Facts On Gender Differences & Physical Activity: How They Relate to Youth & Adolescents

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Gender differences are highly discussed among society these days. Research has provided facts that demonstrate a relationship between sports and the involvement among boys and girls, and whether or not they have equal opportunities to be involved in sports activities. A peer-reviewed article titled ‘Gender Differences in Physical Activity in Older Children and Adolescents: The Central Role of Organized Sport’ written by two Iceland researchers Runar Vilhjalmsson and Gudrun Kristjansdottir, explores participation of boys and girls in physical activity and highlights the unfairness of modern sports' structure.

The article states that “active involvement in sport and exercise has beneficial effects relating to psychological well-being, self-esteem, sense of control, and how physical fitness has lowered the risk of negative health behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol use.”* It is also noted that “despite what scientists and educators repeatedly report about benefits of exercising, many young people are physically inactive.”* There are many factors that have contributed to the globalization of inactivity, but the most common factor is the advancements among technology and science.  A large part of our lives has become automatized because of the and availability of computerized gadgets and ‘Mighty Wi-Fi’, which further promotes sedentary free time among the youth generation.

Many researchers, “emphasize the importance of socialization in sports or exercise by family, school, or peer group”*, because we are socially driven beings. This contributes to  why “boys are more likely to have physically active friends, which is considered to be one of the strongest influencing factors of one's own physical activity participation.”* This is the first gender difference regarding physical activity because boys are more susceptible to peer influence than girls regarding “good” or “bad” exercise choices.  

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Another important factor is how “school affect boys and girls differently through physical education (PE) classes. It is believed PE class has a greater effect on girls than boys because it creates negative experiences and memories that lower their interest and involvement.”* “Girls are less likely to enrol in organized sport clubs to begin with, and if they did, the withdrawal rate for girls is higher than boys because of the negative experience such as unreasonable demands, fewer challenges or opportunities to train and compete, less qualified coaches, or even psychological or physical abuse.” *Emotional factors play a big role for girls’ sports involvement, and it strongly influences their participation decisions.

Attitude is another gender difference that can be seen a lot in the attitude of boys. Boys “seem to value competition and sports achievement more that do girls”.* They “outnumber girls in competitive, team and high-intensity sports and exercises (e.g., soccer, baseball, basketball, bicycling)”*, because “boys more than girls engage for the sake of competition, demonstration of ability, and the pursuit of victory.” * Strong preferences can be seen in girls’ activities of choice: “girls outnumber boys in non-competitive, individual, and medium to low-intensity sports and exercises (e.g., walking, gymnastics, dance, roller skating, volleyball, and swimming)”*, because “more girls than boys engage in physical activity for appearance, health and fitness reasons.”*

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A large proportion of the time that young people spend participating in physical activities “takes place within an organized sport settings, where gender difference are much greater because organized sports culture is masculine inclined” * and “even though there has been a notable increase in female enrollment in organized sport in recent years, it is still dominated by  boys and men.” *

Authors of this research article concluded that “parents', peers' and coaches' support and encouragement is very important for both, boys and girls, but boys are more likely to receive it.” * To address the problem of apparent gender disparities in sports, the authors suggest “to include more women in managerial and coaching positions. It will help to reflect girls' as well as boys' perspectives and interests and to offer a varied assortment of sports and exercises”.*

In summary, gender differences in physical activities exist and are expressed through social attitudes  (boys-oriented activities and sports, low support and encouragement for girls from families and coaches) and environmental barriers (unavailability of suitable physical activities or understandable coaches and instructors for girls-participants, etc).

The goal of any coach or PE instructor should be to create an inclusive environment for all kids, despite the gender or ability, and to provide an equal opportunity for meaningful participation.

Further reading:

*Vilhjalmsson, R., & Kristjansdottir, G. (2003). Gender differences in physical activity in older children and adolescents: the central role of organized sport. Social science & medicine, 56(2), 363-374.