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Running On

Improving physical, emotional and social lives

Girls are on the run. But what are they running from? Or to?

That’s what I wanted to know, so I asked Cheryl Stumpf, executive director of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Council (PA) of the national Girls on the Run organization and a counselor and outreach coordinator at the Susquehanna University Counseling Center.

Here’s what I learned.

Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina, (GOTR, 2014) by Molly Barker, a social worker, triathlete, and wonderer about the essence of “me” and its relationship to the essence of “you.” From a humble beginning focused on just 13 girls, the organization involved more than 160,000 girls and young women in 2014, spanning 210 cities across North America (Barker, 2014).

In short, the organization harnesses the power of peer relationships and positive role models to remake girls’ perceptions of themselves, build resiliency, influence decision-making and engage civically. Along the way, girls experience boosts in self-esteem and, well, simply have fun pursuing a sport that for many was an afterthought.

Simple. Brilliant.

Madeleine McArdle, a first-year student at Dartmouth College, also links running with positive outcomes, commenting, “Running is simple in its reward system. No matter what, the more you run, the farther and faster you can go. This clear truth allows running to boost confidence in one’s own ability to get better at something. In turn, that helps with self-confidence in other aspects of life, including social interactions and the ability to say no to things you don’t want to do.”

At play here, for children, teens and young adults, is figuring out what will define them. Indeed, the work of identity formation is at the heart of Erik Erikson’s groundbreaking thesis on youth development (Erikson, 2014) and is at the core of young people becoming.

Precisely who they are becoming is shaped by many forces both within and outside of the family structure. Chief among them are an enduring sense of self, relationships with others their age, and a connection to their communities.

Reflecting on youth with whom she has worked at Girls on the Run, Stumpf recalled the shy, overweight eight-year-old girl who self-selected out of the social scene while secretly worrying she’d follow the family path to obesity and diabetes. Running served her well … all the way to completion of her first 5K and the pride of self, family and peers.

For her part, Molly Barker speaks of the “girl box” in which society, perhaps inadvertently, constrains girls and young women, surrounding them with stereotypes that limit both choices and opportunity while creating risk. It is that exposure to risk that Stumpf addressed in saying, “In our search for empowerment we are, in some ways, actually disempowering ourselves. Keeping up with boys means doing what we think they want us to do, such as drinking more or having sex more often.”

Such trends were noted in a recent study by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) in which girls and young women were seen as having caught up to – or in some cases exceeded – boys and young men on rates of risk behavior such as underage drinking, other drug use and sexual behavior (Wallace, 2013).

Within that process, Stumpf argues, is pressure. And with pressure comes anxiety, even depression.

Not insignificantly, running also serves as a way to beat back some of those emotions, releasing endorphins capable of replacing feelings of stress and depression with ones of calmness and euphoria.

According the Mayo Clinic (Mayo, 2014), other benefits of exercise might include distraction from concerns, increased social interaction and better coping skills.

Good things one and all. Especially given a recent survey of stress by the American Psychological Association (APA), fielded in August 2013 and reported in February 2014 (APA, 2014), which revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, those of adults. This appears to be especially the case during the school year, when they report that stress levels far exceed what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale).

Worse are the associated feelings of being overwhelmed (31 percent), depressed or sad (30 percent) and fatigued or tired (36 percent). Additional concerns can be found in teen reports of lack of sleep, little exercise and skipping meals as a result of stress.

McArdle says, “Running is very helpful with stress relief because it gives me an hour away from people, work and my school in general, allowing for a completely refreshing change of scenery, even if only for a short time. It’s a great activity to pick up, given its mental and physical health benefits.”

While running may not be a panacea for all that ails our country’s youth, research-based curriculum, such as that guiding the work of Girls on the Run, can go a long way toward motivating those on the periphery of organized athletics to improve their physical, emotional and social lives. At the same time, it may draw their parents into a parallel process that could lead to better role modeling, according to Stumpf.

Girls everywhere, running on. To better things.

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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Barker, M. (2014). Wandering through nothingness. (19 Nov. 2014).

Erikson Institute. (2104). About Erik Erikson. (19 Nov. 2014).

Girls on the Run (GOTR). (2014). How girls on the run began. GOTR International. (19 Nov. 2014).

Mayo Clinic. (2014). Depression and anxiety: exercise eases symptoms. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.… (19 Nov. 2014).

Stress in America. (2014). American Psychological Association survey shows teen stress rivals that of adults. American Psychological Association (APA). (19 Nov. 2014).

Wallace, S. (2013). Flip: changing gender roles in youth risk behavior. May 3, 2013. Psychology Today. (19 Nov. 2014).

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