Teen girls are less active than boys, and it’s putting their health at risk. How do we fix it?

Teenage girls aren't meeting physical activity guidelines, according to a new study. Most boys aren't either, but there is a big gender gap.
Teenage girls aren't meeting physical activity guidelines, according to a new study. Most boys aren't either, but there is a big gender gap. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

A new report from the World Health Organization has found that in Canada, only about one in four adolescents are meeting basic physical activity guidelines.

But girls are even less active than boys, and the gap is growing.

In Canada, 70.5 per cent of boys between the ages of 11 and 17 failed to meet the physical activity guidelines in 2016 — defined as at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-intense activity every day, according to the global study, which relied on survey data.

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By comparison, 82.4 per cent of girls weren’t active enough, a 12-per cent gap.

And while boys actually seemed to become more active between 2001 and 2016, there was barely any change for girls.

READ MORE: Nearly one third of Canadian women don’t get enough physical activity — worse than men

“The sex difference is concerning, to say the least,” said Dr. Mark Tremblay, a senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute, and author of a commentary accompanying the study in the journal Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Canadian teens are actually slightly above the world average — 76 per cent of Canadian youth don’t meet the physical activity guidelines, compared to 81 per cent globally.

The worst-performing country in the survey was South Korea, where only six per cent of teens are getting enough activity.

For both boys and girls, a lack of physical activity has serious consequences for health, Tremblay said.

“All of the evidence that we have, and it’s unequivocal at this point, would suggest that this is a decay in the trajectory of future health, whether that be physical, mental, emotional, environmental, social, going forward.”

READ MORE: Are Canadian kids losing the ability to play? New study suggests a problem

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Physically, not getting enough activity is associated with things like increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, he said.

Mentally, less outdoor time means an increased risk of anxiety and depression, and kids also miss out on the social benefits of playing in groups, like more independence and learning how to navigate social situations.

And for teens who struggle with self-confidence and figuring out their identity, sports can be a huge help, said Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist with ParticipAction.

“Physical activity plays a huge impact in increasing their self-confidence as well as harnessing improved self-worth,” Vanderloo said.

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What’s more, activity habits set early in life tend to stick with kids as they get older, said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, chief executive officer of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.

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It’s not that girls just don’t enjoy being active, she said, “Girls like to play as much as boys.” The gap in activity levels is smaller at younger ages, though, she notes, it starts early on.

But as a girl hits puberty, a whole new set of pressures gets added on, she thinks.

“You hit puberty and your body starts to change and you’re self-conscious,” she said, “and maybe you don’t want to show up in front of all your friends wearing a swimsuit quite as much as you used to.”

READ MORE: Why are girls dropping out of sports?

While there have been some positive changes, she still thinks that Canadian culture doesn’t emphasize sports being an important part of a girl’s life quite as much as it does for boys.

“There’s a lot of messages about girls [needing] to look a certain way, whether it’s a particular body shape or they always need to look put-together and never sweaty, things like that,” Sandmeyer-Graves said.

“Ultimately, those messages compound.”

Girls don’t have as many sporting role models — though again that’s slowly changing — and even in their communities, most of their coaches are men, she said.

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And there aren’t always teams or activities geared towards girls. “Girls have to go further and look harder to find the same opportunities that boys do,”
she said. “And when they do, their needs and their wants aren’t necessarily reflected.”

READ MORE: Over half of Canadian girls notice gender discrimination in their pre-teen years

Some of what the WHO study shows might be related to how they’re asking the questions, Tremblay thinks. Girls might just not be counting all the physical activity they do at home that aren’t formal sporting activities, like walking the family dog, for example.

But what he thinks accounts for most of the difference is how much freedom parents give their girls as opposed to their boys.

“They give more latitude to their boys for independent mobility, for roaming distance from the house, allowed to go out on their own, etc,” Tremblay said. “And with those greater opportunities are greater opportunities for movement.”

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Addressing the problem means making sports more appealing to girls, Vanderloo thinks. “When we’re encouraging them to be more active, we really can’t emphasize enough the importance of fun.”

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“I was a teen girl a couple of years ago. It’s one of those things that if it was something I was not enjoying, there was no way I was going to continue doing it.”

Making sports more friendly means acknowledging girls’ needs, Sandmeyer-Graves said. Sometimes that means thinking about the space and facilities themselves.

“If you’re playing softball or baseball and you need to use the washroom and you’re a boy, versus you need to use the washroom and you’re a girl, it’s a very different calculation,” she said.

Girls also want to feel a sense of social acceptance before they put in effort to a sport, she said, and coaches should encourage that through how they structure their practices.

READ MORE: Canadian adults get a ‘D’ in overall physical activity, Participaction report finds

Sports and physical activity have to stack up against all the other things competing for girls’ time, whether that’s academic pursuits or even screen time, so it has to be easy to get into and enjoyable, Sandmeyer-Graves said.

In the end, it’s not that girls just don’t like sports, she thinks.

“It’s less about girls not liking it and not being interested, and more about, are we ultimately creating a movement where this is where they want to be and this is what they will choose to do instead of other things, or where they will pursue those things like their friendships and their social connections.”