San Antonio sisters Makayla Esparza, 9, and Alyssa Esparza, 8, led largely inactive lifestyles. They saw a weight-loss contest on TV and decided to get active and help others get active, but they didn’t know of any afterschool programs to join and they didn’t have anyone to be active with. This led to their big idea: invite all the kids from their neighborhood for a 90-day get fit challenge to improve.
With the help of their grandmother, Dawn Guerrero, Alyssa and Makayla posted an ad on Craigslist to invite kids to be active with them. They also invited members from the fitness community to show them ways to be fit. Soon kids from all over the neighborhood started showing up, and the group “Fitness FUNatics” was born.
Although their 90-day challenge is now over, the Fitness FUNatics still meet and continue to offer each other friendship and encouragement in their lifelong journey toward living an active lifestyle.
Awareness: After school, San Antonio residents Makayla and Alyssa Esparza would go home and routinely watch TV, sit in front of the computer, or play video games.
Their grandmother Dawn Guerrero, who they live with, would ask, “Why don’t you go out and play?”
Their response: “There are no kids outside to play with.”
Guerrero realized that her granddaughters were right. She didn’t see many children in her neighborhood and didn’t even know many neighbors.
And when friends did come over, the friends didn’t want any fruits or vegetables Guerrero would offer them — they only wanted junk food or fast food. And all they wanted to do was stay inside, eat, and play video games.
“They need to learn that a snack is a snack, and not a meal,” Guerrero said.
They also faced another challenge in that after school activities were too expensive, sometimes costing more than $100 a week and the kids were not getting the 60 minutes of daily physical activity that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for children.
One day Makayla and Alyssa were watching TV as usual and tuned in to The Biggest Loser, a show that features overweight/obese people competing for a prize by seeing who can lose the most weight.
“We were watching the show the Biggest Loser one night with our grandma and they happened to have three kids on the show that were having the same issues and struggles we are having,” Makayla said.
Makayla recalled the difficult time she had in crossing the monkey bars during a recent school fitness test and she wanted to change this.
The show taught the girls about the consequences of unhealthy, inactive lifestyles, and having seen teenagers on the latest episode inspired the girls to start exercising on a regular basis.
Learn: “Why can’t we start something like that?” Makayla and Alyssa asked their grandmother.
”We can start something like that. If you’re serious and committed, I will commit to you,” Guerrero told them. It wouldn’t take long for the girls to get busy. Within a few days of having watched the show which aired in December 2012, Guerrero helped her granddaughters start planning for a kids’ fitness group by using Google to search for ideas. She also started asking others for input.
Through her church pastor, Dawn Guerrero learned of Suzanne Parker, a registered dietician and personal trainer who was at the time the corporate health and wellness coach for H-E-B, a local grocery store chain that supports healthy initiatives.
Parker was excited to help the girls get started with their fitness program.
“There’s such a need for giving kids options,” said Parker, who now owns her own company, Nutrition Matters. “Getting fitness really initiated at a grass roots level [is a need].”
So she gave Guerrero materials needed to prepare age-appropriate workout sessions.
Parker also gave her an outline for creating a circuit workout that included physical activities such as jump rope, zig-zags around cones, step-up movements, and ball throws. All of these activities served to build strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility.
“Suzanne was a tremendous supporter of ours,” Guerrero said.
“I’m not an expert in nutrition or fitness, but I just know you can’t go wrong with eating fruits and vegetables and staying active,” Guerrero said.
Although the girls’ idea to create a kids’ fitness group came to them after watching The Biggest Loser, they recognized that the issue they really needed to focus on was living a healthy lifestyle, rather than just trying to lose weight.
“We don’t plan to weigh the kids or anything like that, but we do plan to see if by the end of the challenge they are able to run farther, jump faster, and just be all around more physically fit,” Makayla said.
They wanted all kids to participate, regardless of their shape or weight.
“A lot of times kids don’t have anyone telling them what to do and what to eat, “Guerrero said. “So if they could take it upon themselves and they know what to eat, they might go for the healthier snacks rather than the junk food.”
Right away the girls thought of the activities they liked to do to stay active.
“We play Dance Central [an active Xbox video game], we play Kinect adventures [an Xbox sports game that uses a motion camera], we walk our dogs, and we ride our bikes,” Makayla said. “We just want other kids to get more fit, too.”
