Before trying a teen CrossFit class, 16-year-old Sara Jones of Denver never thought she’d have the guts—or athleticism—to compete in a mud run, or summit a 14,265-foot mountain.
Then in August, she climbed Mount Evans, just two months after participating in the Big Dog Brag mud obstacle race in Colorado Springs.
While organized sports are laudable for a variety of reasons, they aren’t a good fit for every child. Sara, for example, tried 11 different sports during childhood and adolescence. From soccer to basketball, and volleyball to dance squad, “you name it, I did it,” she says. Nothing clicked. Playing with a team was too intimidating for her. “I was terrified at the games,” Sara recalls. “I was scared of the other players; I was scared of getting hurt.”
Sara isn’t alone. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 7.9 million boys and girls participated in organized sports in 2015. With 15.1 million total students enrolled in grades nine to 12, that means nearly 49 percent of high school students don’t play an organized sport. So where do these kids—the ones tossing aside soccer balls, letterman jackets, and team dinners—find the physical challenges they need to maintain their health?
Importance of Exercise
Without an organized sport, many kids find it difficult to get the exercise they need. Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for youth ages six to 17. But only 27.1 percent of high school students meet this requirement, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which monitors physical inactivity in young adults.
In addition to well-known health risks such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, physical inactivity can also lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and low bone density. Physically active students tend to have better grades, better cognitive performance, and better behavior in the classroom, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While academic success and physical health are important, “mental health might be the biggest component,” says Michael Witten, clinical exercise physiologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Through its Lifestyle Medicine pediatric weight management program, Children’s Hospital Colorado offers free after-school fitness classes to youth ages six to 20 who are considered obese and referred by a doctor. For participants who don’t feel comfortable playing team sports, or simply don’t enjoy them, Witten’s fitness classes offer an alternative induction into aerobic conditioning.
“Many of the kids who come through our program are dealing with depression,” Witten notes. Being physically active—while working with a psychologist—has helped participants become more balanced.
Workouts Just for Youth
Before walking into Project Rise Fitness, Sara had struggled to keep her own anxiety in check. “I’ve had less anxiety attacks since I started CrossFit,” she says.
Sara discovered her gym through a friend who’d started taking CrossFit classes a year earlier, when Project Rise Fitness owner Caleb Sommer first launched after-school fitness classes for youth ages 10 to 17.
Several gym members had mentioned that their children were interested in trying CrossFit, and Sommer wanted to see what would happen if he built workouts around the unique needs of teenagers. The program was an instant hit.
While many local gyms—Colorado Athletic Club, Greenwood Athletic Club, and Life Time Fitness, for example—welcome teens into their adult group fitness classes, few gyms host classes specifically for teenagers.
The barrier to entry is low with CrossFit. “Most of our kids come in with zero experience, Sommer says. Many come in with zero confidence, too. “They don’t believe in themselves after they’ve failed at soccer, or whatever sport they tried,” Sommer says. “But you put a barbell in their hand, and they realize that they’re really strong.”
Compared to organized sports, the body weight, strength, and cardio workouts at Project Rise Fitness are “totally different,” Sara says. Sometimes they’re extremely challenging, “but it’s fun to workout with friends.” And that’s what keeps her coming back every week.
Building strength in a fun environment is what attracts many teenagers to Jazzercise, too. The organization’s signature 55-minute cardio dance classes incorporate dance, kickboxing, and Pilates elements set to current Top 40 hits. “Teens love coming to Jazzercise classes for the same reasons adults love coming to them, they’re fun, energetic, and there’s a strong sense of community at Jazzercise center locations,” says Allison Stabile, spokesperson for Jazzercise.
After attending the inaugural United State of Women Summit, Jazzercise founder and CEO Judi Sheppard Missett decided to reach out to young women in a big way. In 2017, all girls ages 16 to 21 attended classes at Jazzercise Center locations for free under the organization’s innovative GirlForce program.
“We’d only planned to do free classes for a year,” says Stabile. But the program was so popular—and so beneficial—that Jazzercise has continued offering steeply discounted $25 unlimited monthly memberships for its GirlForce members.
“Judi wanted to reach girls at a critical time in their lives,” explains Stabile. “When we adults workout, we feel more confident, and she wanted to pass that feeling on to the young women who come into our studios.”
For adolescents ages seven to 13, Zumba Kids is a high-energy precursor to dance fitness. Instructors like Becca Ulibarri hop around town, teaching Zumba at schools, recreation centers, and festivals. Ulibarri ends all of her Zumba Kids classes the same way, by asking participants to chant, “I am wonderfully made, and I’ll have a good day.”
It’s a powerful mantra that Sara has also internalized while working out at Project Rise Fitness—and one that can be helpful to all kids when dealing with the ever-increasing pressures of adolescence.
“I’m more confident in myself and my abilities now,” Sara says, “and I’m a happier person, too.”