Girls on the Run Shenandoah Valley is a non-profit after-school program geared towards girls in grades 3–8, whose mission it is to teach self-esteem, healthy choices, and healthy overall habits. But there’s a twist: amid the lessons, discussions, and group activities, the girls train for a 5K race.

“The training for the 5K instills a healthy lifestyle,” said Colleen Kradel, a board member of Girls on the Run, and owner of Be Well Counseling Services, LLC in Martinsburg. The program, she said, is “all about fun,” so it doesn’t require girls to be runners. Girls can skip or walk if they choose, but the physical activity aspect is a vital part of the endeavor.

“Running has been shown to increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter in our brain that improves mood and helps protect our brains from mental health disorders.”

Training for the 5K, and thus improving girls’ physical abilities, adds to the “empowerment through accomplishment model” at the heart of the program. Through this method, girls “learn about the many unique gifts they have to offer,” according to Kradel, and are lead through biweekly lessons that progress and build on one another.

“They first focus on their own individual strengths and what makes them unique,” she noted. “The lessons then go on to teach the girls about what it means to be a team and how to have healthy friendships. Then they progress to how the girl can influence and be a healthy member of her community.”

Kradel added that the program is designed this way for an important reason.

“Girls start to become socially aware around the age of eight—not just of the peers around them, but also of the media influence as well. This abundance of information can be confusing for a young girl still in the process of developing. So many conflicting influences and ideas can result in unhealthy beliefs or risk-taking behavior.”

But, Kradel indicated that intervening early in young girls’ lives can increase their resiliency to many risk factors they may face. Girls on the Run aims to be one of these early interventions—by teaching girls that “they have control over how they are reacting and interacting” as well as exposing them to positive messages about body image and self-worth to cancel out the negative.

“The program gives them tangible tools to pull from to help them navigate tough situations,” said Kradel. “Giving the girls access to these tools early allows the skills to be more entrenched than if the same tools and skills are taught at a later time.”

 So far, feedback from families has been positive. According to Kradel, parents say that Girls on the Run “starts many conversations at home about health, positive self-esteem, and relationships.” She has also noticed that girls end the program with a better enjoyment and appreciation of fitness—especially running.

“I love watching girls who doubted that they could cross the finish line finish with a smile celebrating with their team and coaches,” Kradel emphasized. “Watching them inspires me to push past my own doubts and fears.”

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