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Healthy Balance

Zumba at the Go Girls Support Group: Fun Exercise Gets Teens Moving

It’s been 13 years, but the words “gym class” still strike fear in my heart.Zumba and other dancing makes exercise fun for teens

I hated gym class. I couldn’t do a pull-up or throw a Frisbee. I stood way, way back in the outfield and prayed nobody could hit the ball that far. I faked being sick to get out of volleyball. I counted down the days until I was no longer required to take gym.

I’d been out of high school and sedentary for several years before I realized my lack of coordination and talent didn’t mean I had to be out of shape. Even though nobody was going to beg me to play for their adult soccer league, I could still stay healthy and find support through activities like dance and running.

So I was thrilled to hear about a support group at UVA for adolescent girls who, like me, may not love team sports or school gym class but still need physical activity. The adolescent girls in the Go Girls Support Group meet for an hour every week, but not to just talk about exercise and health. They spend most of their meetings doing Zumba, an aerobic workout that combines many styles of dance and other forms of movement, often with friends and family members who come to support them.

Fun Exercise

Pediatric endocrine specialist and certified Zumba instructor Christine Burt Solorzano, MD, started the group because just telling her patients they needed exercise wasn’t enough. They all knew that, but they weren’t following her advice. And many of them, like me, associated exercise with gym class and team sports.

“There are studies that show if you take girls out of regular gym class and give them a fun alternative gym class where they don’t have to dress out, they don’t have to run the mile, they don’t have to do relays and things like that, that they actually start enjoying exercise more and exercising on their own,” Burt Solorzano says.

Why just girls? Because they get less activity and enjoy exercise less than any other demographic group, Burt Solorzano says. The girls in her group are already reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings; having teen boys there would make that almost impossible.

Investing in Health

Burt Solorzano began doing Zumba about a year and a half ago, when she realized she was telling her patients to find 30 minutes to exercise every day — “and when I looked at my own life, I wasn’t doing it either.”

She didn’t like running but enjoyed dancing. So she tried Zumba and loved it. “I thought, well, if I can do this every day, then I can show other girls that this is fun and do it with them.”

Around that time, UVA introduced its Hoos Well program, which rewards employees for doing health assessments and making lifestyle changes to become healthier.

Burt Solorzano used her reward money to buy Zumba instruction DVDs, which inspired her to begin a class at a local gym and become an instructor. In April, she joined forces with Susan Cluett, CPNP, the program director for the UVA Children’s Fitness Clinic. They launched Go Girls for patients ages 10 to 18 who have insulin resistance or are at risk for it and need to lose weight to get healthy.

Insulin resistance is a condition where the body doesn’t use insulin properly, and Burt Solorzano says a high fat or high calorie diet, lack of exercise and genetics can all contribute. Many Go Girls participants have other related conditions, such as:

The group includes 31 patients and their parents, grandmothers, aunts, neighbors and friends. “Making changes in your life involves having a support group, so if you’re able to bring people who are supportive with you, it can only help your efforts.”

The girls spend about 45 minutes of every meeting doing Zumba. Although Burt Solorzano uses mostly Latin music — otherwise it wouldn’t be Zumba — she also lets the girls pick some of the music. So far, they’ve danced Zumba to Enrique Iglesias’ “I Like It,” Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” among others. They plan to choreograph their own routines for a Pitbull song.

For the rest of the hour, the girls talk with guest speakers about topics such as:

  • Community exercise opportunities and safety
  • Increasing fruit and vegetable intake
  • Teen skin issues
  • Dressing for success
  • The biology of how weight affects girls
  • Building healthy friendships
  • Staying motivated

The girls open up more with each other than they do in one-on-one doctor visits, Burt Solorzano says. “When we talked about building good friendships, they had some pretty specific examples of times when it hadn’t gone so well. They talked about how the situation could have gone better and how to avoid similar negative relationships in the future,” she says. “They’ve started to make it their own group, which is fun, and they’re very accepting of each other.“

Weight Loss: Routine Equals Results

Eight of the girls are participating in a study to see if their health is improving, and two have finished the study. Both lost about 10 pounds and 2-3 inches in waist circumference, Burt Solorzano says. While their blood pressure wasn’t unhealthy to begin with, it went down.

“The best part of the program, the girls say, is the exercise gets them moving,” Burt Solorzano explains. “They really like moving and the dancing, and it’s helped them get into a daily routine.”

That daily routine, Burt Solorzano points out, is one of the most important things about exercising. Doing Zumba once a week in class may not make a huge difference on its own, but it inspires the girls to find other time to exercise.

“It’s all about carving time out for yourself, to make yourself healthy, to de-stress,” Burt Solorzano says, using her own life as an example. “I wake up earlier (to do Zumba), but I have more energy during the day and I sleep better at night. The thing I thought would be terrible isn’t.”

Want to Join?

If you know a girl age 10-18 who could benefit from Go Girls, the first step is to get a referral from a UVA pediatrician. To make an appointment:

Go Girls meets weekly on Thursdays from 5:30-6:30 pm at the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center therapeutic recreation gym. It restarts Jan. 10 after a short break for the holidays.

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