Girls and exercise

A survey came out this week about girls attitudes towards school sports. I’m not going to link to any of the news coverage, where the story was just used as an excuse to print photo of fruity girls in crop tops (A level results are a long way away for picture editors!). The one thing I will say is that the comments on the BBC News coverage suggested that boys are equally dissatisfied by the options they are presented with at school, but since the survey was commissioned by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation I’m going to concentrate on the girls. You can find the full report here.

Let’s look at some numbers!

Half of all girls (51%) are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE.

Count me in with that 51%. After leaving school I didn’t set foot in a gym or do any kind of exercise class until I was in my late 20s. If it wasn’t for bellydancing I would have been almost totally inactive during that period (apart from walking and cycling). I didn’t count bellydancing as exercise, it was too much fun! I associated exercise with being cold and miserable, therefore anything enjoyable couldn’t possibly be exercise. Never mind that after a week of bellydance summer school I went down a belt notch. But actually bellydance was my route back to more intense physical activity. It taught me that my body could do amazing things, and that I could enjoy movement in it’s own right, without worrying about being faster or better than the person next to me. I got a sense of achievement from mastering shimmy layering; I get the same sense of achievement now from squatting a few more kilos, or doing just one more push up. All this movement is joyful to me. I hope my students can learn to feel that joy when they dance, that sense of wonder at what their bodies can do.

Of the least active girls, 46% say that they don’t like the activities they get to do in PE compared to 26% of the most active.

At school we had two options: hockey or netball. After two years the girls who weren’t on a sports team were allowed to do aerobics instead. Guess what activities I haven’t done since leaving school! If you said hockey, netball and aerobics you win a cookie. Instead I have done bellydancing, Body Combat, boxercise, flamenco, pilates, weight training, yoga and Zumba. None of which are the “traditional sports” you do at school.

The survey goes on to examine the reasons that girls reject the activitives they are offered in school (they don’t reject activity and fitness outright, 76% of 15 year old girls said they would like to do more physical activity). Body image is a big part of this: not wanting to have to wear unflattering PE kit (athletics knickers and leotards *shudder*) especially in front of boys, not wanting to look “unfeminine” (sweaty or dirty). To a self conscious teenage girl these things are very very real and important. Girls are also very concerned with what their friends think, they want to be sociable and have fun together. They also don’t want to be seen to fail in front of their friends and peers. It’s all very well telling them to just get their act together and DO IT but if we’re concerned with long term health then it is necessary to address these things. There is no point in bullying a girl through an hour of PE when she is 15 only to have her reject all exercise at the age of 18. Noone benefits from that.

Can we not get these girls bellydancing already? You can wear what you like, as long as it allows you to move freely, it can cover as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. It is an incredibly feminine way of moving, even if you do get a bit sweaty now and then. You get to see how the same movements look equally beautiful on different bodies. There is an abundance of female role models. There is no competition – if competition motivates you to be active then you are already well catered for by school sports but the survey suggests you are in a minority. There is a strong social side to bellydancing, you can dance with your friends, create combinations and choreographies and even perform together. I still find that fun and my teenage years are a long way behind me 🙂

You know what, we could even let the boys have a go.

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