Adolescent Girls and Physical Activity – Strengthening the Body, Mind and Soul

Adolescent Girls and Physical Activity – Strengthening the Body, Mind and Soul

Originally published in the Society for the Psychology of Women


As girls enter adolescence, they tend to stop engaging in as much physical activity as they had been in late childhood (Beech et al., 2003; Kimm et al., 2002). As early as 10 years of age (Aaron et al., 1993; Heath et al., 1994), girls begin to become more sedentary, their activity levels dropping by as much as 83 percent as they transition through adolescence (Kimm et al., 2002; Wolf et al., 1993). Even though physical activity has gained more attention in recent years because of the obesity epidemic, by 18 and 19 years of age, the majority of girls engage in virtually no physical activity except gym class at school (Kimm et al., 2002).

Why does this matter?

This sharp decrease in girls’ physical activity levels is really concerning because engaging in physical activity as a preteen and teenager has important implications for adulthood. Research suggests that helping girls develop active lifestyles as adolescents facilitates them continuing that active lifestyle into adulthood. Inactive adolescents are very likely to become inactive adults (Gordon-Larsen, Adair, Nelson, & Popkin, 2004; Pate, Heath, Doda, & Trost, 1996), and being inactive as an adult is related to substantial risk of serious health conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. More recent research has even demonstrated clear links between inactivity and many types of cancer, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, and cervix (Kushi et al., 2006; Lee et al., 2012). It may be no surprise, then, that being inactive significantly shortens life expectancy (Lee et al., 2012).

In particular, lack of physical activity is associated with becoming overweight or obese. This health problem carries with it a host of consequences for physical and mental health. In childhood, it leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, diabetes, sleep apnea, low self-esteem, and social stigmatization (Daniels et al., 2005; Dietz, 2004; Fagot-Campagna et al., 2000; Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett, 2004; Strauss, 2000). In addition, overweight children are likely to be overweight as adults (Field, Cook, & Gillman, 2005), meaning that overweight children are also at higher risk for developing heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and cancer later in life (Office of the Surgeon General, 2010).

Being physically active as a teenager, then, can help to protect against a wide range of health risks in adolescence and into adulthood. But being active also has many immediate benefits for girls, in particular for their mental health. Research shows that pre-teen and teenage girls who play on a sports team report greater life satisfaction and feel healthier than girls who did not (Zullig & White, 2011). Perhaps most importantly, physical activity leads to higher self-esteem, especially among younger adolescent girls and girls who are overweight (Schmalz, Deane, Birch, & Davison, 2007). This is exciting given that adolescent girls are at high risk for low self-esteem as they go through adolescence (Kling, Hyde, Showers, & Buswell, 1999). Self-esteem is important for psychological well-being, positive body image, increased self-efficacy, and leadership skills, and having self-esteem protects against depression, anxiety, loneliness, aggression problems, and high-risk behaviors like smoking and substance abuse (Strauss, 2000; Strong et al., 2005; Trzesniewski et al., 2006). Thus, helping our girls be physically active can help them stay healthy physically and psychologically and emotionally.

Staying physically active also helps girls’ cognitive skills. Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve functioning in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (Chaddock, Pontifex, Hillman, & Kramer, 2011; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008), which is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain.” This is because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our executive functions, which are cognitive control skills like the ability to focus our attention, be creative and flexible in our thinking, utilize self-control, modulate intense emotions, and store and manipulate information in our working memory (which allows us to do mental math, for example). This means our prefrontal cortex also plays a key role in our ability to problem solve, think in complex and abstract ways, exercise good judgment in challenging situations, and do well in school. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to mature and therefore still developing in teenagers.

Specifically, children and adolescents who engage in more aerobic activity show improved math skills, improved cognitive flexibility, improved creativity, and improved working memory (Hillman et al., 2008; Chaddock et al., 2011; Davis et al., 2011). There is evidence that in particular playing sports, rather than just getting any form of aerobic exercise, is especially beneficial for cognitive skills in youth and adolescents (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Sports not only exercise our bodies, but they also “exercise” our executive functions because they require sustained attention, working memory, and self-discipline (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Sports can additionally decrease stress and promote positive mood and social bonding, whereas stress, depression, and loneliness are all associated with impairments in executive functions (Hillman et al., 2008; Arnsten, 1998; Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

In summary, helping our girls be active and stay active as they go through adolescence is important for helping them be healthy and happy, both now and later.

