Wednesday, February 5, 2014

National Girls and Women in Sports Day

Today, February 5th, is National Girls and Women in Sports Day.  As a woman, a mother, a runner and a professional, I have many reflections on the purpose of this day.  I wanted to share the thoughts of a respected colleague, Dr. Beth Taylor, who touts great accomplishments of women in sports but also asks poignant questions on what's holding women back.

Stay tuned for more insight from Dr. Taylor later this year in "Ask the Expert" Twitter Q&A series we're planning!  An Assistant Professor of Health Sciences who serves as Director of the Center for Health, Care and Well-being at University of Hartford as well as the Director of Exercise Physiology Research at Hartford Hospital, she knows her stuff! Follow her on Twitter @BParkerTalk

National Girls and Women in Sports Day
by Dr. Beth A. Taylor

I can’t think of anything more exciting than writing the following: February 5 is National Girls and Women in Sports Day! As a woman, and a mother, and a runner, I celebrate all the strong and fit women who participate in sports, especially given how far we’ve come. For example, at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, there were only 11 women competing in 2 events. By contrast, there will be 14 events for women in Sochi.  Similarly, we’ve made progress from the first summer Olympics in Paris, where 22 women competed in lawn tennis and golf. In the 2012 London Olympics, women made up 44% of participants, and it was the first Olympics in which women competed in all events.

However, there are still major obstacles facing women in sport. For example, in a recent New York Times column, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz noted that according to Google searches, “parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”” By contrast, “parents Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as frequently as they Google “Is my son overweight?”” Overall, Google queries for children are disproportionally skewed towards intelligence concerns for sons and appearance concerns for daughters, as the chart on the right indicates. This is troubling.

Moreover, inequalities in activity patterns begin early, with 8-12 year old girls already spending almost 20% less time being physically active than their male peers.  This trend continues across the adolescent years, as boys demonstrate increases in aerobic fitness, while girls exhibit decreases in fitness. The bar graph on the right graphically illustrates these trends, with NHANES data representing the percent of male (dark green) and female (light grey) children and adolescents achieving the recommended physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes/day. These early gender differences may explain in part why adult men typically spend more time engaged in vigorous exercise than adult women.

Why is this important? We all know the physical benefits of exercise, but according to this report by the World Health Organization, girls who participate in sports are more likely to achieve academic success than those who do not play sports. Female high school athletes express a greater interest in graduating from both high school and college, and are more likely to become sexually active later in life. Furthermore, girls who play sports are more empowered and view their bodies as a source of strength rather than a sexual or reproductive resource for men. HUZZAH!

So how do we get girls to be more physically active? Interestingly, factors associated with regular vigorous activity in girls  are highly social and psychological. They include having friends who exercise, being involved in a sports team, believing in the importance of exercise, and having self-confidence about exercise. Consequently, it seems to me that, as women, the more of us who exercise, the better it is.  By engaging in physical activity, we create a community of strong role models and social support for other women and girls. This fosters confidence that women belong in sport, whether it be for recreation or competition.  In the spirit of the Olympics, I’ll finish with a great example of how the support of just one woman can sustain belief across a lifetime.


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