Dr. Chrissy Chard, left, spots Nia Pollard, 10, during Unite for Strength: A Women and Girls’ EmPOWERlifting Event.

What would happen, Dr. Chrissy Chard wondered, if women and girls cheered each other on? If they helped each other remember that how they look is among the least interesting things about having a body, and all the amazing things that body can do is the most interesting? If they linked arms and walked together through this world with joy and confidence and, yes, maybe just a bit of swagger?

Here’s what would happen, Chard learned: A 12-year-old named Sydney Underhill would dismiss the times kids at school bullied her about her weight, she would dismiss her doubts and fears, she would try something new and she would be good at it. Then, tuning out the audience watching her, she would squat with 90 pounds on a barbell across the back of her shoulders, the most she’d ever lifted.

And after re-racking the bar, she would beam – a smart, fit girl with everything in the world to be proud of.

Moments like these are the heart of Smart Fit Girls, the non-profit Chard began in 2014 with her friend Dr. Kellie Walters, whose vision is “a world where all adolescent girls believe in themselves and feel empowered to lead healthy, active lifestyles.”

Sydney Underhill, 12, warms up for the squat competition at Unite for Strength: A Women and Girls’ EmPOWERlifting Event.

“You can certainly make the case that we have a public health crisis around youth mental health,” explained Chard, an assistant professor in the Colorado School of Public Health at Colorado State University. “When girls feel good about themselves and have positive self-esteem, they’re less likely to suffer from depression and suicidal ideation.

“Our whole message is about the collective power of women. The standard story is that between women it’s meanness and it’s competition, so we’re aiming to see what happens when we change that narrative and support each other instead, and we do it starting with girls.”

Smart and fit

Chard and Walters, who is an assistant professor at California State University – Long Beach, began discussing their ideas about fitness and changing the paradigm for women when they were masters students in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at CSU, in which Chard is now a faculty member. T0gether they started a wellness coaching business for women called Smart Fit Chicks, but in working with their clients they began realizing that so many women have insecurities and body image issues stemming from youth.

What about Smart Fit GIRLS, they wondered? What if they could develop a research-based program to help girls develop confidence and strength and an understanding of what it means to be the best version of themselves? Walters’ doctoral research provided the foundation for Smart Fit Girls and the program has incrementally expanded from there.

Leanna Carr, left, chats with Sydney Underhill, 12, at Unite for Strength: A Women and Girls’ EmPOWERlifting Event.

A core element of the Smart Fit Girls program is helping girls get involved in weightlifting, Chard explained, which dovetails into lessons about positive body image, nutrition, healthy friendships and other issues that impact the lives of adolescent girls.

Focusing on middle school-age girls, Smart Fit Girls is offered in three ways: 10-week after school sessions, in which girls meet with volunteer coaches twice a week to lift weights and learn about other aspects of physical, mental and emotional health; a one-week intensive summer camp; and a PE alternative program that currently is being piloted in Jefferson County schools.

Smart Fit Girls also recently hosted Unite for Strength: A Women and Girls’ EmPOWERlifting Event, which included a Friday evening dinner with speakers and a Saturday powerlifting competition for women and girls. It was at the competition that Sydney, a 7th grader who lives in Denver, set her personal record by squatting 90 pounds. Her personal best before that had been 85 pounds.

“She’s incredible,” beamed Leanna Carr, the Smart Fit Girls program coordinator. “To see her so strong and so confident is such a gift. Working with our girls, our goal is really to improve mental, emotional and physical health. We teach the girls, eat in a way that nourishes your body, it’s the only one you’ve got. Move in a way that strengthens your body. We’re not coming into the gym to get smaller or to change things we think are wrong with our bodies, we’re learning to appreciate all the amazing things our bodies can do.”

For Sydney, that means not only weightlifting, but playing the ukulele (she loves it) and trying volleyball (it’s fun). As for lifting, “it makes me feel strong,” she explained. “It makes me remember that words don’t matter and that I’m strong and I can do it.”

This confidence, Chard said, is the motivation and heart of Smart Fit Girls – seeing Sydney and all the other girls participating in the program learn to love and respect themselves, and to be agents who spread that love and respect to their moms, their sisters, their friends and their communities.