After enlisting Suzanne Parker’s help, Guerrero called, visited, and emailed local businesses—gyms, batting cages, karate schools, and fitness experts—to ask for support.
The girls wrote a letter asking for support. The letter highlighted:
The girls’ challenges in healthy eating and getting enough exercise;
The girls’ goal to get kids moving and learning healthier food options;
That being healthy doesn’t have to be expensive;
Their request for in-kind donations of unwanted bikes, tennis racquets and other sporting equipment.
In the letter Makayla said: “We are dedicated to making this as low cost as possible…we also want to prove that being physically fit and healthy doesn’t have to cost you very much either.”
In January of 2013, Makayla and Alyssa printed their letter and handed it out to generate community support. Many places started offering their support by agreeing to donate time and resources.
Guerrero’s neighborhood association and a local Starbucks outlet also allowed the girls to post or distribute flyers about their new program.
Guerrero spoke to school officials at Makayla and Alyssa’s school to see if they could hand out flyers to students, or post flyers for parents to see.
She said school administrators were at first reluctant to give permission to allow the girls to distribute flyers about the new program, fearing some students might be offended. Still, this did not stop the girls or Guerrero.
“Even if we don’t have anyone show up, we’re still doing this,” Guerrero said to her granddaughters.
The girls agreed and around the middle of January they decided to find a broader way to recruit participants — Craigslist.
The headline for the girls’ Craigslist ad read: “Kids needed for a Healthy and Active Kid Program started by a kid.”
This ad caught the attention of local TV news station KSAT, which aired a story about Makayla and Alyssa’s desire to start a fitness group.
Within days after the ad aired on January 30, 2012, individuals from San Antonio’s health and fitness community began to reach out to Guerrero to offer their support. Parents also contacted Guerrero to ask for more information about the program.
A representative from the Bienestar/NEEMA Health Program, which aims to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in youth and is based out of the Social & Health Research Center in San Antonio, donated some workbooks to the group.
Guerrero found the nutrition and fitness advice in the books very helpful in getting started.
“It gave us several ideas on how to play active games with the kids,” Guerrero said.
“Our goal is to get kids moving again,” Makayla said.
Alyssa and Makayla decided that they should meet 2-3 times a week and get at least 3 hours of physical activity a week, throughout the 90 day period. They had heard that it took 45 days to get into the habit of doing something, so they felt that 90 days (which was double this amount) was an adequate amount of time to develop healthy, lifelong habits.
“The rest of the time is going to be spent on learning about healthier food options,” Alyssa said.
The girls worked with Guerrero to draft a letter of commitment for kids to sign that asked them to commit to “eating healthier and being more active for the next 90 days.”
The letter asked for a commitment to attend weekly fitness sessions, drink at least 4 glasses of water a day, reduce their sugar intake, and replace junk food with fruit or healthy snacks.
At the beginning Guerrero would lead the group and then allow the kids to choose which activities they wanted to do. Meetings took place at the Northwest Crossing Neighborhood tennis courts.
More importantly the kids were asked to have fun during the activities and remember that they were now a part of a team that was there to support each other in meeting their goals.
“We want to motivate and inspire as many kids as possible,” Alyssa said.
Guerrero and her daughter supervised and lead activities when the Fitness FUNatics first got started in February 2013. She provided the children with healthy snacks during the first week and asked that parents take turns volunteering to bring snacks to future meetings.
If the kids owned sporting equipment like tennis racquets and basketballs they were encouraged to bring these along.
Parents were also asked to sign a letter of commitment asking them to support and encourage their child to make healthy choices. About 25 kids signed up to be a part of the program. When they arrived, the kids and parents signed commitment letters for the 90-day health and fitness challenge.
The group kicked-off their activities at the Northwest Crossing Neighborhood’s basketball and tennis courts. The first day about 7 children showed up. Guerrero and her daughter led some of the activities such as stretching, and running around the tennis courts. Afterward the kids played basketball and a game of kickball. The whole session lasted about an hour. The following week about 10 kids showed up and over the next 3 weeks the group continued to grow. Now about 30 kids belong to the Fitness FUNatics program.
