How lockdown closed the gender fitness gap among children

Girl exercising - Getty
Girl exercising – Getty

Last April, this paper launched the Girls, Inspired campaign in a bid to close the gender fitness gap after it was found just eight per cent of girls aged between 11 and 18 were doing the recommended daily hour of activity, compared to 16 per cent of boys.

The campaign came about after research showed millions of girls in the UK were falling off a fitness cliff after primary school, with statements like, “I don’t like boys watching me” and “I have my period”, cited as reasons for not wanting to do PE or play sport.  

A little over a year later, and lockdown seems to have reversed this trend, but to the detriment of boys. Sport England is set to release data this week that shows girls are becoming more active than boys during lockdown, something Sport England’s Alison Donnelly says she finds “fascinating”.

“I suspect largely this is down to the fact that we know that boys tend to favour team sports and those aren’t available at the moment,” she says. “But I think this also raises a really interesting question as to whether encouragement to be active at home could have empowered girls to be active in the way that they want to, without that same level of fear of judgement, which is what they tell us when we talk to them.”

Studies have shown girls’ feelings of self-consciousness while exercising has helped widen the gender fitness gap. Sport England’s 2015 This Girl Can campaign, which aimed to get women and girls moving, regardless of their shape or fitness, found girls as young as seven felt too self-conscious to take up sport, worried they weren’t good enough (with gender stereotypes like, “girls can’t throw or kick a ball as far as boys” playing their part) and were more likely to give up as a result.

“That campaign showed us that one barrier to girls becoming more active is feeling self conscious around others,” says Chantel Scherer, from Sport England. “However, Instagram has been flooded with exercise routines since lockdown, which in my view could be appealing to girls who are normally too self conscious to exercise in front of their classmates.”

Figures show more girls than boys are using Instagram during lockdown, and the same goes for TikTok, a video-sharing app that has seen its use soar to record highs since the pandemic began (as any parent of teenage girls will know already), with downloads reaching 75.5million in March alone. It’s mainly girls using the app, which often involves doing dance routines, with female users outnumbering males by 2:1.

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“Pre-lockdown, boys were much more likely to be active,” says Kate Nicholson, Head of Insight at Women In Sport. “Take a typical school playground, it’s usually dominated by groups of boys running around playing football. Lockdown has changed all that. Boys are more likely to be gaming, perhaps because the types of games they enjoy replicate the competitive nature of football. Girls, on the other hand, have found it easier to stumble across exercise content on Instagram or dance activities on YouTube.”

Girls also feel more comfortable exercising at home or with family members, says Nicholson. “We know from our research that teenage girls are more likely to exercise if they do it on their own terms, in clothes they feel comfortable in, and interestingly, if they do it with their mothers. They told us they felt safer, more relaxed and less judged that way. There’s no pressure to live up to your mum, is there?”

One of the main reasons girls shy away from sport in their teenage years is the judgement they experience from their peers, both male and female, says Nicholson. “We know that getting their hair or make-up sweaty and then sitting in lessons all afternoon isn’t a great experience. For many girls, sport at school isn’t this fun, energising experience the way it is for boys, but one associated with anxiety and scrutiny. Lockdown has provided the perfect opportunity for girls to feel freer and more relaxed in their own skin while being active.”

Nicholson says she hopes boys’ fitness levels improve once lockdown is over, but she also hopes the shift in the gender fitness gap offers girls an opportunity going forwards. “They will have seen how exercise can be built into their day and how good it makes them feel, both physically and for their mental health. And we need to find ways to help them continue the habits they’ve built in lockdown.”