A study published by Fundación MAPFRE analyzes the reasons why young girls stop doing sports at around 15 years of age. One of the authors, Fernando del Villar Álvarez, explains some of these reasons to us and offers the keys to tackling them.

“Physical inactivity is believed to be the fourth leading risk factor for all deaths worldwide, and the number one public health problem of the 21st century.” This is the blunt conclusion of Antonio Luque and Fernando del Villar Álvarez, authors of the report published recently by Fundación MAPFRE, Young Women and Physical Activity. Indeed, no one questions the fact that regular physical exercise has positive effects on our health, in particular as regards the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, coronary problems, diabetes or COPD, among others. Despite this, the latest global data on the prevalence of physical inactivity are really striking. And even more so among adolescents: 80 percent of those in the 11-17 age group do not heed the minimum international health recommendations for physical activity.

In Spain, the panorama is very similar. In fact, it has one of the highest rates of inactivity in the European Union. And there is a particularly significant decline among those aged 15 to 24, the age group which reveals the greatest prevalence of sedentary behavior. In other words, young people give up taking exercise at this transition stage from adolescence to adulthood. And even more so, if they are girls: “Recent research demonstrates a clear association between gender and physical activity levels. Boys tend to be more physically active than girls and are the ones who reveal a greater degree of compliance with the recommendations for sports practice.” This is stated in the Introduction to this report, which aims to determine the motivations and perceived barriers which impact on the habits of young women when it comes to physical or sporting exercise.

¿Por qué las chicas dejan el deporte?

Sport or studies?

Fernando del Villar Alvarez is a member of the Center for Sport Studies at the King Juan Carlos University (Madrid), and one of the report’s authors: “The most worrying age for girls who abandon sports practice is around 16, when they finish their compulsory education and move on to the baccalaureate. This is due to the view held by both the girls and their families that their academic work is going to be tougher than before, and this makes them decide to give up sport.” In other words, the belief that sport and studying are incompatible. This is the main reason, but not the only one. It seems that the sports on offer at those ages do not grab the interest of young girls. Del Villar Alvarez goes on: “When they reach baccalaureate level, the range is basically competitive: those girls who are competing continue, while those who do not compete cannot find an alternative, somewhere to be able to continue practicing sports as they had been doing previously.” He is referring to the physical education classes in elementary and high schools, less competitive and more fun.

The study also points to a third reason, which is related to the very nature of young women: “they are more social and find greater satisfaction in comparing themselves with their peers, sharing performance levels, challenges and goals.” The fact is that girls are more motivated to take exercise if it is with female friends, practicing sports together. “Boys, on the other hand, do not need the company of friends to do sports. Even when their companions stop, they are willing to continue,” the university professor declares. And he adds: “In team sports, boys get together to win, while the girls come together to share a good time and a social experience.” An odd fact: “When some conflict arises between two boys during a training session, by the time they get to the match, it ’s all forgotten, as they just want to win. For girls, however, this is a kind of personal confrontation and that has an impact on the game, not wanting to pass the ball to each other.”

«The town councils should focus on proposals for those who enjoy physical activities, but not sports at a competitive level. There exist private centers, but they are more geared toward adults with purchasing power, rather than to teenage girls»

Myths that must be dispelled

Some of these reasons are nothing but myths that can — and must be — dispelled. Let’s start with the principal reason, the lack of time: it has been demonstrated that good academic results and sport are not incompatible. “If you do physical exercise in the morning and then have to devote five hours to studying, you will perform much better during those five hours, as a result of the metabolic changes. The increased blood circulation or increase in metabolic activity mean that you enjoy greater mental wellbeing, but also a greater ability to concentrate and pay attention, as well as greater executive capacity. For this reason, it is a good idea to incorporate 60 minutes of physical activity at least three days a week in order to improve academic performance,” (Antonio Guzmán, Manager of the Health Promotion Area at Fundación MAPFRE).

The other aspect of doing sports has to do with the idea that, the busier we are, the better we use our time. Fernando del Villar explains it thus: “The girls who do sports are more organized and more disciplined; when they have to study, they distribute their time better.” And we have to raise awareness of this not just among the girls. But also among their families, so that they encourage them to keep doing sports. Moreover, it has been shown that girls who compete in some sporting activity at an early age, do not give it up, because “when they have to organize their academic schedule, they realize it is fully compatible with sport. If they start later, they abandon it earlier, as the habit is still not well-established and they are less aware that taking exercise is good for them.” Those who did sports during childhood continue during their adolescence and adulthood, although they may have to modify the level of intensity.

To overcome the other hurdles, the author of the study has concrete proposals. To begin with, the range of activities on offer to young girls: “The town councils should focus on proposals for those who enjoy physical activities, but not sports at a competitive level. There exist private centers, but they are more geared toward adults with purchasing power, rather than to teenage girls.” He is referring to activities that have more to do with movement and rhythm, are less intensely competitive, and are of a more recreational, cooperative nature.

With regard to the female character, the way to get them hooked is to attract more than one. “The idea is not to target one girl in particular, but rather a whole group. If you can get three friends hooked, all three will undertake to come and will encourage one another. As soon as one of them drops out, all three will give it up.” In that sense, Villar Alvarez is talking about promoting team sports from childhood and during adolescence, because the girls are motivated if they go together.

It would also be important for them to perceive sport as an essential component for health, although here we come up against “youngsters, by definition, do not perceive they have health problems, although they are interested in their well-being. In that sense, they notice that they feel better when they do sports, better rested, but also calmer, emotionally speaking.” In addition, they find aesthetic reasons for doing sports. In this regard, men’s perception of women has changed somewhat. “Previously, an athletic girl was deemed a masculine trait. But now, men also find them attractive. However, among girls, it’s still not a social leadership factor. They don’t rate it so highly.”

And what about the boys?

While the girls give up sports when they move on to study for their baccalaureate, the boys do not. Fernando del Villar Álvarez affirms that an initial differentiating factor can be found in the fact that boys tend to be more energetically active. However, there is a second factor, namely that girls mature earlier: “With this change, their metabolism slows down and they feel less need to be active. On the other hand, sport is perceived as something positive for boys. They therefore receive greater social acceptance if they are stronger, more agile or tougher.” To top it all, as there are more male elite athletes, families tend to support boys more than the girls. For this reason, boys tend to become less active somewhat later, when they go to university. “That’s when they become more aware of the greater academic effort they must now make. The girls, as they mature earlier, come to that turning point some two years earlier than the boys.