Opinion: Adolescent girls are being left at the bottom of the class when it comes to being physically active, and we need to develop effective interventions to promote lifelong physical activity behaviours in this age group.   

‘This Girl Can.’ ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.’ Changing perceptions of what it means to be active, and what it means to be sporty have been at the forefront of recent campaigns in the UK and Ireland to get females moving more.

The target population in these campaigns is not by chance; females are less physically active than males and take part in less sport at most stages across the lifecycle compared to their male counterparts.

With evidence showing us that physical activity habits can track from childhood into adolescence and adulthood, we need to ensure we provide our young females with the opportunities to develop good habits in relation to physical activity and prevent future ill health as a consequence of being inactive. 

So what do we know about current physical activity levels, and what should be doing to change this? Our children and young people should be taking part in at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

These activities should be of at least a moderate intensity - activities that make us feel a bit warmer, a bit out of breath and get our hearts beating faster - to ensure we achieve the associated health benefits. 

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We know that many young people across Ireland do not achieve the recommended levels; a study conducted in 2017 found that less than a quarter of Irish schoolchildren were achieving the recommended 60 minutes per day. Gender gaps in relation to economics, politics and education have all received heightened attention in recent years.

The gender gap is alive and well when we look at physical activity levels also. In terms of when this gap starts to emerge, studies such as the Millennium Cohort Study have highlighted that in children as young as 7, clear gender differences exist in relation to physical activity levels.

This study measured physical activity in a large sample of children across the UK and highlighted only half of 7-year-olds were meeting the current recommendation of 60 minutes per day.

Other findings of note were that boys were more likely to meet the guidelines (63%) than girls (38%), and that children from Northern Ireland were the least likely to meet the guidelines.

As well as spending less time in physical activity, we know that girls are also less likely to take part in sport. Data from the Youth Sport Trust highlighted that girls spend, on average, 25 minutes per day on sporting activities, with boys taking part in 40 minutes per day. 

In terms of how to change these trends, we can look at a number of different avenues to try and increase the physical activity of our adolescent females.

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Promoting participation in sport is one possible means of increasing physical activity, and this has been a focus of recent campaigns aimed at increasing the visibility of female sport in Ireland; "If she can’t see, she can’t be it."

Schools may also have a role to play, providing existing infrastructure and a platform to promote health related behaviours to all children. Physical activity can be promoted through the curriculum (namely timetabled physical education) and by providing other opportunities for physical activity within the school setting.

Curriculum changes in 2018 saw the introduction of physical education as a full examinable Leaving Cert subject, which is seen by many as a positive move.

Such changes may only benefit those who are already engaged with physical education, and we need to look at other means of engaging less active females in physical activity. We also need to be cautious that any approaches we develop not only promote physical activity, but do so in a way that does not place any further burden on schools to deliver health promoting behaviours in an already overloaded curriculum.

In order to fully understand how to promote physical activity and develop positive lifelong behaviours in young females, we need to actively consult and engage with our target population. Research by our group has sought to examine the experiences of adolescent females in relation to physical activity.

We conducted a number of focus groups with adolescents in Northern Ireland who had recently transitioned from primary to post-primary education, and found a number of barriers to physical activity in this population.

Cost and access to resources, alongside changing priorities were all identified as challenges to being physically active. In terms of enabling physical activity in this group, incorporating social support from peers and providing ‘non-traditional’ types of physical activity and sport within the school setting were identified by adolescent females as potential solutions.

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We need to provide adolescent females with a catalogue of options when it comes to being physically active, particularly within the school setting. These options should be provided in addition to current extra-curricular provision and overcome some of the previously cited barriers of current provision, such as the competitive selection process to take part in team sports.

One possible solution may be providing informal, unstructured physical activity within the school setting. Our research team are currently looking at the potential of walking clubs within the school setting at increasing physical activity in adolescent females.

The Walking In ScHools (WISH) Trial will involve female adolescents from schools across Northern Ireland and the border region of the Republic of Ireland. If effective, the WISH trial may provide a sustainable option for schools to further promote physical activity, and behaviours that can be easily maintained into adulthood. 

Promoting lifelong physical activity in adolescent females will require efforts at all levels, from the individual to changes at the society level. By engaging with the target population, and developing interventions informed by young females, we may make some progress in helping them close the gap on their male peers when it comes to physical activity. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