the Move partners include MSU's College of Nursing, the Office of University Outreach and Engagement, and Dr. Karin Pfeiffer of MSU's Department of Kinesiology. External partners include the University of Michigan's Center for Health Communications Research, as well as many Michigan public school superintendents, principals, teachers, nurses, and other school staff who are interested in promoting the health of their students.