A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

UK’s ‘Girls Can’ program goes virtual in effort to encourage young girls to lead healthy lifestyles


By Allison Perry
University of Kentucky

Launching last fall, the Girls Can program set out to achieve a simple goal: to empower young girls to become physically active. This free outreach program, part of the Active Women’s Health Initiative at the University of Kentucky Sports Medicine Research Institute (SMRI), encourages girls to be their healthiest selves by promoting physical activity, healthy eating and more.

Throughout the year, members of Girls Can had the opportunity to try out different sports and activities in person, hear from female UK athletes and alumni, and go watch women’s sports at UK to see their role models at work.

Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changed plans for everyone.

“Last year, we were so excited to get this program off the ground,” said Dee Dlugonski, assistant professor in the UK College of Health Sciences and faculty with the SMRI. “We enrolled over 150 girls last year, and we had three events before everything got shut down with COVID… so we took a step back and said, ‘OK, what can we do?’”

Girls Can participants during a live yoga event last year. Girls Can is free and open to Kentucky girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. (UK Now Photo taken prior to COVID-19)

Girls Can is now virtual, featuring themed programming for its participants. Dlugonski and UK HealthCare orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland – co-director of the AWHI – planned a virtual sports series for this year, where girls have already had the chance to learn about swimming, softball, and volleyball. Ireland, who played a variety of organized sports as a child, says the experiences helped her build confidence, which she hopes participating girls will gain as well.

“I was naturally competitive as a young girl, and fortunately my parents were very supportive of my becoming an athlete on several different teams,” Ireland said. “I think it made me better organized in being a good student and also for pursuing a career that’s more male-dominated – I knew I could do it because I did it on the athletic field.”

While Girls Can is open to girls in kindergarten through 8th grade, the team hopes that the girls will make physical activity a family affair. Research shows that children who participate in physical activity with a parent/guardian are more active than children who do not spend time being active with a parent or guardian.

“We’re saying ‘Girls Can Be Active,’ but so can moms, dads, aunts and uncles,” Ireland said. “We’re just trying to increase that enthusiasm for being active.”

“Whether we’re young or old or anywhere in between, being active is one of the best things we can do for our health,” Dlugonski said. “It’s good for our mental health. It’s good for sleep. It really helps with everything.”

Johanna Hoch, an assistant professor in athletic training and co-director of the AWHI, enrolled her daughter in Girls Can last year.

“Because of this program, she believes that girls can do anything,” Hoch said. “We’ve done so many cool things to stay active.”

With the schedules of team-based sports in flux due to COVID-19 – and with many young students and families already dealing with virtual schooling, Dlugonski says their goal was to find ways to make Girls Can both doable and fun in the virtual format.

“We didn’t want to overwhelm families and girls who are already going to school virtually,” Dlugonski said. “So we wanted to make sure whatever programming we were doing was helpful and added some value to them.”

For November’s Girls Can virtual programming, the team is focusing on a more acrobatic form of physical activity: hula hooping. The Active Women’s Health Initiative received a donation of hula hoops from AWHI advisory board member Kelly Cecil to give to Girls Can participants for free. His daughter, Skyler Cecil, a student at UK and a recreational hula hooper, recorded videos for the program to teach the girls how to hula hoop.

“We hope that by giving them something physical, it reminds the girls that we want them to be active and gives them something different to play with,” Dlugonski said.

As we transition into the colder months, Ireland says they hope to continue offering some equipment to the participants to help them and their families discover new ways to stay physically active inside, even with minimal equipment.

“What can we do inside? I think the main goals are getting this equipment to the girls and showing them what they can do to be in better health,” Ireland said. “Being active doesn’t have to be a big event where you go work out in a gym. You can do a lot of things at home, with your own body weight or equipment like hula hoops, bands, medicine balls, and more.”

As one piece of the Active Women’s Health Initiative, Girls Can also serves a larger research purpose for the all-female team leading this work. The AWHI began when Scott Lephart, dean of the UK College of Health Sciences, and Ireland discussed their shared interest in the prevention of injuries in female athletes.

“Dr. Lephart and I have always wanted to focus on injury prevention in female athletes,” Ireland said. “Two years ago, he approached me and suggested we start a women’s health initiative at the SMRI. Soon after, we partnered with two other College of Health Sciences faculty members to create the AWHI.”

“Under the leadership of Drs. Ireland, Dlugonski and Hoch, the Active Women’s Health Initiative and Girls Can are advancing the Sports Medicine Research Institute’s overarching mission of optimizing the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of injuries and performance,” Lephart said. “Their focus on advancing the lifelong well-being of girls through healthy lifestyles and safe physical activities will help us better understand the differences in sports injury rates between male and female athletes, and ultimately allow us to develop better injury prevention and recovery protocols for active girls and women.”

From a young age, girls tend to be less active than boys. When they do become active, their injury rate is higher. By encouraging girls to become active at a younger age, the team hopes to understand and find ways to reduce the definitive gender gap in musculoskeletal injuries.

“When girls are active, they are more likely than boys to see some injuries,” Dlugonski said. “Lack of activity and risk of injury is higher in girls. We need to understand that full spectrum.”

Girls Can is free and open to girls in kindergarten through 8th grade across Kentucky. To register, visit www.uky.edu. For more information on the AWHI, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Allison Perry writes for UK Now


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