MISSOULA - The YMCA in Missoula believes that active kids grow into active adults, which is why they offer free gym memberships to sixth grade students.
The YMCA Active 6 program offers the free memberships while also providing training and supervision for various YMCA activities, such as rock climbing, swimming and weight lifting.
The program was started in 2010 after research conducted by professor Steven Gaskill at the University of Montana.
His studies looked at the effects of exercise and healthy habits on young teenagers.
“The study showed that the habits that sixth graders are taking part in are the habits that they stick with after sixth grade," Active 6 coordinator Delaney Wells said.
The studies also showed that middle school is a very formative time for lifestyle habits, so sixth grade is a great time to start healthy exercise habits.
Through the YMCA, the sixth grade students are able to try new activities they wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity to try. Being able to try new things helps the kids find fun ways to exercise and stay active.
“They’re discovering so many things about themselves and what they like, so giving them an opportunity to learn from somebody who can help them do that safely, it helps them learn it in a way that if they love it, they can come back and do it themselves," Alec Arntzen, Washington Middle School sixth grade teacher, says.
With an Active 6 membership, teens can use the YMCA just like any other member, but after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there are staff members facilitating games, like dodgeball, and supervising the weight rooms.
“We get a lot of active 6 kids that come on Tuesdays and Thursdays looking to partake in those activities," Wells said.
On top of a free membership and after-school programs, Active 6 also facilitates field trips with Missoula County schools which introduce the kids to Active 6 and the activities the YMCA provides.
“It’s nice to see our kids get that experience, and know that this resource exists and that they can use it," Arntzen says.
Active 6 currently collaborates with 11 different schools and enrolls over 200 sixth graders at the YMCA.
For Washington Middle School, the Active 6 program coincides with the school's health and fitness curriculum.
Arntzen says collaborating with the YMCA for Active 6 was a natural choice.
“It feels like a really good, community partnership," he said. "We’re trying to do the same things — we’re trying to help kids develop and have healthy lifestyles.”
Arntzen says since Active 6, he has seen a lot more kids going to the YMCA to exercise or hang out with friends.
He says it's a great resource for them, especially in the winter when it's harder to get outside.
Active 6 is part of the YMCA's capital campaign to expand its programs for youth.
They want the YMCA to be available for young people who wish to stay active.
"We are looking to expand our areas of focus for youth and part of that includes spaces that are easily accessible to teens that not only want to use workout equipment, but want a place that they can relax and unwind," Wells says.
Part of the field trips include board games to show kids the YMCA can be a fun place to exercise but also to be social with friends outside of school.
Wells says they hope to collaborate with more schools in the future and reach more teens.
“We’re really trying to partner with the community more and involve all sixth graders that we can to get into the Y and stay active.”
Information on how to sign up a teen for Active 6 can be found here.