Community members soon volunteered their time and resources to the Fitness FUNatics, which really encouraged the kids to follow through with their goal of staying fit.
Choi’s Taekwondo offered six weeks of free classes to the group. Mel Williams, an ex-NFL player and owner of Elite Fitness and Sports Conditioning, offered his expertise by giving the children free bootcamp sessions and motivational speeches. He also allowed the kids to use his recreational facilities for certain events.
Soler Sports sponsored the kids in a 5K run and Elizabeth Reed with Gold’s Gym provided some nutrition lessons. Emily Urquidi, the head volleyball coach at the University of the Incarnate Word, gave the Fitness FUNatics four weeks of volleyball camp and 3-2 Batting Cages donated time for the Fitness FUNatics and their parents to use their cages.
Tyrone Cabalo, a certified dance instructor, gave the kids two free hip-hop dance lessons and Nina Guerra with Nutrionally Speaking gave the kids a nutrition seminar.
Suzanne Parker also organized a nutrition tour for the group at H-E-B.
Two local businesses, the T-Shirt Shop and Rapid Tee’s Samantha, donated free T-shirts to the group, which encouraged them to identify as a team.
Because so many community partners had volunteered their time the Fitness FUNatics ended up meeting 3-5 times a week, which surpassed their orignal commitment of meeting 2-3 times a week.
“These kids took charge. They literally took charge,” Guerrero said.
After 90 days, the kids were awarded medals by Causey Trophies and one of the Fitness FUNatic’s moms printed out certificates for the children. They celebrated their accomplishments at The Cove, a local restaurant and supporter of the Fitness FUNatics.
The Fitness FUNatics are wondering how to expand their group’s reach even further.
“The school certainly buys into it now,” Guerrero said. “So we are determined to take the open door and run through it.”
The girls would like to challenge other neighborhoods to create their own fitness groups.
“This could be something repeatable with other communities,” Parker said. “I would love to develop a protocol to get several communities engaged in this program.”
One unexpected outcome of the challenge, noted by Guerrero and Parker, was that parents were also motivated to change their lifestyles.
Some parents would stay to participate in physical activity and the children would influence their parents to eat healthy foods, Guerrero said.
“By changing the habits of children, the parents surprisingly become involved,” Parker said. “I think it has been overlooked, but yet it is a powerful tool that we need to revisit.”
Although the 90 day challenge is over, the Fitness FUNatics are not.
The group continues to meet and look for free or affordable ways to stay fit. For instance, members signed up to participate in the Color Me Rad 5K in July 2013 and they attend free courses offered through San Antonio’s Fitness in the Park program. They are also working in partnership with Fit Family Challenge, and Fit Pass SA, two San Antonio initiatives which offer families the opportunity to participate in fitness activities for free.
One member of the Fitness FUNatics, Dustin Garza, has been selected as a student ambassador for the 2013-2014 San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council— an organization of approximately 35 students from across Bexar County, in grades 5-12, who work to promote healthy living at their schools, homes, and in their community.
As an ambassador, Garza hopes to help kids from other schools create their own fitness programs, so that neighborhoods across the city can have their own version of Fitness FUNatics.
“By being an ambassador of the Mayor’s Fitness Council, I hope to teach others what I have learned through being a part of this program,” Garza said.
Makayla and Alyssa have received local and national recognition for their efforts to help get kids healthy.
In June 2013 they were recognized as Healthy Heroes by the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council.
They also were invited as guests on the Steve Harvey Show. Appearing on this show led to a donation of fitness equipment from a national sporting goods store, Sports Authority, and to Makayla and Alyssa meeting Jillian Michaels, a fitness trainer from The Biggest Loser.
Guerrero and Parker would like to continue what the girls started — but they are still looking for resources. They feel that perhaps forming partnerships with the research community and non-profit organizations may be one good way to keep the program alive.
“It’s so much more powerful having some type of data supporting the success of something like this,” Parker said. Parker also thinks it may also be a good idea to have high-school students serve as role models to the Fitness FUNatics because younger kids look up to teenagers.
She also believes it’s a good opportunity for adolescents to gain confidence from teaching skills to others.
The Fitness FUNatics continue to spread the word through their very own Fitness FUNatics Facebook page.
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.