Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Many Utahns likely have vivid memories of middle and high school physical education, which for some include getting picked last for kickball and dodgeball and getting hit in the face with volleyballs.
If physical education classes offered more noncompetitive activities like dance and yoga, would it inspire more girls to exercise?
A new study by researchers at the Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University found that half as many girls between the ages of 7 and 17 get the amount of exercise recommended by the state as boys, with 14% compared to 28%. Children and adolescents in that age range should get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day, researchers noted.
The study — a review of existing research in the state — found that one of the biggest reported barriers for girls participating in fitness activities is a lack of available options that they would prefer.
Children's participation in exercise has long been a concern, but that concern has become more pronounced in recent years.
"And not being active leads to more diabetes and heart problems and so forth. But with video games and so much social media and everything, many girls especially — but boys, too — are not as active, and you see more obesity specifically in the United States," noted Susan Madsen, founding director of the Women and Leadership Project and one of three study authors.
She acknowledged that many girls do enjoy traditional P.E. activities and competitive sports.
"I was raised with six brothers and I was an athlete, so I enjoyed that. Some people do, but we assume that everybody does, and that's just not the case with girls and young women," Madsen said.
The study found that most physical education classes focus mainly on competitive sports, which many young women defined as their "least favorite" activity.
"Women, young and old, show preferences for yoga, walking, biking and dancing," researchers said.
"Girls and women are more likely to be physically active when they enjoy what they are doing and have opportunities to participate with friends and peers," study author Rachel Myrer said in a statement. "Encouraging girls to explore sports and physical activities that interest them, rather than only the ones that girls typically play, can lead to greater interest and engagement."
Researchers say another issue is that girls aren't often getting asked what kind of activities they would prefer, leading to lower participation rates.
Studies found that boys were more likely to choose strength training exercises, and females were more likely to choose low-impact cardiovascular activities.
Interestingly, the benefits of exercise for girls were "lost" if girls were motivated by getting thinner or body-toning, according to the Women and Leadership Project.
"One research team found that women who participate in regular, low-impact activities report higher levels of self-esteem and quality of life compared to women who participate in regular, high-intensity activities. These researchers found that the opposite is true for males, which suggests the need for a gender-tailored approach to engaging young adults in physical activity," the study noted.
"If conforming to society's ideas of attractiveness, including thinness, is a young women's main motivator for being physically active, we are seeing that the activity is often short-term," Madsen said in a statement. "Encouraging girls and women of all ages to participate for reasons other than being attractive has shown to increase their motivation to be physically active."
While there's still work to be done to encourage more girls to exercise, much has been made since Title IX mandated equal opportunity for girls in sports in the 1970s, according to the research. The number increased from 1 in 27 girls in sports to 2 in 5.
"That is definitely great progress," Madsen said. "But it's still less than half, which needs to be addressed for the health of future generations of women. This study helps us understand some of the barriers, and this can help us make recommendations for change."
Here are recommendations the researchers offered for parents, educators and policymakers:
- "Parents and guardians should encourage physical activity for girls and young women. Fewer things have greater impact on a girl's long-term physical activity levels than her parent's own physical activity and their enthusiastic encouragement," the study states.
- Ask what girls enjoy doing and then tailor physical activity options. Preferences may vary by age group.
- Promote gender inclusivity in "all kinds of sports," researchers said.
- Improve the visibility of women's athletics and give women athletes access to adequate and equitable facilities, preventive care and other resources.
"The hope is that there will be more choices. ... Just because we've been doing things the same way doesn't mean they need to continue to be done the same way. And so we really hope that parents will look at this, because sometimes we think that we don't need to worry about getting our kids active until they're a little bit older," Madsen said, encouraging parents to introduce their children to activities like hiking early on.