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New study calls for five big changes to increase women and girl’s access to physical activity

26 August 2021

New research by academics from London South Bank University (LSBU) has called major changes in the design and delivery of physical activities in schools, gyms, sporting clubs etc to raise participation of women and girls. LSBU’s ‘This Girl can can’t she’ research study found an overemphasis in the promotion of physical activity on the appearance of women’s bodies rather than psychological wellness and the perceived positive impact of exercise on their confidence, stress-levels and happiness. It also found the barriers that girls face to physical activity can include excessive school homework, sports clothing, changing facilities and unsupportive staff.

The LSBU ‘This Girl Can, can’t she?’ research study makes 14 recommendations to increase participation of young women and girls in exercise, including:

  1. More emphasis on wellbeing - mental health must be given greater emphasis when physical exercise is communicated to women and girls, alongside the benefits to their physical health.
  2. More training for physical exercise leaders - young women and girls want to improve their sporting skills so coaches must be well-trained, relatable and diverse to ensure they can better meet the needs of women and girls. School PE teachers should receive more training to increase support for young women and girls.
  3. Improving mixed and single gender activities and support - mixed-gender exercise sessions should focus on skill development and fun (not competition) and girls’ and boys’ exercise groups should be encouraged to support each other. Boys’ and Girls’ groups should be treated fairly where physical exercise activities take place and women and men role models should be more visible.
  4. Changing the ‘traditional’ approach to homework - schools should assign ‘active homework’ and encourage more time spent in physical activity when students are outside the classroom. This could include visits to galleries to see pictures about historical events (for history) or collecting rocks from different parks (for geography) after school.
  5. Major changes in how physical activity is communicated – increased use of social media and mobile phone apps is needed to engage and increase the number of young women and girls in physical activity. Marketing campaigns for increased sporting activity should be more representative and inclusive and focus on the psychological and physical benefits of being active, and not on how bodies look or should look.

LSBU’s ‘This Girl Can, can’t she?’ research study was published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. It used interviews with 21 young women and girls in London and 4 charity-sector exercise providers with the collaboration of Lambeth Council to develop its analysis and recommendations.

Rita F. de Oliveira, Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Science at LSBU, said, “Boys are a main theme when it comes to the physical activity of young women and girls, both for the good and the bad. Leaders must take more care to foster a supportive atmosphere in mix-gender settings and be fair in the allocation of kit or equipment to boys and girls.

“One myth is that young women and girls exercise for their looks and that’s not what we found. They want to release stress, improve their skills and also have fun in the process.

“Funding bodies such as Sport England and local councils largely constrain what is on offer to young women and girls by making the rules that exercise providers must follow if they are to be funded. The providers on the ground often have clear ideas of what would need to be done to get women in a certain community active, but they depend on funding to implement it. To fill this gap, exercise providers should be consulted on what rules can be used to define successful interventions and these should be the same across funding bodies.

“Big changes are needed to widen access to physical activity for women and girls, including a greater emphasis on mental health benefits, improved balance between boys and girls activities and a re-think of school homework to involve more physical activity.”