There was nothing appealing about heading to my college gym — OK, maybe the cute guys playing basketball. But the mammoth sports center, teeming with athletes, was intimidating. And with zero athletic ability, I mostly stuck to the elliptical, not wanting to embarrass myself in the weight room.
Elisabeth Tavierne noticed a similar trend among the women at Ohio State University four years ago. Tavierne, then a junior studying exercise science, had been a competitive swimmer, so she knew her way around a gym. She said women were missing out by sticking to cardio machines.
“Not that the elliptical or treadmill are bad, but the girls looked so unhappy. They didn’t have smiles on their faces and were just counting calories,” she recalls.
To liberate women from the elliptical, Tavierne created CHAARG (Changing Health, Attitudes and Actions to Recreate Girls), a campus fitness club that organized workouts at local studios. Every week, members could try classes such as Turbo Kick or CrossFit.
The club was such a hit that students from nearby colleges inquired about starting their own chapter. Today, there are CHAARG chapters at 45 universities with more than 7,000 members.
“We haven’t done any real marketing at this point. It’s really all just been through social media and girls hearing about us from friends at other universities,” Tavierne says.
Alison Venooker, a junior at the University of Maryland, has been a member of CHAARG since her freshman year. A three-sport athlete in high school, Venooker was set on staying fit in college, even though none of her friends were game to join her in the gym. Working out alone on the StairMaster got old fast, so she looked into CHAARG after seeing a flyer in her dorm.
“It was intimidating at first because I didn’t know anyone, but everyone was immediately friendly,” she says. “Once you join, you get added to the Facebook page, and girls will post whether they’re going to get lunch somewhere or studying for people to come along.”
So far, Venooker’s favorite workout has been the dance-infused martial arts class Tae Bo. She liked it so much that over winter break she took her mother to a class.
CHAARG has become a big part of Venooker’s college experience. She now leads the social media effort for the chapter, keeping its 204 members abreast of activities and events.
Each chapter is headed by a student ambassador, who leads a six-person executive team in setting up activities on and off campus. Chapters host all sorts of events to promote wellness, including cooking lessons, nutrition workshops and self-defense classes.
Tavierne says most chapters have at least 100 members but are divided into smaller groups of 15 to 20 to help members get to know one another better. At least once a semester, there are weekend retreats or other outings to connect the chapters.
Students pay $45 in dues per semester, which works out to be cheaper than taking individual fitness classes weekly. And for students without a chapter or graduates who want to stay connected, CHAARG offers virtual memberships for $55 a year. Members of the online community are paired up to keep each other accountable.
CHAARG members can sign up for interactive exercise programs, or FitPlans. Tavierne uses Share It Fitness, which provides exercise routines for mobile and online platforms, to create a five-week workout program.
“The plans really help girls learn how to become good at lifting weights and just be confident in themselves,” Tavierne says. “It’s such an amazing community because we have girls who are just working out for the first time and collegiate athletes encouraging each other. It’s a lot like a sorority.”
Kate Elson learned about CHAARG through her sorority at George Washington Univeristy. The senior hasn’t been able to attend all of the workouts because of soccer practice, but she has squeezed in the yoga classes to get some much-needed stretching.
“There are actually a lot of similarities between CHAARG and my soccer team,” Elson says. “Both have this passion for healthy living and are full of positive, enthusiastic women.”
At the University of Cincinnati, most of the CHAARG events are held on campus with guest instructors, but occasionally the group carpools to classes at nearby studios, says Sarah Jankowski, ambassador of the 385-member chapter. Her favorite workouts have been Turbo Kick and Zumba.
“I would have never tried any of that on my own, but doing it in a room with 50, 60 girls who are nonjudgmental, super positive and welcoming makes the experience more fun,” says Jankowski, a senior.
Zumba was not high on Tavierne’s list. She found it challenging to keep pace with the dance-based workout. But what she appreciates about the class, and all of the classes offered through CHAARG, is trying something new in a supportive environment.
“We’re all laughing together as we’re trying new things and that really helps girls ease their nerves and just go for it, knowing that no one is judging you,” Tavierne says.
Although Tavierne has graduated, she continues to build the CHAARG sisterhood. She would like to establish a chapter on every college campus in the United States, maybe even a few around the world.