The sedentary lifestyle of children is deeply worrying, and the latest study confirms it is a particular problem among girls. Only a third are getting an hour of exercise a day compared to two-thirds of boys, and the gap widens as they get older. If we’re serious about tackling the looming obesity and diabetes crises we must make exercise appeal to girls.
For starters let’s give them role models. They already exist but are invisible going by the sports pages of most newspapers, radio and TV bulletins and panel shows.
In an age of airbrushed celebrities it‘s incredibly important that girls see images of women comfortable taking part in sport. Women shone in the Olympics and for a couple of weeks their hard work and talent was showcased alongside their male counterparts. In New Zealand positive action has been taken to ensure televised women’s sport is the norm.
I want to see more coverage of homegrown talent. Eilidh Child, Lynsey Sharp and Eilish McColgan are down-to-earth, articulate and demonstrate all that is positive about being physically active.
We must listen to girls to understand what would enable them to be more active. It may be something as simple as better changing facilities. Let’s look too at the issue of gender segregation. We must offer a range of activities rather than assuming girls will prefer netball to rugby.
We also need to address misperceptions about diet. Research by Morgan Windram-Geddes of Dundee University shows that many 11 to 14-year-olds falsely believe they do not need to exercise as long as they cut down on the amount of fat they eat.
We should emphasise to girls the social benefits of sport and the skills learned like time management and goal-orientation that can be applied to exams and employment.
I’d also say to young women that sport is an excellent way of de-stressing. You become mindful of what you are doing in the moment.
We must reduce costs. Outside school hours it can be hard for parents on low and modest incomes. Use of facilities, kit, transport – it all adds up. And of course there’s the loss of public green space which deprives children of free places to play in their neighbourhoods.
The Fit for Girls initiative involving SportScotland is welcome but we need to go further, embedding physical activity from the earliest age. That’s why safe walking and cycling routes for school, work and play are so important. I’d also like to see every girl in Scotland, every child in Scotland, learning to swim.
Next year’s Commonwealth Games will be tobacco free, showing that determined action to address our national health is possible when the benefits are clear.
Like Jessica Ennis says, how you deal with setbacks is what makes you a better athlete. Our ambitions to be a healthy nation are undoubtedly suffering a setback. We must pick up the pace and make it much easier for girls to be active in a way that suits them.