But, why do girls stop being active in adolescence?

A lot is unknown about why physical activity declines among adolescent girls. But, research has identified several factors that seem to contribute.

One is more rigid gender roles in adolescence. As children become adolescents, their perceptions of gender roles and appropriate behavior for each gender become more rigid (Liben & Bigler, 2002). Adolescent girls may be more likely than they were as younger children to view sports as a “male” activity. Despite increasing trends in our culture towards celebrating women and girls in sports, there is still a strong pervasive stereotype that sports are not “feminine”. For example, 11-year-old Caroline Pla in Pennsylvania recently gained national attention for being removed from her youth football team after being told by team officials that “football is designated for boys.” Even though the United States sent more female athletes than male athletes to the 2012 Summer Olympics, teenage boys are still significantly more likely than teenage girls to be involved in a sport (Terzian & Moore, 2009).

Research with girls has also highlighted that many girls worry that being physically active would “ruin” their appearance because it may mean getting sweaty and messing up their makeup and hair (Grieser et al., 2006; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). It’s easy to see how girls could develop this concern. Last summer, even as 16-year -old U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas was making history at the Olympics, much of the media was concerned with her how her hair looked.

So, what can we do?

Model being active. Girls who are more active tend to have parents who are active and who initiate physical activity with their daughters (Robertson-Wilson et al., 2003; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Plan family bike rides, hikes or gym outings. Invite your daughter to run with you or try a dance class together. It’ll be good for your health and hers.

Model making time for exercise. Many girls report not being physically active because they don’t think they have time (Kimm et al., 2006). However, researchers have found that lack of time for exercise is extremely subjective (Kimm et al., 2006). Girls may need help recognizing time to exercise, or deciding to choose exercise instead of other activities like watching TV. Although the USDA recommends youth get at least 60 minutes of moderate activity a day, even 15-30 minutes of brisk walking has substantial health benefits (World Health Organization, 2010; Wen et al., 2011).

Provide encouragement and support for your daughter to be active. For example, girls who are overweight often report that feeling “embarrassed” about their bodies or their athletic ability prevents them from being active, especially in activities that require more body exposure (like swimming) or that may involve changing in the locker room with others. But there are lots of ways to be active. Brainstorm with your daughter activities that appeal to her and she thinks may be fun. If there is a sport she might be interested in but it’s not offered in school, it may be offered in the community. There are also lots of ways to be active alone if she prefers. Walking around the neighborhood listening to music or an audiobook. Using WiiFit or free On Demand fitness videos at home. Taking the dog for a walk or jog.

Research shows that persuasion can also be effective in encouraging teenage girls to get active, but focus on immediate benefits. Although as a parent you may be concerned about the long-term health consequences of your daughter’s inactivity, adolescents tend to be focused on the here and now. Developmentally, they tend to be less motivated by consequences far in the future that they can’t see yet.

Focus on how exercise may help her body and mind feel. Be wary of using appearance-related reasons to motivate her, like losing weight. Although physical activity is usually associated with a host of psychological benefits, it is actually associated with worse psychological wellbeing when it is done for externally motivated reasons (like losing weight), as opposed to internally motivated reasons (like feeling good or enjoyment). Emphasize how sports boost energy, mood, and self-confidence, and the friendships formed as part of a team (Voorhees et al., 2005). Most of all, emphasize that sports are fun. Pre-teens and teens report having fun as the no. one reason they participate in sports (Dishman et al., 2005; Biddle, Whitehead, O’Donovan, & Nevill, 2005). Girls further report that a large component of sports being fun is the social bonding that occurs as part of a team (Voorhees et al., 2005). Help your daughter find a sport that makes her smile and laugh, and encourage social connections she forms through sports.

Plan ahead. If your daughter is younger, involve her in sports from an early age. By the time she reaches her teenage years, being active may be more habitual and not something she may necessarily question (Whitehead & Biddle, 2008).

Lastly, support girls and women in sports. As a culture, we need to promote the idea that girls can be sporty and feminine at the same time, that sweat and hard work are beautiful. Point out female athletes who are positive role models. Attend female sporting events, like a local college’s women’s basketball games. Promoting the physical activity of our girls will not only help their health, but it may even get us to pay more attention to our own, too.


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