Nine-year-old Mikayla Thomas kicked off her black sneakers and danced to the beat of "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas.
Her hair, tied back in a French braid, bounced slightly as she hopped to the left, then back to the right. She glided forward and backward. She was working up a sweat. Twelve other girls danced, too, following the lead of Ami Joglekar, a George Washington University (GWU) student.
Alexa Geter, 13, practices dance moves at the Girls Fitness and Nutrition program in Southeast.
Afterward, Thomas said she was "kind of lost" during the hip-hop dance routine. But she had fun. She was also getting another important benefit: exercise.
The workout was part of a program called the Girls Fitness and Nutrition (FitNut) program, run jointly by Project Health, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, and GWU student volunteers. Program meetings take place at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Eastern Branch in Southeast Washington.
FitNut is a "healthy living lifestyle program" targeted to adolescent African American girls who are overweight or at risk for being overweight -- meaning they have unhealthy habits such as eating junk food and not exercising, said Jessica Sultzer, the Washington site director for Project Health.
According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1999 through 2002, about 23 percent of African American girls ages 6 to 11 and 24 percent of those 12 to 19 were overweight -- defined in children as having a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile on age- and sex-specific growth charts. About 13 percent of white girls ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 19 were overweight; 17 percent of Mexican-American girls ages 6 to 11, and 20 percent of those 12 to 19 were overweight.
Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults, according to the 2001 Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. Overweight children and adolescents face increased risks of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, both risk factors for heart disease, according to the report.
Girls come into FitNut in various ways, but many are referred by doctors at the Children's National Medical Center clinics on Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, both in Southeast. That's how Adrienne Mavritte, who attended last Tuesday's group meeting, heard about FitNut.
When telling parents about FitNut, "I try to really focus on that it's a fun program where you can dance but what you're really doing is getting exercise," said Terry Kind, a FitNut physician-mentor and pediatrician at the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue clinic. "I really focus on the fun aspect with the peer group rather than weight specifically."
Though the goal of FitNut is not for participants to lose weight, some parents report their children have done so. Rhonda Mavritte, mother of 12-year-old Adrienne, said the seventh-grader lost 12 pounds while participating in the program over the past eight months.