A gender gap in fitness among teenagers – as highlighted in the recent results of the 2016 Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge – is to be expected.
But it is the widening of the gulf over the first four years of secondary school that’s worrying for anybody with daughters.
It suggests that not only are many girls missing out on the proven physical, emotional and academic benefits that regular exercise brings, but they may also be developing health behaviours that will be hard to change as they move into adulthood.
With almost 23,000 students from a quarter of the country’s secondary schools taking part in the latest shuttle run challenge, it would seem to offer a representative snapshot of the state of our teenagers’ cardiovascular health. They do a baseline test and then, after six weeks’ of training, repeat the exercise to see how their performance has improved.
Data collected over five years of this initiative has enabled the creation of standardised norms for the first time, so that teenagers can now see how their fitness level ranks with peers of the same age and gender nationally.
Of course, physiology comes into play and partly explains why the 2016 results show that first-year boys are 32 per cent fitter than their female counterparts. (Among elite athletes, the gender gap in world record times is about 10 per cent for running events over distances between 200m and 10km distances, and is slightly smaller for the 100m and marathon.)
However, by fourth year the boys’ performance has improved while the girls’ average fitness levels remain static, pushing the gap to 41 per cent.
That's the "stark stat" coming out of the research, agrees Dr Kate Kirby, head of performance psychology at the Irish Institute of Sport. "Hopefully it will force the powers-that-be to look at what needs to be done."
Prof Niall Moyna of DCU's Centre for Preventive Medicine, who oversees the fitness challenge, fears the situation is worse than the figures suggest.
“The girls do remain constant but I believe it is a ‘false number’ because the girls who were testing are the ones who are remaining active and participating in sports and activities while the vast majority have dropped out.”
It’s time from an Irish perspective, Dr Kirby says, to delve a little deeper, to find out what the barriers are: to look at the girls who continue to be physically active and find out what motivates them to continue, as well as looking at ones who drop out.
“This can then inform changes in policy and changes in approach in trying to keep [participation] levels up.”
The critical transition point seems to be the move from primary to secondary level, she explains. Not only does the environment change and the peer group get bigger, but the individuals are going through adolescence too.
“If the older girls at school aren’t being physically active, that sets the precedent and the norm,” she says.
So first-year girls, who might have happily spent their breaks at primary school playing active games such as chasing, now regard this as babyish and are more inclined to sit around and chat with friends.
It’s also a stage of life when girls are becoming increasingly self-conscious about their bodies and what they look like. They don’t like to be seen sweating or having red faces due to exertion.
“They say in research that they don’t want to be seen as unfeminine,” says Dr Kirby. “Sport and fitness has been traditionally associated with masculinity, particularly competitive sports.
“We’re trying to change that perception,” she continues, with “amazing women athletes” as role models promoting the aspiration of “strong not skinny” for girls and young women.
Women's sport has definitely been getting a higher profile in the last three or four years, agrees Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson (26). "It's becoming more fashionable now to be fit."
The whole social media revolution since her time in secondary school has both pros and cons, as she sees it, for girls’ participation in sport. While it’s undoubtedly a huge drain on their time and attention, with screens fostering sedentary behaviour, it is also a channel of communication that has helped promote the image of women’s sport.
“We need to push it as much as we can on social media because that’s what every teenager is doing at the moment – stuck to the phone.”
Having spoken publicly about how sport has helped to pull her through mental health problems, Thompson says teenage girls are failing to see this other side to exercise. “They don’t realise it could be a crutch.”
The Cork camogie captain struggled with depression in the wake of a car crash in 2009 and after a friend, who she had been in an on-off relationship with, took his own life.
Sport is obviously there to be fun, she continues, “but it’s down the line, when something tragic might happen and there’s nothing to turn to, because it is not always easy to turn to family and friends. That’s where sport comes in – that’s where it came for me.”
Boost physical activity
To this day, “when I go to training I could be in bad form but I will always come away smiling”, she adds.
From a psychological perspective, Dr Kirby sees two issues that could be worked on to boost teenage girls’ level of physical activity. Firstly, they need to be motivated through education about all the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, mental health and academic benefits, as well as the behavioural advantages of staying away from smoking and drinking.
“The goal is then their own; it’s an internalised goal rather than one that is being forced upon them.”
Secondly, de-emphasising rivalry and competition would, she suggests, widen the appeal of physical activities at school.
“It’s a generalisation but it is a common finding that the focus on competitive sport is off-putting for a lot of girls.”
Research also shows that a lot of what girls enjoy about sports is the social benefits – the close friendships they form.
“If your sport is around you turn up, you train and you go straight home, you don’t get that social aspect,” says Dr Kirby, who says that perhaps girls should be facilitated in going for a smoothie and chat with their friends afterwards, instead of bypassing sport to meet up with people.
Increased academic pressures is undoubtedly a factor for the drop-off as girls move up through secondary school – although there’s the same pressure for boys of course.
“Girls are more mature and they recognise the long-term consequences of not studying,” says Dr Kirby. “It would be good if they could also recognise the long-term consequences of not exercising.”
It’s a message that parents would do well to heed to. Describing as “mind boggling” the pressure some parents put on their children in the lead-up to the Leaving Certificate, Prof Moyna warns that “they are doing it with consequences for the health of their children”.
