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Fitness Programs Help Tween and Teen Girls Get Health Boost

By Farran Powell | October 11, 2012 5:01pm

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — On a recent day after school, a group of girls aged 11 and 14 pedaled a set of stationary bikes to the sound of the Black Eyed Peas' "Party All The Time" while their classmates flocked home to chat on Facebook or gathered at a local fast food joint.

"I'm not always in the mood for the class. I've got lots of homework to deal with but I go and it's a lot of fun. It's much better than P.E.," said Eva Wertimer, 14, of Washington Heights. "It's a hard workout and I feel really great afterwards."

The girls are part of an afterschool program called The Practice, a gym located in a Bennett Avenue basement apartment, which launched its first "Girl Power Boot Camp" this month to promote fitness for teen and tween girls in the neighborhood.

"Here in Washington Heights, there is some disparity of resources," said Leslie Short, The Practice instructor who trains the tweens at the one-hour weekly boot camp. "Obesity is definitely an issue for the area."

Like many parts of the city, northern Manhattan parents struggle to keep their kids active amid a limited number of fitness resources.

Most public school students are granted little or no time in the gym. A survey released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in June found that 20.5 percent of high school students  in New York City said they receive no physical education during an average week.

The nearest YMCA is in Harlem and the closest fitness franchise New York Sports Club is at 145th Street and Eighth Avenue. There are only two yoga studios north of 165th Street.

"For parents in New York City, it's harder to make sure their kids are active," Short said. "And with school budget cuts, P.E. is the first things to go."

Young people aged between six and 17 are advised to participate in at least one hour of physical activity every day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"You have to go to the Armory or up to Riverdale in the Bronx for the soccer programs." said Jane Bolster, Eva Wertimer's mom, who dropped Eva off at camp recently.

Fitness programs for young girls similar to the Washington Heights boot camp are not only intended to provide physical exercise, but to boost self-esteem and encourage healthy lifestyle choices.

Parents say it can be hard to promote healthy body image amid an overly-thin definition of beauty.

"There's a lot of mixed messages," Bolster said. "Sometimes media is more influential than a mom's encouragement."

Short starts her afterschool boot camp with partner yoga exercises to help the girls learn to stretch and introduce them to team building before hoping on to the spinner bikes for another sampling of physical exercise.

"When I was a kid, we had a garden and could ride around in the neighborhood. It's harder for them to play outside here," Short said who grew up in a suburb of Phoenix, Ariz. "I kind of want the kids to change their attitudes toward exercise and let them know physical fitness can be fun."

Girls on the Run, a national non-profit organization, is another program that operates in Upper Manhattan to target young girls aged between 8 and 13 for physical exercise.

"We have a number of teams in Harlem and have a a huge expansion in the Bronx because the need is so great," said Christy Policy who directs the New York City chapter for GOTR.

The program serves over 900 girls in New York City area with the help of volunteer coaches  - mainly women in their 20s, working as young professionals or school teachers.

Policy said one of the hardest parts of getting a kid to exercise is finding a space big enough for them to safely spread out.

Policy said GOTR works hard to partner with local schools, strained by city-wide education budget cuts, to provide students with a physical activity.   

"The shared space is a challenge," Policy said, "It's definitely a challenge and more so in New York City than any other area."

"The genesis behind the whole program is to give young girls their voice," Policy said.

Gathered in a semi-circle, Short asks the girls at The Practice's boot camp to shout out song suggestions to play during next week's session.

"Pink," one girls chimes. "Oh, oh, Alicia Keys," another said.

The girls preferred female pop singers over teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber for their work-out playlist.

But no matter what the music was, they said, they love the class most of all.

"I like the sweating part," said 11-year-old Meredith Ciccone as she dismounted from her stationary bike. "It was fun."