Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Understanding Physical Activity through the Experiences of Adolescent Girls

Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Understanding Physical Activity through the Experiences of Adolescent Girls

Article excerpt


Researchers have found that female youths are particularly vulnerable to withdrawing from sport and physical activity programs in early adolescence (see Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010). However, there is an absence of a comprehensive, emic description of how female adolescents experience physical activity. Open-ended semi-structured interviews were conducted individually with 15 early adolescent females (12-14 years old) and 20 middle and late adolescent females (15-18 years old). Co-participants in the mid to late adolescent cohort provided retrospective accounts of their early adolescent experiences along with insight on how their experiences shaped their current participation. The girls' voices were brought to the forefront through composite vignettes that highlight their physical activity experiences, integrating the words used by the co-participants. Results are discussed in relation to physical activity programming for adolescent females and why a qualitative approach is useful in contributing to gender-specific physical activity programming.

Understanding Physical Activity through the Lived Experiences of Adolescent Girls

Female youths often discontinue participation in sport and physical activity during adolescence, with the most significant decline occurring in early adolescence (Hedstrom & Gould, 2004; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). The World Health Organization (2008) reported in the Health Behaviour in School Aged Children 2005-2006 Survey that boys are more likely to engage in physical activity for at least 60 minutes per day than girls, with the disparity between them widening with age. Calls have been made to create programs that encourage female youths to participate in regular physical activity at school and in the community (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010; Allender, Cowburn, & Foster, 2006; Hedstrom & Gould, 2004; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Physical activity programming appears to be a gateway barrier to participation for adolescent girls (Allender et al., 2006; Brett, Heimendinger, Boender, Morin, & Marshall, 2002; Brooks & Magnusson, 2006).

Kinesiology researchers are familiar with how important physical activity is to overall health. However, not everyone attaches the same conceptual meanings to physical activity, and the value structures of adults researching physical activity are not necessarily shared by youth participants (Allender et al., 2006). Abrams, Klass, and Dreyer (2009) discussed the importance of understanding health literacy along a developmental continuum throughout childhood. Youths' conceptualizations of health and physical activity change as they gain experience. Concurrently, a number of social barriers arise that can contribute to adolescent females discontinuing participation in physical activity (e.g., Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010; Hedstrom & Gould, 2004). One barrier often identified is the lack of gender-relevant programming. Male dominance in sport and physical activity, particularly in the school system, has been argued to marginalize female participants in physical activity contexts (Brooks & Magnusson, 2006; Everhart & Pemberton, 2001). The core characteristics for physical activity (e.g., strength, speed, toughness) are viewed to be male dominated, which may marginalize female success and, subsequently, female involvement (Greenleaf & Collins, 2001; Roper, Fisher, & Wrisberg, 2005).

Qualitative studies have also highlighted the importance of gender-relevant programming concerning females. Whitehead and Biddle (2008) found that less active girls held more stereotypical views in relation to appearance than active girls, considering it impossible to be both sporty and feminine. Similarly, Dwyer et al. (2006) found that girls expressed that looking good for others (i.e., wearing make-up) and being physically active are incompatible. However, they also found that some girls challenged feminine "ideals" and were thus able to renegotiate such gender stereotypes, making it more likely for them to participate in sport. …

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