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SALT LAKE CITY - Most women struggle with loving their bodies, so it's no surprise that the reason many women start exercising is to change what they don't love.
Instead of seeking activity because it is enjoyable, we women usually turn to sweating because we feel we can no longer live with the image we see in the mirror.
The irony is that the reward we seek when we start isn't the real gift we end up giving ourselves. The real miracle of exercise isn't how it changes our physical appearance; it's how it changes us on the inside.
The decision to try and change what we look like actually ends up changing who we are.
That's why I tried enticing my girls into sports when they were toddlers. My strategy was simple: if they grow up loving sports, they will never see exercise as a punishment for over-eating. Exercise enables us to live the life we want. We're fit enough that we can enjoy whatever it is that interests us.
A mother's desire for her daughter to embrace exercise for the freedom and confidence it instills is the basis for one of my favorite programs: Girls on the Run. It's a program that asks women to mentor girls through the sport of running.
The program provides a team-like atmosphere where girls learn the value of healthy choices and the impact of unhealthy ones. Girls receive t-shirts, water bottles and running shoes. They train together and, on Dec. 1 at Sugar House Park, they will accomplish their goal of running a 5K.
Seeing hundreds of young girls running with their adult mentors is a beautiful thing. I ran with some elementary students a few years ago and was moved by the women who volunteered and the girls who showed immense commitment and grit in reaching their goal. For some it was the first time they'd accomplished an athletic goal, and being part of that inspired middle-aged women like me.
I have a friend who is an assistant coach for the Girls on the Run program at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, and she says it better than I can, as she sees it firsthand every time she meets with the girls on her team.
"It's not just an after-school program, and it's not just about running a 5k," said Jen Gustavson. "It's an avenue for girls to be empowered to tackle body image, self-esteem and peer pressure issues head on. They accomplish something that seemed impossible just weeks before; the mental strength and confidence that comes through that stays with them."
Gustavson was a competitive runner and knows how transformative the sport can be.
"The impact running has had on my life is immeasurable," she said. "The things I accomplished as a high school and collegiate runner are all my own, and now it's my strength and my escape. It's amazing how much can be gained by lacing up some running shoes."
Gustavson and her fellow coaches are looking for women to help mentor these young women. The commitment is minimal, but the reward is massive. Women sign up for the Girls on the Run 5K, which is Dec. 1 at Sugar House Park, and runners become a "running buddy" for a girl in the program.
In addition to running on Dec. 1 with a budding runner, there is a practice run on Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. It's a chance to meet the girl you'd run with and maybe get to know a little more about why she's hoping to tackle 3.2 miles.
Gustavson said they're in need of more running buddies, especially for the girls at Glendale. Runners receive hot chocolate, a free scarf and the knowledge that you might help a young girl understand the joy of running is something she can hold onto through life's trials and victories.
And maybe more important than learning the value of exercise, that little girl might stand a little taller and feel a little more comfortable navigating those middle school halls holding onto the knowledge that a woman who wasn't related to her cared enough about her to show up and help her reach her goal.
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