Researchers help Girl Scouts find new ways to be physically active

Contacts: Will Sansom, UT Health Science Center, (210) 567-2579
Stephanie Finleon, Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, (210) 232-1715

SAN ANTONIO (March 9, 2011) — For girls growing up on the city’s West Side, exercise may not be as simple as a walk in the park. They encounter stray dogs and face traffic without sidewalks. Public resources like basketball courts are often in use by boys, leaving girls reluctant to seek a turn. And parents, fearing crime or unwanted attention, can be uneasy about letting girls roam unsupervised.

That’s why researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio are testing a new program to increase girls’ opportunities to become more physically active.

The program, “Be Fit with Friends,” gives girls many options – from basic fitness equipment like jump ropes to volunteer opportunities to online social media, fitness video games and text messaging – to help overcome barriers to physical activity. Thirty Girl Scouts from West Side troops began trying out the program in February, and researchers hope to include more this fall.

“We want to build a sustainable program that takes advantage of tools and resources that already exist to help girls add physical activity to their lives,” said Deborah Parra-Medina, M.P.H., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) at the UT Health Science Center. “We think this can open up girls’ and parents’ minds to engaging in physical activity on an ongoing basis.”

Fitness by any means

“Be Fit with Friends,” a partnership between the IHPR and Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, reaches out to girls in several ways:

  • During troop meetings, Girls Scouts will learn physical activity basics, such as the difference between moderate and vigorous exercise or the importance of warming up.
  • Also at meetings, Girl Scouts will try several “mobile PA (physical activity) units.” One holds playground toys like jump ropes. Another has yoga equipment. Others have videogames for Nintendo Wii or Kinect for Xbox 360 that simulate sports and dancing.
  • To connect girls to community resources, weekend activities are planned. Girls will walk the Apache Park Greenway, golf at the First Tee of San Antonio and volunteer at the San Antonio Food Bank’s Spurs Community Garden.
  • Each girl will receive two pedometers – step-counting devices – for herself and a parent.
  • On their cell phones, girls will receive motivational text messages, vote on favorite activities and more. There’s also a Facebook group where girls can post photos, see an events calendar, watch instructional videos on YouTube and interact with each other.

“This multi-year study is an example of how agencies can come together and effect change for the betterment of communities,” said Anna Maria Chávez, CEO for Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas. “Girl Scouts recognizes that physical health, emotional health and self-esteem are all connected, so this initiative supports the ‘whole girl.’”

The Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio created the infrastructure for the text-messaging portion of “Be Fit with Friends.” UTSA’s Department of Health & Kinesiology also provided assistance for the program.

A program by girls, for girls

West Side girls were key to creating “Be Fit with Friends.” A year ago, a different group of Girl Scouts used cameras to document obstacles to physical activity in their neighborhoods. “We got good feedback from the girls,” said Laura Esparza, M.S., an IHPR project coordinator. “They expressed concerns about stray dogs, traffic and broken, uneven or missing sidewalks.”

Added Dr. Parra-Medina: “And strangers – particularly if they were male.”

As researchers considered how to use technology in “Be Fit with Friends,” they surveyed 102 girls. Older girls typically had their own cell phones, while younger girls shared with family members or did not have cell phone access. The most popular social-networking sites were Facebook and YouTube. And girls had videogame consoles at home but rarely used them.

Researchers also talked to parents, who were protective of daughters. “Some parents say, ‘The girls appear more mature than they are. They attract unwanted attention. They don’t have the skills to be able to manage different situations,’” Dr. Parra-Medina said. “So the parental response is to protect. They don’t want the girls out and about unsupervised.”

Parents were largely unaware of community programs for girls that were accessible and affordable. Meanwhile, agencies from the project’s Community Advisory Board said they had programs and could be flexible on cost, but they need participation to continue them.

The barriers identified through the photo project and information gleaned from the girls’ survey results helped spotlight opportunities for girls to get physical activity. Said Dr. Parra-Medina: “We believe the girls and our community overall helped us design our ‘Be Fit with Friends’ program in a way that will give local girls a whole new perspective: that they can indeed find fun ways to engage in physical activity and overcome potential barriers.”

Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas (GSSWT): In partnership with more than 8,000 adult volunteers, Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas serves 18,000 girls in its 21-county jurisdiction. Girl Scouting helps girls ages 5-17 develop the courage to experience new adventures, the confidence to defy self-doubt, and the character to impact a community. Volunteers are needed to help today’s girls make the world a better place. Change a Life. It’s forever. Volunteer. For more information, visit

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving U.S. federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $228 million in fiscal year 2010. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $744 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

The Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) investigates the causes and solutions to the unequal impact of cancer and chronic disease among Latinos in San Antonio, South Texas and the nation. The IHPR, founded in 2006, is based at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio with a satellite office in Harlingen, Texas. The IHPR uses evidence-guided research, training and community outreach to improve the health of those at a disadvantage due to race/ethnicity or social determinants, such as education or income. Visit the IHPR online at

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