To some teens, playing sports is a given. To others, it’s foreign territory. And sadly for some, exercising is not a part of their lives at all.
The East Atlanta-based FitTeens program is changing that.
The FitTeens staff goes into the schools ( Grady High School and for examples) and “recruits” kids the old-fashioned way: posters, setting up in the cafeteria during lunch, getting teachers on board, school announcements. They’re looking for those kids who don’t play sports and aren’t very active, the ones that could benefit from the six-week program that they execute.
The program begins with about 30 students (the average number of kids who commit and coincidentally, the program’s capacity right now) and for six weeks, they’ll meet after school four times a week for an hour.
The teens will do basic exercises like sit-ups and push-ups as well as workouts with kettlebells, weighted bars, cones, resistance bands and more. As for location, FitTeens will utilize any and all available school grounds from the football field to the hallways to the parking lots.
“We take some statistics like height and weight at the start of the program,” said Ben Thoele, president and director of The FitWit Foundation. Thoele, a certified strength and conditioning coach, is former college athlete.
“About a third of the teens are considered obese or morbidly obese. And more than half are at the BMI [Body Mass Index] measure of being overweight. Most have little or no athletic experience.”
But by the end of the program, the teens have lost weight and drastically improved their physical abilities and some have even gone on to play sports.
“We’ve had a couple kids go on to play basketball, a couple to run cross country and one even play tennis,” Thoele said.
FitTeens was started in 2008 and has been implemented in schools like Grady and Maynard Jackson year after year.
“We know it’s working because many kids do it again. We see kids comes in as sophomores and participate as juniors and seniors,” Thoele said.
As for other impressive statistics, Thoele said that they averaged an 82 percent attendance rate over the last six-week program at Grady. And for physical improvement, the rate was 39.8 percent. FitTeens strives for a 25 percent improvement rate. For example, if a teen can do 10 push-ups on the first day, he or she can do 12 or 13 at the last assessment.
“We watch them get to the point where they’re taking ownership for their own improvement,” Thoele said.
“When they’re saying, ‘I can do better than that; let me try.’”
FitTeens is not just about the physical exercise, though. The first of five main goals is actually personal development for the teens and instilling the values of goal setting. Then comes increasing physical abilities, then achieving mastery of core exercises so they could teach someone else, then having fun, and lastly, just making sure they show up every day.
There also is a nutrition component; throughout the program, two half-hour sessions are spent on nutrition discussions.
Faculty members in the school are also encouraged to join the program and serve as mentors, working out with the kids and keeping them motivated through their interactions during the school day.
In a letter to Michelle Woods, FitWit Foundation program director, a Grady High teacher wrote:
“…I have come to realize how working out (and suffering) elbow to elbow with others breaks down a lot of boundaries and creates a new level of community. So thank you. I hope FitWit continues to challenge and strengthen the good people of Grady. Your dedication is indeed making a difference…”
At the end of the program, awards are given: Overall Fitness, Staff Leadership (given to a faculty member) and the Spirit of Fitness given to the participant that showed up every day with a positive attitude and was most encouraging to others.
For the 2011 Grady program, 16-year-old Tyler Booker improved her fitness ability by 50.1 percent and won the Overall Fitness Award.
“I can’t believe I did that. It went by so fast, so I can’t believe I got better so quickly,” Booker said.
“I have never seen or tried most of the exercises we did! My family is so proud of me and asks me to show them exercises now.”
The most rewarding thing of all is apparent: creating life-changing experiences for many teens that were going down a scary path to an unhealthy life and may have never known what they were capable of.
The FitWit Foundation receives funding from grants and individuals, but most of its funding comes from FitWit. If you’d like to donate or are interested in volunteering, visit the website at fitwitfoundation.org.