One of the most important players in the life of a teenager is the school system, and Claudine is strengthening its capacity to support girls in their physical, mental, and social development. She is developing train-the-trainer relationships with schools and teachers, getting them involved in supporting young girls to become more active. Claudine works closely with teachers to create FitClub’s that enable young girls, who are often intimidated by sports, to get together to exercise. The training plan is designed for all fitness levels so anyone can participate. The more active FitClub members are invited to motivate their less active teammates to get moving. Claudine also brings extra resources to schools, like kinesiologists and nutritionists, and thus changes mindsets within the school system by introducing a much needed focus on teenage girls’ health. Furthermore, she offers a service to youth organizations that gives young women the opportunity to partake in sports. This gives girls the chance to experiment with a variety of physical activities, all in an unthreatening and casual environment. Claudine also partners with large citizen organizations (COs), like the YWCA and creates programs for their members.
A startling fact about these statistics is that many studies show that young girls understand the importance of physical activity for their health. These same studies reveal that young girls want to increase their participation in some type of physical activity. The fact that the participation levels remain low suggests that social and cultural barriers are impeding their involvement. Among these barriers are limited opportunities for them to become active; the inaccurate assumption that boys and girls all enjoy the same activities; the limited choice of activities that are promoted to girls and young women; poor time management and a lack of financial resources.
Even with these statistics, schools tend to have dismal physical education programs, and their decline has been steady in the last few decades. Very few school resources are dedicated to sport and many high schools only offer one hour of physical education per week. Furthermore, when physical activities are offered, they are often in a competitive environment, which has been shown to be particularly intimidating for girls.
After the conferences, Claudine engages teachers, through train-the-trainer programs, to develop their own FitClub—a running program which lasts approximately 6 weeks and involves visits from nutritionists, kinesiologists, athletes, and mentors. The girls learn about the benefits of being active, become comfortable with trying new sports, and have the support of their group to start becoming active. The FitClubs take place during school hours, at lunch or afterschool, and become a tool for teachers to emphasize the importance of healthy living and to connect with their students at a non-academic level.
Beyond the FitClubs, Claudine also organizes a number of events with local COs and women’s associations of amateur sports are invited as partners. For example, in 2009, Rugged Riders (snowboarders), Country Skiing clubs and Skirtboarders all got involved in the program, giving teenagers the opportunity to learn new and fun sports while doing so without pressure or competitiveness. The events are designed for girls to participate in and experiment with new sports, while witnessing how other women are also benefiting from staying active. The events are much more than just a place to try out a different sport, they provide a space for athletes, mentors, teachers, families, and teenagers to strengthen their relationships and bring a strong group of people together with the goal of supporting teenage girls in their healthy life choices. Events are the catalyst for long-term network support. Partners of these events include a variety of ski centers, sport centers, instructors, families, schools, communities, and local sport organizations.
In the first three years of operation, Claudine worked with 50 athletes who engaged with 40,000 girls in more than 100 schools in Ontario and Quebec. The FitSpirit conferences are the first step in showing teenagers why physical activity can be so inspiring. In 2010, a total of 1,000 girls became involved in the larger FitSpirit events and FitClub. She is engaging school principals and teachers to include girl-only activities in the school, putting a strong emphasis on the necessity to approach sports differently with girls. This is representative of Claudine’s work to change the behaviors and mindsets within the school system to allow for sport and healthy living to take a more important role. She is simultaneously strengthening the youth sector to engage teenage girls in sports. Claudine has partnered with the Quebec Federation of Physical Educators, to engage their members in FitSpirit, and to allow for long-term follow-up with the girls. She has also developed a network of teachers who currently perform health assessments, while also leading and participating in the FitClub.
In addition, Claudine is creating community networks that support the involvement of young girls in physical activities of all types. In 2009, in the Laurentian region (Quebec), the first pilot project was put in place and served as a model for replication in Richmond Hill and Peterborough (Ontario), and later in Montreal, Verdun, Estrie, and Quebec City (Quebec). The pilot model brings together five schools, five teachers, two professional athletes, and 25 professional women acting as mentors. In 2009 2,000 girls attended the Laurentian conference. As a result, three FitClubs were organized, 100 girls participated, and four large events were organized around running, wakeboarding, surfing, and various other sport activities. Because the FitClub and the activities involve different partners like ski centers, sport organizations, schools, and families, a large array of actors are involved in supporting girls to become more active. To increase FitSpirit’s long-term impact, FitClub alumni are also invited to become mentors for younger girls.
Years later, while working in an office, Claudine organized a running group to walk and run together at lunchtime, supporting each other to run for their respective causes. When Claudine decided to take a 90-day cycling trip, she was looking for a cause to dedicate the trip to, but could not find one appealing to her. This is when the idea of FitSpirit germinated.
At 21, Claudine was an elite athlete actively training to become a professional road cyclist. While in a training session, she was hit by a car and: in an instant, her ambitions of becoming an Olympian athlete were crushed. Claudine was devastated, but not defeated. In October 2006, two years after her accident, determined to share the joy and benefit of sport, Claudine created FitSpirit, a girl-only training and nutrition program dedicated to helping teenagers learn sports and give them the support needed to develop their best attitudes toward both sports and their health.
Former elite cyclist Claudine Labelle is passionate about sport, and she has always known about the benefits of exercise for physical and mental health.While training at an elite level, Claudine became involved with young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds with the goal of teaching them the importance ofphysical activity. She then found that adopting a healthy lifestyle and being fit is generally more important than competing. The alarming statistics on sedentary behaviour among teenage girls led her to the idea of developing a training program exclusively for girls. She founded FitSpirit in 2007 to encourage girls aged 12 to 17 to be active. Two years later, the FitClub training program was launched. The objective of FitClub is to introduce participants to their first 5K or10K race through a training program that runs 8 to 10 weeks, in which they signup on a voluntary basis, and which caps off with a major regional event. After meeting with participants, Claudine found that training in a recreational setting has a beneficial effect on self-esteem and staying in school. To date, more than 110,000 teenage girls from high schools in Ontario and Quebec have participated in the program.