Role of Sports in Girls' Lives

The Benefits of Sports
The first Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, released in 1996, documented that lifelong, regular, moderate physical activity can improve the quality of life for men and women of all ages.  Research indicates that a regular routine of at least 30-45 minutes of exercise, such as brisk walking or bicycling, reduces the risk of developing serious illnesses, including coronary heart disease, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, and diabetes, and helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints.  Regular physical activity can also help control weight and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Physical activity is also associated with a decrease in social and behavioral risks to girls’ and women’s health and well being, including reduction in illicit drug use, tobacco-related disease, unsafe sex and teen pregnancy, eating disorders and suicide.  Studies have also documented that girls who participated in high school sports are more likely to complete college than those who do not participate in sports.

Sports can provide girls the opportunity to master new skills, have fun, accept challenges, compete, and to experience the pleasure of physical movement. Moreover, sports training can lead to the development of important social skills, the formation of peer relationships, and the ability to cooperate and negotiate as a team member. Successful sporting experiences can also help build confidence, self-esteem and a positive body image.

Despite these seemingly obvious benefits, a crucial question about positive associations between sports and girls’ health and welfare has persisted.  As New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope has noted, “… A large body of research shows that sports are associated with all sorts of benefits, like lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades and higher self-esteem.  Until now, no one has determined whether those improvements are a direct result of athletic participation. It may be that the type of girl who is attracted to sports already has the social, personal and physical qualities—like ambition, strength and supportive parents—that will help her succeed in life.”

New evidence comes from studies of the results of implementing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX required schools and colleges receiving federal money to provide the same athletic opportunities for girls as they did for boys. Although relatively few students of either sex participate in intercollegiate sports, in just six years after the enactment of Title IX, the percentage of girls playing team sports in high school increased by six times, from about 4 percent to 25 percent.

Studies of the impact of Title IX provide additional evidence that team sports can result in lifelong improvements to educational achievement, levels of employment and health. Dr. Betsey Stevenson, the author of a recent study, concluded, “It's not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” and, “While I only show this for girls, it's reasonable to believe it's true for boys as well.”  Other studies suggest that Title IX is associated with a lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later, when women were in their late 30s and early 40s.

Current Status of Girls’ Participation in Sports and Needed Improvements
Childhood and adolescence are critical times to lay the foundation for lifelong physical activity, but unfortunately, too many young people, especially girls, are not active enough. As children grow into adolescence, their participation in physical activity declines dramatically. As the Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health tells us, almost half of young people aged 12 to 21 are not vigorously active on a regular basis and 14 percent are completely inactive. And there is a gender gap: young females are twice as likely to be inactive as young males.

Only about 1 in 3 high school girls play sports, compared with about half of all boys. The gender gap, however, is not uniform across the country and age brackets.  Participation varies widely by state, with Southern states like Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee having large gender gaps, and Northern states like Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont closer to equal participation.  In some communities, access to sport and physical activity for girls appears to be hampered by economic disadvantages and inadequate school resources.

Young urban girls, especially those who are poor, have less opportunity for becoming involved with sports than boys and girls from suburban and rural communities.  A large majority, 84% of urban girls, report having no PE classes at all in the 11th and 12th grades. Rural girls in the same grades are not far behind, with 68% reporting no PE classes. Across the country, young low-income children—both girls and boys—are underserved with regard to school-based physical education.

Needed Changes to Promote Girl’s Participation in Sport
The report Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and other reports suggest steps to enable the greater participation of girls in sports.  They include:

  • More quality school-based physical education for girls.

  • Encouraging girls to get involved in sport and physical activity at an early age.

  • Challenging stereotypes that impede girls’ participation in sports.
  • More fathers mentoring young female athletes.  Girls most frequently cite non-family members as their mentors in exercise and sports—coaches and physical education teachers. For boys, fathers and coaches top the list of main mentors.
  • The creation of more girl-centered sports and exercise programs that emphasize “fun and friendships” may help schools, communities and church leagues successfully recruit and retain girls of elementary school age.
  • Increasing opportunities for exercise in PE classes may be especially effective in introducing exercise into the lives of children who do not like sports.

  • Special programs are needed for children with disabilities. Nine percent of American families have a child with a disability who may have limited opportunities to engage in sports or other physical activities.

  • More research is needed on sports injuries that occur frequently among girls and women, such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries and concussions.
  • Sport governing bodies should monitor and evaluate the ongoing provision of athletic participation opportunities across race, ethnicity and gender.

  • School and community program leaders should consider developing innovative sports and exercise programs that fit some of the unique needs and interests of children from different cultural backgrounds, rather than expecting that all children fit into the existing array of existing programs.

References and Links:

Jaffe, L., & Manzer, R. (1992). Girls’ perspectives: Physical activity and self-esteem. Melpomene: A Journal for Women’s Health Research, 11(3), 14–23.

US Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity and health: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 1996.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. 1997. Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls: Physical and Mental Health Dimensions from an Interdisciplinary Approach. Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

The following six references can be found in the research section of the website of the Women’s Sports Foundation:

Sabo, D., Miller, K., Farrell, M., Barnes, G., & Melnick, M. (1998). The Women’s
Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Miller, Kathleen E., Donald F. Sabo, Merrill J. Melnick, Michael P. Farrell, and
Grace M. Barnes. (2000). The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Health Risks and the Teen Athlete. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Sabo, D., Miller, K. E., Melnick, M. J. & Heywood, L. (2004). Her Life Depends On It: Sport, Physical
Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Sabo, D., and Veliz, P. (2008). Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Staurowsky, E. J., DeSousa, M. J., Ducher, G., Gentner, N., Miller, K. E., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., & Williams, N. (2009). Her Life Depends On It II: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Women’s Sports Foundation (2009). Women’s Sports & Fitness Facts & Statistics. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Parker-Pope, T. As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends February 15, 2010. Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/15/as-girls-become-women-sports-pay-dividends/

Kaestner, Robert and Xin Xu. 2010. “Title IX, Girls' Sports Participation, and Adult Female Physical Activity and Weight.” Evaluation Review 34: 52-78. Abstract at: http://erx.sagepub.com/content/34/1/52.abstract
Betsey Stevenson, 2010. "Beyond the Classroom: Using Title IX to Measure the Return to High School Sports," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(2), pages 284-301, 08.





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