Why is physical activity important for girls? What can help?

Why is physical activity important for girls? What can help?

Angela Crawford has a unique role at Union Middle School. She’s a middle school health and physical education teacher who specializes not in basketball or volleyball, but in strength and conditioning.

She’s noticed a discouraging pattern. She’s repeatedly seen fewer girls than boys in her classrooms. This year, only about 1 in 5 students in her strength and conditioning class is female. While it’s an uptick from her high school days, when she was one of five girls total in a strength and conditioning class, it’s still a noticeable deficit and highlights a gap between men and women in the school gymnasium.

In fact, only 14% of Utah girls meet the recommended physical activity levels of 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous exercise set by the state, compared to 28% of boys. Recent research by Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project digs into why, combining three studies to illuminate why this deficit exists.

One obstacle that stands in the way of getting girls interested in physical fitness is the lack of options. While some girls prefer team sports or competitive activities, women of all age groups showed preferences for noncompetitive sports like yoga, biking and dancing. Traditional sports in gym class, like soccer, basketball and flag football, are usually taught more than any sort of noncompetitive activity, and girls are given no input on how they’d like to be taught.

“A lot of people are concerned about physical activity in general, especially for young kids,” said Rachel Myrer, an assistant professor at Utah State University and an author on the study. “But there is a difference between activities that young boys and girls enjoy, and because of that, we see disparities reflected in how many participate. Those are reflected further as they go from youths to adults.”

When girls and young women are offered different options for physical activity, studies show that they experience more autonomy, self-determination and participation in their chosen activity.

That’s why teachers in Granite School District survey junior high students on what activities they’d like to do in high school physical education classes. Based on those survey results, Chris Shipman, the physical education and athletics specialist for the district, meets with the high school physical education teachers and determines what activities to provide.

“If it’s something that we don’t have equipment for, we help secure the equipment to introduce new activities,” said Shipman. “When you go into our P.E. classes, there isn’t a lot of sitting out, because we’re doing what the kids want to be doing.”

Junior and high school teachers have control over their physical education curriculum, with the exception of one required year of “Fitness for Life” curriculum in either ninth or 10th grade. This requirement actually supports the results of the study, giving students the opportunity to build skills that lead to a lifelong healthy lifestyle. These skills can be learned in many forms, including sports, dance and outdoor recreation, giving schools the chance to include activities favored by women.

Breanna Villegas, left, and Sarah Cowdell compete in a doubles tennis match at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

So why aren’t all schools adaptive?

One issue presented by Tim Brusseau, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Health and Kinesiology and a peer reviewer for the study, is that schools don’t have the resources to accommodate a variety of activities.

“Especially in our middle and elementary schools, we may only have one or two physical education teachers,” said Brusseau, who has been studying school-based physical activity programming for over 15 years. “So it’s harder to split up students into multiple activities and provide opportunities for choice.”

Brusseau says that budgets for physical education programs sometimes don’t accommodate requests for new equipment, so children may not have the option to pick next year’s program. Even if no one wants to play basketball or flag football, the equipment is already there.

Elementary school physical education teachers may also not have specialty training in that field. Elementary schools usually hire paraprofessionals or part-time support staff to teach physical education, and those teachers often only teach once a week for about 45 minutes, drastically undershooting the recommended activity time for students.

The myth of ‘shaping a body’

Another barrier faced by girls and women is social pressure on body image. According to the study, Utah women have low rates of body acceptance, which correlates to low rates of physical activity. One study cited showed that the physical and mental benefits of physical activity were lost entirely “if the motivating factor for exercise was weight loss or body toning.”

Not only is this emphasis on centering workouts on body shape harmful to women, it’s factually inaccurate, according to Angela Crawford, a strength and conditioning trainer working at Union Middle School.

“You can’t spot reduce,” says Crawford. “You can’t do situps to lose belly fat. You can build muscle, but you can’t choose where you’ll lose fat from. It’s not actually possible to do.”

Even with this knowledge, Crawford sees social media pressure aimed at women’s bodies everywhere. She remarked that her previous employer, 24 Hour Fitness, sold shirts that displayed the slogan “Look Better Naked.” Research has found that conforming to societal ideas of attractiveness is young women’s primary motivator to participating in physical activity.

“Women face a lot of pressure to meet a certain standard of beauty,” said Kim Buesser, a graduate student at Utah State University and author for the study. “That can reduce self-confidence, self-worth and reduce her capacity to what her body looks like. I think that reveals, as a result, that young women have less self-confidence or ability to understand their worth and their ability beyond what their body looks like.”

Sarah Cowdell and Breanna Villegas talk to a coach during their doubles tennis match at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Sarah Cowdell and Breanna Villegas talk to a coach during their doubles tennis match at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

How to bridge the gap

With such low numbers of girls meeting physical fitness recommendations, teachers and district supervisors show concern. But the solution is simple: listen.

“One of the things that’s a high-yielding strategy that’s based solidly in data: relationships are really important, definitely,” says Sally Williams, Canyons School District curriculum specialist. “If you have a good relationship with your students and are approachable, then they’re more likely to participate by far.”

Canyons School District offers yoga, aerobics, biking, dance and a girls-only weight training class. Through learning what children like to do in classes, teachers can make requests for different materials and adapt their curriculum.

The girls-only weight class appeals to high school-aged girls in particular. A study in Journal of Sports, Science & Medicine states that young women experience negative social feedback if they’re not able to shower or change clothes after working out because of how they appear to others, especially around boys.

A weight class where girls are unafraid to let loose and get sweaty helps eliminate that social perception and create a safe environment to work out.

By learning from this research, study author Madsen hopes that schools can begin tailoring lessons to addressing body insecurity and expanding out the typical repertoire of gym class activities.

“For girls to become leaders, they have to feel like leaders,” Madsen says. “Self-confidence and mental health comes from that. This is one of those foundational elements of really being able to contribute to your home, your school, your workplace, and your community at large.”

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