Angela Crawford has a unique role at Union Middle School. She is a middle school health and sports teacher who specializes not in basketball or volleyball, but in strength and stamina.
She noticed a discouraging pattern. She has repeatedly seen fewer girls than boys in her classrooms. This year, only about one in five students in their strength and conditioning class is female. While it’s been an upswing since high school when she was one of five girls in a strength and conditioning class, it’s still a noticeable deficit and shows a gap between men and women in the school gym.
In fact, only 14% of Utah girls achieve the state-mandated recommended physical activity levels of 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous exercise, compared with 28% of boys. Recent research by the Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project explores the question and combines three studies to shed light on why this deficit exists.
One obstacle that stands in the way of girls’ interest in physical fitness is the lack of opportunity. While some girls prefer team sports or competitive activities, women of all ages showed preferences for non-competitive sports such as yoga, cycling, and dancing. Traditional sports such as soccer, basketball, and flag football are usually taught more in physical education than any type of non-competitive activity, and girls are not given any information about how they would like to be taught.
“Many people are generally concerned about physical activity, especially in young children,” said Rachel Myrer, assistant professor at Utah State University and the study author. “But there is a difference between activities that boys and girls enjoy, and for this reason we see differences in the number of participants. These are further reflected as they move from adolescents to adults. “
When girls and young women are offered different types of exercise, studies show that they experience more autonomy, self-determination and participation in the activity they have chosen.
That is why teachers in the Granite School District are interviewing middle school students about the activities they would like to do in high school physical education. Based on these survey results, Chris Shipman, the district’s sports and track and field specialist, meets with the high school’s physical education teachers and decides what activities will be offered.
“If it’s something we don’t have equipment for, we will help secure the equipment to introduce new activities,” Shipman said. “When you go to our physical education class, you don’t sit outside much because we do what the kids want to do.”
Middle and high school teachers are in control of their physical education classes, with the exception of a compulsory year of Fitness for Life curriculum in ninth or tenth grade. This requirement actually supports the results of the study and gives students an opportunity to build skills that will lead to lifelong healthy lifestyles. These skills can be learned in many forms, including sports, dance, and outdoor recreational activities, allowing schools to include activities that are preferred by women.
Breanna Villegas, left, and Sarah Cowdell will compete in a doubles tennis match at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Why aren’t all schools adaptable?
One problem raised by Tim Brusseau, associate professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at the University of Utah and peer reviewer for the study, is that schools do not have the resources to conduct a wide variety of activities.
“In our middle and elementary schools in particular, we may only have one or two PE teachers,” says Brusseau, who has been studying school-based movement programming for over 15 years. “Therefore it is more difficult to divide the students into several activities and to offer choices.”
Brusseau says physical education budgets sometimes fail to take into account requests for new equipment, so children may not have the opportunity to choose next year’s program. Even if nobody wants to play basketball or flag football, the equipment is already there.
Even high school physical education teachers may not have specific training in this area. Elementary schools typically hire assistants or part-time workers to teach physical education, and these teachers often only teach once a week for about 45 minutes, which is well below the recommended activity time for students.
The myth of “sculpting a body”
Another obstacle for girls and women is the social pressure on body image. According to the study, Utah women have low body acceptance, which correlates with low physical activity. A cited study showed that the physical and mental benefits of physical activity were completely lost “when the motivating factor for exercise was weight loss or toning”.
According to Angela Crawford, a strength and conditioning coach at Union Middle School, this emphasis on focusing training on body shape is not only harmful to women, but also factually inaccurate.
“You cannot reduce selectively,” says Crawford. “You can’t do sit-ups to lose belly fat. You can build muscle, but you cannot choose where to lose fat from. That is actually not possible. “
Despite this knowledge, Crawford is seeing social media pressure everywhere on the bodies of women. She noticed that her former employer, 24 Hour Fitness, sold shirts that had the tagline “Look Better Naked” on them. Research has shown that conformance with societal notions of attractiveness is the main motivator for young women to participate in physical activity.
“Women are under a lot of pressure to meet a certain standard of beauty,” says Kim Buesser, a doctoral student at Utah State University and the study author. “This can decrease self-confidence and self-worth, and reduce their capacity to look at the appearance of their bodies. I think this shows that young women are less confident or less able to understand their worth and capabilities beyond the looks of their bodies. “
Sarah Cowdell and Breanna Villegas speak to a coach during their doubles tennis match at Jordan High School in Sandy on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
How to bridge the gap
Teachers and district leaders are concerned about the low number of girls meeting physical fitness recommendations. But the solution is simple: listen.
“One of the things that makes a strong, data-based strategy is that relationships are definitely really important,” said Sally Williams, curriculum specialist for the Canyons School District. “If you have a good relationship with your students and are approachable, then they are by far more likely to participate.”
The Canyons School District offers yoga, aerobics, biking, dancing, and a strength-training class for girls only. By learning what children love to do in class, teachers can request different materials and customize their curriculum.
The girls-only weight class primarily appeals to high school aged girls. A study in the Journal of Sports, Science & Medicine found that young women experience negative social feedback when they cannot shower or change clothes after exercising because of the effect they have on others, especially around boys.
A weight class where girls aren’t afraid to let go and work up a sweat helps eliminate this social perception and create a safe environment to exercise.
Study author Madsen hopes that, through the lessons learned from this research, schools can begin to tailor lessons based on physical insecurity and expand the typical repertoire of physical education activities.
“For girls to be leaders, they need to feel like leaders,” says Madsen. “This is where confidence and mental health come from. It is one of those essential elements of being able to truly contribute to your home, school, workplace and community as a whole. “