Research Background

One of the things we are proudest of about our program is our strong research-based approach. In order to understand why this is so important, we must first explain some academic “rules”. In academia, there are two major types of research, laboratory-based and field research. Lab-based research is very precise, allowing the researcher to control things very tightly. In this case, A+B=C, always. Think of a chemistry equation where if you add solution A to solution B, you will always get solution C no matter how many times you do it. Field research is not nearly as controlled (read: it can be messy!). It can loosely be thought of as A+B sometimes = C, but sometimes = D, or X or Y or Z, or a big ole question mark. Working with humans, and especially middle school girls quickly reveals how our research is exceptionally field-based. With middle school girls, girl A + girl B = best friends until B talks to D on the playground and suddenly A+B= enemies.

So then the big question becomes, how can a research study be created that allows for the beauty and unique aspects of human life, but holds weight in a rigorous academic culture? The answer lies in the theoretical framework. A “theoretical framework” is the structure that supports why a research study might be successful. It means that lots of other researchers have tried this method. One way to think of it is that the theory is the coat rack and the program or specific research study is the coats. In the summer, the coat rack looks quite a bit different than in the winter, but no matter the season, the pegs on the coat rack are the same. The pegs bring organization, structure and formality to the pile of coats sitting on the ground.

For our study, the coat rack or theory we chose is the Self-Determination theory. The Self-Determination theory has 3 “pegs,” competence, autonomy and relatedness. To learn more about each of these three pegs, head over to our research page.

Source: Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am Psychol, 55(1), 68-78.  Retrieved from

The first component of Self-determination theory, competence, depends on developing and demonstrating a mastery of skills.

During Smart Fit Girls, girls are taught introductory level anatomy and nutrition, as well as other health related concepts such as types of fitness programming (e.g., circuits versus supersets), modifications to make exercises more challenging or easier, and proper exercise form to ensure safety. At the end of the program, the girls host a family workout night where they are responsible for creating and leading their family members though a workout. Smart Fit Girls was designed intentionally to build competence by exposing girls to various skill sets and knowledge, providing opportunities for individualized practice with adult feedback, followed by participation in a social environment with their families.

Autonomy is defined as a state of personal independence and self-determination. Autonomous behaviors originate from the self, as compared to behaviors that are more extrinsically driven (e.g., parents insist on participation). During adolescence, providing opportunities for youth to autonomously engage in leisure is important to sustain leisure participation and youth development. Therefore, many of the activities within the Smart Fit Girls program are autonomously driven.

For example, one of the Smart Fit Girls activities provides participants with the opportunity to create their own exercise-based game, then teach and lead others, which allows them to apply the knowledge gained during the Smart Fit Girls program in a fun, engaging manner. Our program can be designed to support activities that give participants the right balance of autonomy and guidance.

Relatedness is the sense of being valued by others and feeling a sense of belonging, both of which are important to adolescent development. During Smart Fit Girls, the coaches create an environment of “sisterhood” where girls from many different social groups learn to support one another, despite their perceived differences.

As part of the program, the girls at each site send weekly inspirational videos or workouts to the other sites and connect on social media platforms. This network provides the framework for participants to develop a sense of relatedness, both from the coaches as well as other Smart Fit Girls participants. The larger community of Smart Fit Girls participants, both in person and via social media, allows the girls to feel like they are a part of something bigger than just their individual site. Adolescents value the opinions and perceptions of their peers more than any other age group. The larger the support network of like-minded peers, the more likely a new identity of being a “Smart Fit Girl” is confirmed.

What We Collect

We have 3 different ways of assessing the success of our program from the students’ perspective: a survey, a physical fitness test and a focus group. We also collect other information such as attendance, feedback from coaches, lessons planned versus lessons implemented and a few other demographics.

The participants of SFG take a 3-part validated survey asking questions about self-esteem, body image, and physical activity enjoyment. The girls take it at the beginning and the end, and we compare the results to see what has changed.

The same thing happens with the fitness assessment. The girls are asked to hold both a plank and a wall sit for as long as possible and then do as many pushups as they can in a minute. We then compare the beginning and end results.

The final piece of information we collect directly from the girls is a 45-minute focus group where the girls are asked a series of questions to find out their thoughts and opinions on the program.

Research Results

Preliminary research demonstrates that participation in Smart Fit Girls results in many benefits. Compared to a control group who did not participate in Smart Fit Girls, participants reported statistically significant improvements in self-esteem. Similarly, Smart Fit Girls participants experience greater improvements in body image and physical activity enjoyment than their control counterparts Smart Fit Girls has been evaluated five times in South Carolina and six times in Colorado (three times at two different sites).

Source: Anderson, D. M., Caldwell, L. L., & Walters, K. A.* (2016). The power of leisure as a developmental context for adolescents. In D. Kleiber & F. McGuire (Eds.), Leisure and Human Development (pp.81–106). Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Notes about Research

While we believe the research aspect of our program is very important for the continued success of Smart Fit Girls, not every site does will be a research site. We believe in collecting data because it allows us to know what we are doing well, what needs improvement and whether or not our program is doing what we want it to do. So if you are interested in starting a site, but feel hesitant about the research aspect, contact us and we will determine a solution that works well for all parties involved. Click here to learn more about Starting a Site.