Running for More Than Physical Fitness

Article excerpt

Byline: Tonyaa Weathersbee

YULEE - Some time ago, Louise Sweatt blazed a path to becoming a runner - and picked up a lot of other things along the way.

First, she gained a measure of confidence.

"I did the Turkey Trot at Amelia Island," the elderly woman told me over lunch last Saturday after she had run six miles through the swampy, piney-woods wilderness of White Oak Plantation in Yulee as part of Girls on the Run of Northeast Florida's annual Run Wild fundraiser.

"All the other old women were cooking (Thanksgiving) dinner, and I won a first place medal in my age group."

Secondly, the elementary school teacher has picked up a bit of status as a role model for the children at Southside Elementary School in Fernandina Beach.

"When they commit infractions in the lunchroom, the punishment is to make them walk laps," Sweatt said. "But I walk with them, and I tell them we can run on the last lap.

"When I run, they go, 'Look ... Mrs. Sweatt is running!'"

The qualities that running has enhanced in Sweatt - and the qualities that she's inspiring in her students is exactly what Girls on the Run strives to do for pre-adolescent girls.

The nonprofit uses running as a conduit not just to encourage fitness in girls ages 8 to 11, but to help them learn how to set goals and to build self-esteem.

It primarily does that by way of a 12-week after school program led by women coaches who guide and mentor girls as they train to walk or run a 5K.

This type of program is especially important nowadays, with childhood obesity having reached epidemic levels.

On top of that, most research shows that girls who don't begin to build healthy images of themselves during their adolescent years could wind up succumbing to depression, stress and eating disorders by buying into unhealthy, highly sexualized media portrayals of what women should look like. …