More than one million girls have ‘fallen out of love’ with sport

Body image and mental health issues put girls off sport as they go through puberty, study finds.

07 March 2022

More than a million teenage girls who once thought of themselves as “sporty” lose interest in physical activity after primary school, a new report has estimated.

The charity Women in Sport surveyed over 4,000 teenagers ahead of International Women’s Day and found that 43% of girls who once felt they were “sporty” lost interest as they got older, equating to an estimated 1.3 million girls across the UK.

Out of these girls, 68% said that a fear of feeling judged prevented them from taking part, while 61% said they lacked confidence and 47% said they were too busy with school work.

Teenage girls were much more likely to say they used to be sporty but had fallen out of love with exercise than boys (24%), indicating that girls may need more support to engage with sport as they go through puberty.

Nearly eight in 10 – 78% – of girls who said they used to be sporty admitted they avoided taking part in sport when on their period – higher than those who had never been sporty (69%) and those who were still passionately involved in sport (64%).

Overall, seven in 10 girls said they avoided sport when menstruating – citing pain, tiredness, self-consciousness or fearing leaks as a reason for avoiding exercise at this time.

The report finds that the pandemic has impacted teenage girls’ worries about their appearance, as well as mental health issues.

It says that they are less physically active than boys in general and are far less likely to take part in team sports.

“Worryingly girls lose their love of sport and exercise during teenage years and this presents a significant psychological barrier throughout life,” it says.

The survey found that for respondents aged between 11 and 16, just 37% of girls enjoyed physical activity compared with 54% of boys.

By age 17-18, just three in 10 girls would describe themselves as sporty, compared with six in 10 boys.

Self-belief and body image concerns were found to be issues that all girls struggled with, but this was especially true for girls who had stopped taking part in sport and physical activity as they grew older.

Of previously “sporty” girls, 73% said their dislike of others watching them was an obstacle to their taking part in exercise.

Women in Sport said that it was “deeply concerned by the number of girls who disengage from sport and exercise post primary school”.

It added that a further dip in engagement was found at age 17 to 18, once school sport was no longer compulsory.

The report showed most girls understood the benefits of being active, and that they wanted to increase their levels of physical activity, but just under half – 47% – said they found it easy to motivate themselves.

Stephanie Hilborne, Women in Sport chief executive, said: “It’s an absolute travesty that teenage girls are being pushed out of sport at such a scale.”

She said that losing sport at this formative stage of their lives equated to a “loss of joy as well as good lifelong health”.

“It is well documented that taking part in physical activity can have a profound and positive effect on mental wellbeing as well as providing many pivotal life skills such as resilience, teamwork and communication,” she added.

“We must bust the myth that teenage girls drop out of sport simply because their priorities change. Our research has found that 59% of teenage girls who used to be sporty like competitive sport, but they’re being failed due to early years stereotyping, inadequate opportunities and a complete dearth of knowledge about managing female puberty.

“Teenage girls are not voluntarily leaving sport, they are being pushed out as a consequence of deep-rooted gender stereotypes.

“We must all do more to reverse this trend and not continue to accept this as inevitable.”

The charity is calling for sport, leisure and education sectors to keep girls engaged in sport, especially during the transition from primary to secondary school and during puberty.

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