Iraida Juarez and her daughter Angela Vergara, 12, sat on the far end of the bleachers inside the Border View Family YMCA gymnasium on a recent afternoon.

They were the quieter pair among a group of 10 mothers and daughters who occupied the seating area when trying on new running shoes they had all been gifted.

Juarez and Vergara kept to themselves at first. They giggled in the corner as they laced up, noticing Juarez got pink shoes with black accents and her daughter an inverse of the same colors. Once set, they tapped each other’s shoes and dangled their legs like two kids on a swing set.

It was a subtle, yet tender bonding moment between them that has become more frequent since joining a pilot program co-led by San Diego State University and YMCA, Juarez said.

“We’ve been making more time to spend together, especially because life is moving so fast and we tend to push aside things like bonding with our daughters,” Juarez said. “I have three older sons, so it’s been really important to dedicate time with her.”

Getting started was a bit of a challenge, the mother said. She needed to free up the time and spark interest in her pre-teen.

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The Conmigo project has helped.

It’s a 12-week program out of the SDSU Research Foundation designed to help Latina mothers and pre-adolescent daughters build strong and healthy relationships by partaking in fitness, communication skills training and discussions around body image, and mental health and puberty.

“Once girls hit adolescence, data shows that girls’ self-esteem just plummets and depression increases, anxiety increases and physical activity goes down,” said Elva Arredondo, an SDSU psychology professor and researcher leading the program. “Preventative programs like Conmigo can help buffer some of those effects.”

There’s also a reason why the program targets Latinas. “Latina women or minority women with underserved backgrounds tend to engage less in physical activity,” Arredondo added.

Adult Latinos in the U.S. have the highest percentage (32 percent) of physical inactivity among racial/ethnic groups, putting them at higher risk of health issues such as obesity and diabetes, according to a January Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Read the full San Diego Union-Tribune’s article on Arredondo’s work.