Diet and behaviour
He tells teenagers the most important thing they will ever have is their health. There are so many routes and opportunities in post-Leaving Cert education now, he says, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to change your diet and behaviour.
If he was a parent of a Leaving Cert student, he says he would be telling them regularly to put on their headphones and go for a half-hour walk.
“I can guarantee they will be much more productive for the next two hours when they come back.”
At the awards ceremony for the School Fitness Challenge, Prof Moyna told the schoolgirls present that for far too long they have been treated as second-class citizens when it comes to sport and exercise in this country. Indeed it was ironic that at the venue for the event, one of Croke Park’s “All Star suites” on level six of the stadium, there doesn’t seem to be a female in sight among the dozens of photographic display panels of All Star players – even though there is an All Stars scheme for Ladies’ GAA too, running since 1980.
Teenage girls dropping out of sport is not unique to Ireland – it's a worldwide phenomenon, points out John Treacy, Olympic silver medallist and now chief executive officer of the Irish Sports Council. There's a trend, he says, which he saw with his own daughters, for some of those young women to return to sport in their 20s.
He appeals to parents, “to mothers in particular”, not to write notes into school to get their daughters off PE class.
Indeed, at Mount Anville Secondary School in south Dublin, winner of the "fittest girls' school" title in the Schools Fitness Challenge, pupils can't bring in a note to sit out of the PE class, says teacher Noelle Farrell.
If a girl is feeling under the weather, she can take a less energetic role for the session, such as umpire or coach, and if she’s not up to that, the thinking goes, she should not be in school in the first place.
The girls who love sports
When Louise O’Dowd got dropped from under-age county trials for Gaelic football in her native Kerry she didn’t let that put her off the sport she enjoys so much.
But she saw other girls who also wanted to play at county level just giving up completely if they were deemed not to make the grade.
"I love the outdoors and making new friends in football," says Louise, a transition-year student at Presentation Secondary school in Milltown, Co Kerry, who won the "fittest girl" award in the recent Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge. Her school also ranked as the country's fittest mixed school.
Although committed to an active lifestyle herself, she suggests that “all the homework” is one reason girls stop playing sport when they go into secondary school and also “people get lazy”.
Beside the lads in mixed PE classes, girls can be intimidated and don’t want to try too hard, she explains. “They don’t want to be embarrassed.”
There is a lot of variety in PE classes, she says, and the teacher is “very considerate” but “most girls aren’t really that sporty”.
However, she thinks the "swim and gym" programme they are doing in transition year is a good idea. They go to the Aura sports and leisure centre in Killarney where half the group goes to the gym and the other half swim in the pool.
Everybody “sort of has to do it” and while it pushes some of the girls outside their comfort zone, they “get more comfortable in themselves”, she adds.
"Basketball, hockey, tennis, athletics . . . " Sarah Al Mukhaizeem (13) and Sophie O'Sullivan (13), who both attend Mount Anville in Dublin, reel off the sports they are involved in, while fellow pupil Jessica Ryan (13) focuses on hockey and athletics. None of them have any intention of dropping out but they know they are lucky to be in a school which highly values sport and has just been deemed the fittest girls' school in the country.
All three enjoyed taking part in the fitness challenge. “It was really fun – it gave you such a rush,” says Jessica.
Sophie says it showed them how they had become less fit during the summer holidays, coming into first year. By just continuing PE and sport as normal over the six weeks between the two tests in the autumn, their performance markedly improved.
They also think being in a single-sex school is an advantage for girls less enthusiastic about PE and sport.
“It’s more competitive if there are boys around,” says Jessica. “That puts some off,” says Sarah.
They have noticed a drop-off in physical activity among their peers after primary school and suggest it’s partly because life is busier when you are a teenager.
“When you are younger you have less things on at the weekend,” says Jessica but as girls get older they may be “less bothered” to give up part of their Saturdays or Sundays for matches.
What parents can do to help keep teenage daughters active
Our job as adults is to get every child in this country to 18 years of age in good health, understanding the importance of being healthy and the crucial role that physical activity plays in that, says Prof Moyna.
“After that, they are adults and can make their own decisions.”
But it seems that parents of girls may have to try that bit harder to set them up for a lifetime of physical activity.
“Parents are a huge influence,” says Dr Kirby, “schools can only do so much”. Girls are much more likely to be physically active if their parents are.
So, apart from setting a good example of an active lifestyle yourself, what else can parents do for their daughters?
“ Facilitate and support their participation in sports; be on the sidelines for important matches.
“Encourage them to go and see sportswomen performing at the highest level.
“If they are not keen on the sports on offer at school, try to find another in the community for them to try, such as watersports, martial arts, trampolining, horse-riding, orienteering etc.
“If they are firmly ‘non-sporty’, encourage them to incorporate other forms of physical activity into their day such as walking, dancing, cycling and yoga.
“Don’t write them ‘sick’ notes for PE classes.
“Don’t pressurise them to sacrifice sport and other physical activity for more study time.
“Encourage them to take active breaks from the books by, for instance, going for a half-hour walk.
“Remember your child’s life is a marathon to old age – not a sprint to the Leaving Certificate.”