When I was about 14 I was asked to take part in a study looking at why teenage girls stop playing sport in such high numbers. At 14 I played a lot of sport but, whilst the same male faces had continued to surround me on the track or the tennis court, every year there were fewer and fewer girls. Whilst the boys who I saw less of had other sports to focus on, the girls had no alternatives…they just didn’t want to play anymore.
And the stats agree, the greatest difference between male and female exercise participation exists at the age of 14, with only 12% of girls meeting official guidelines of physical activity compared to half of boys at that age.
We all know the health and weight consequences that too little sport and exercise can cause. In the UK obesity affects 25% of teenagers, with diabetes, heart disease and countless other side effects rearing their heads closely behind. What’s more young women who are disengaged from sport at a young age go into adulthood with lower self esteem, issues with body image, often lacking in skills of teamwork, leadership, and organisation. Some may find their way back, but too often these girls are lost for the rest of their lives.
So why is this? What is causing girls to lose touch with sport and exercise, and more worryingly, form unhealthy and disastrous relationships with their bodies?
Well I think in the first instance we should look at the place where even the most unenthusiastic teenager comes into contact with sport: school. And unfortunately it is here, in PE lessons, where a lot of the problems are found. For some, the traditional timetable of netball, hockey, cross country and tennis provides an opportunity to flourish, but for the rest – those children forced into a PE skirt and out into the rain – what is the benefit? Over 50% of secondary school girls state that they or their peers don’t exercise because of their experiences of sport in school. These girls are clear about what they don’t want – they don’t want to take it too seriously, they don’t want to be ultra-competitive and they don’t want to feel judged by their peers or their teachers.
Unfortunately for the girls, seriousness and competitiveness are often encouraged, thanks to team sports, and flexibility is often lacking thanks to inadequate budgets, resources, facilities and staff numbers. But something must change, because continuing to force teenagers to take part in activities they don’t enjoy only puts them off. Speaking to friends who hated sport at school, they wished that there had been more of an emphasis on fun, and the option to choose activities they now enjoy like Zumba, kick-boxing and basketball. They wish that the school sport experience had been about empowering themselves to feel confident and strong in a time which, let’s face it, is not the easiest or nicest for most teenage girls. They also didn’t want to have to wear uncomfortable, one-size fits all kit, and they wished that they had been allowed to see PE lessons as a social occasion as much as a fitness one. In essence they wanted PE to give them all the benefits which they get from the sports they CHOOSE now.
Many people will argue that schools aren’t consumer havens. That they are places where we learn valuable lessons that life isn’t all about picking and choosing and opting out of the things we don’t like. However, when it comes to a country in the midst of an obesity epidemic and losing millions of girls from the positivity of sport and exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle I think it is the time to think differently. The cost of doing nothing? A generation of young women who go into adulthood with low self esteem, health and weight problems and the tragic loss of the myriad of benefits which can be taken from participation in exercise.
‘If I could magically wave a wand I’d wish for no child ever to be made to do a cross country run in the rain and therefore hate sport forever.’ Clare Balding