I'm from New York, so coming to school in Iowa 1000 miles away from my hometown was a huge adjustment. Being this far meant only coming home for the big holiday breaks. I'd never go home on the weekends, and my family and friends couldn't visit whenever they wanted to. Obviously, no one from my high school decided to go to the University of Iowa, either. I felt completely alone in my decision to go to this school, until I joined Iowa CHAARG.

The University of Iowa offers more than 500 clubs and organizations to join. I remember scrolling through the list online, trying to find something I'd maybe like to join. Besides to explore interests, I saw clubs as an immediate way to make friends.

I was browsing through the University of Iowa Class of 2020 Facebook page when I saw a post about a club called CHAARG (changing health, attitudes, + actions to recreate girls). It mentioned something about working out and "freeing girls from the elliptical", which I was instantly drawn to because I frequently worked out.  

Ashleigh Monaco

I mentioned it to my mom, showing her their website and the kind of things that they do. I remember trying to tell my friends and boyfriend about it, saying things like, "well, it's kind of like a sorority, except not really, and they work out together."

I was pretty nervous when I first joined because I wasn't into working out with other people, and I figured there'd be the initial awkwardness of getting to know people who already knew each other. CHAARG promised a happy, safe, and non-judgmental environment where girls would empower one another through more than just exercise but with friendship building, acceptance, and vulnerability. Would that actually be the case?

I always had trouble fitting in with clubs. I didn't think this would be much different, but I figured I need to at least give it a shot. I paid the initial dues for membership and officially joined Iowa CHAARG in June, having no idea that it would be the best and the healthiest decision I could ever make for myself
Ashleigh Monaco

One of the things that CHAARG encourages is to make a CHAARG Instagram account. I did right away, but honestly had no idea where to start. I also saw that there was what a "fit plan" coming up in July. It was six weeks of intense, HIIT themed workouts over the summer. I was unsure of whether or not to do the fit plan, since I had only just started as a member, but I was in desperate need of a change in my workout routine, and I thought it'd be a good way to get to know some CHAARG girls before school started.  

The maximum number of girls that could do the fit plan was 1500... and it sold out. I was in shock that 1499 other girls all across the country (besides Iowa CHAARG, there are 37 other universities with CHAARG chapters) would be doing the same workouts as I would everyday.

On the Sunday before the fit plan officially started, I was so excited, but also really nervous. I kept wondering if I could even do the workouts; they were unlike anything I had ever done before. Besides that, I still had the underlying fear that I would never fit in anywhere. I thought that if I couldn't do the workouts as good as the other girls, I wouldn't be good enough to be a CHAARG girl. 

Ashleigh Monaco

My attitude quickly changed. I saw girls post on their CHAARG Instagram accounts about how they would get a great workout done, but I would also see girls post about their struggles, the days when they just couldn't get out of bed in the morning and find the motivation to workout.

I had never seen a community of girls so accepting of each other and so open about their lives. I never got the impression that they were creating a perfect, fit image of themselves on their accounts, even if that wasn't their true selves. I sawreal girls with real highs and real lows. When I was open about my own struggles from time to time, girls who I've never even met in person would tell me that I'm not alone, that they're there for me, and that what I was feeling was okay. 

On campus

Ashleigh Monaco

Thinking that my love for CHAARG couldn't possibly grow any more, I started my first semester at college and met the Iowa CHAARG execs in person. Each of them instantly treated me like a friend. As I got to know each of them more, as well as other Iowa CHAARG girls, I felt more and more like I was part of one big family.

CHAARG didn't only serve to help me make friends, though. By completing the workouts, talking to other CHAARG girls, spending time with them, and listening to what CHAARG really stood for, I started to fall in love with my body and what it could do. CHAARG empowers girls to step beyond their comfort zones, to not punish their bodies for what they can't do but celebrate what they can do.

Ashleigh Monaco

If a workout involved 30 mountain climbers then a 60 second plank in one set, I'd see girls modify it and make the plank shorter or do less mountain climbers because they couldn't do it. And I never saw anyone judge them for it. CHAARG was never (and is never) an environment where girls judge each other and expect each other to be perfectly sculpted and strong. Whether you're a triathlete or a fitness newbie, CHAARG accepts everyone with open arms.

During group events on Wednesday nights, we'd be doing anything from belly dancing, to barre, to kickboxing. I never felt like I was in a random workout class all by myself. Everyone constantly encouraged each other and had a genuinely good time. There was even an event with a health and fitness blogger, who gave a powerful talk about body positivity and led a paper plate workout afterwards.

Ashleigh Monaco

What CHAARG has taught me

Ashleigh Monaco

CHAARG taught me to accept and love myself. CHAARG taught me to try new things, whether they be fitness related (first time doing belly dancing, barre, boxing, and cycling, which is coming up) or lifestyle related. I went from running four miles at a time to running a half-marathon. I've always known that balance is the key to a healthy lifestyle, but I never actually practiced it until I joined CHAARG, and girls were constantly inspiring me to take care of myself and treat myself right. CHAARG taught me to spread love through fitness and wellness

I joined Iowa CHAARG to make friends and fit exercise into my schedule. I have made friends who I know are and will be a big part of my life for a long time. I've found workout buddies and running partners. But besides this, my whole mindset about healthy living changed, and I'm a much better and healthier person because of it.