We’re constantly being told how good sport and exercise is for us, yet more than a million teenage girls who once thought of themselves as ‘sporty’ have lost interest in physical activity, a new report has found.
The Women In Sport (WIS womeninsport.org) study discovered 43% of girls – equating to an estimated 1.3 million across the UK – who classed themselves as sporty and active in primary school no longer feel that way, and are dropping out of regular exercise, compared to 24% of boys. And by the time they’re 17-18-years-old, 55% of girls will have disengaged.
Body image and puberty are top reasons why girls are dropping out of sport and exercise – 78% say they avoid sport when they’re on their period, and 73% don’t like others watching them take part in activity. Other barriers include a fear of feeling judged by others (68%), lack of confidence (61%), pressures of schoolwork (47%) and not feeling safe outside (43%)
WIS says losing interest in sport and exercise as a teenager is likely to be a significant psychological barrier to physical activity throughout life, with teens who stop exercising becoming part of an inactive generation of women. Yet WIS says when teenage girls are active, they’re healthier and happier, and have greater self-esteem, body confidence and wellbeing.
“Girls are losing their love of sport during teenage years at an alarming rate,” says Hilborne.
“If we continue to let this spiral, there will be a lost generation of girls who are missing out on being healthy, happy, confident, and resilient. We must act now.
“It’s vital that schools, the sport and leisure sector and parents listen and understand the needs of teenage girls. We must work much harder to prevent girls from gradually disengaging from sport, especially in the transition from primary to secondary school, and during puberty.”
Hilborne points out that 78% of teenage girls want to do more sport, with almost seven in 10 admitting regular physical activity makes them happier. She suggests the following ways to bring the joy of sport and exercise back into teenage girls’ lives…
1. No Judgement during puberty
Hilborne says girls frequently struggle with the changing shape of their bodies during puberty, and taking part in sport and exercise can make them hyper self-conscious. “This can affect confidence, making them feel scrutinised and judged on both appearance and ability,” she says.
“There’s a need for better support and education, particularly in relation to managing puberty and periods when taking part in sport and exercise. It’s vital we help girls feel more in control and comfortable – and view sport and exercise as a benefit.”
2. Make exercise more exciting
Half of teenage girls who once loved sport say they’d be willing to do more if it was more fun, exciting, and adventurous. “We need to re-imagine sport and physical activity as something girls truly value and perceive to enhance their lives – something that will help them on their journey to being confident and feeling good about themselves,” explains Hilborne.
3. Encourage competitive sport at the right level
The WIS research showed 59% of girls enjoy competitive sport compared to 74% of boys, and Hilborne points out that girls lack the opportunities to play team sport unless they’re really good at it, so they can feel a sense of failure in a competitive environment. “It loses the fun factor,” she says. “So options to take part at the right level are important.”
4. Give girls voices and choices
Another way to help girls engage with sport and exercise is to give them more choice and control over what they do. Hilborne says: “There’s a significant opportunity to hand over the reins, giving girls more ownership of their experiences of sport and physical activity, helping them to feel more comfortable and in control.”
She says girls organising girls, as well as mentoring and buddying from peers, can help, but stresses: “It’s important to open their eyes to the possibilities, otherwise the choice will seem narrow and unmotivating.”
5. Parental role models
The WIS research found girls and boys feel equally supported by their mum to get active (48%) but only 31% of girls feel encouraged and supported by their dads, compared to 50% of boys.
“Many dads, often unconsciously, place more emphasis on their son’s sporting activities,” says Hilborne. “Interestingly, sporty girls are much more likely to have a supportive dad. Yet having the right support and role models around girls are important influences, particularly when girls find it much harder to motivate themselves.”
6. It’s not just about winning
Hilborne says the idea that ‘it’s the taking part that matters’ needs to be made more credible, and what girls can achieve beyond winning (i.e. enjoyment, personal development, building relationships) should be stressed. “We should be celebrating the behaviour girls can be proud of, that goes above and beyond winning, but make sure this doesn’t become trite or condescending,” she explains.
“By shifting achievement away from win and lose, it levels the playing field for girls, and can enable all girls to succeed and to feel proud of themselves.”