Why Girls Need Sports
Proof of the benefits of sports for girls continues to pile up, but many girls still aren’t getting into the game. ESPN sportscaster Hannah Storm, a mother of three daughters, decided to champion the cause. Her book Go Girl! (co-author Mark Jenkins; Sourcebooks, 2011), updated and re-released this year, is a thorough guide for parents who want to make sure their girls grab all the perks that athletics bring to life.
In the book, Storm explores how even the youngest “pre-athletes” (birth to age 2) can be groomed for an active lifestyle. She offers information for parents of girls at every developmental stage, and includes advice on sportsmanship, coaching, fitness, nutrition, health issues, and strength and flexibility training.
While some girls are natural athletes, many others aren’t as comfortable on the playing field. Here, from Storm’s book, is an excerpt from the chapter “Why Girls Need Sports.”
There’s no doubt about it: sports are good for girls. You need only to watch TV or read the newspapers to be aware of the growing body of evidence attesting to the importance of girls playing a wide variety of sports. Scarcely a week goes by without news of another major study extolling the virtues of sports and physical activity for girls.
The depth and breadth of this information made me even more determined that my daughters get the opportunity to become athletes – girls who are as likely to play basketball as take figure-skating lessons, and who are more interested in being at the local Boys & Girls Club than at home on the couch.
I believe that it is essential that we create a sports-positive environment for girls. To do that, we need to understand how vital sports are for our daughters.
Three Forms of Fitness
The benefits of sports for girls can be divided into three main areas of “fitness,” what I classify as health fitness, academic fitness and emotional/psychological fitness.
Vigorous physical activity benefits kids of both sexes, and bodes well for good health into adulthood, but it is becoming increasingly clear that sports and exercise have special benefits for girls, including reduced risk of some chronic illnesses later in life, improved body composition (the ratio of fat to muscle), a stronger immune system, decreased menstrual discomfort and stronger bones:
Reduced Risk of Certain Chronic Illnesses in Later Life
Being active as a child reduces the risk of certain deadly diseases in adulthood. Heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are all seen less frequently in women who were active as girls, as are endometrial and breast cancer. Girls who play sports begin menstruating a little later than girls who are inactive. This is believed to have something to do with lower fat levels in girls who are active, and studies have shown that for every year a girl’s menstruation is delayed, the risk of her contracting breast cancer as a woman is reduced by 5-15 percent.
Improved Muscle-to-Fat Ratio/Body Composition
More than three times as many kids are obese today as compared to the 1970s. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for a host of killer illnesses, most importantly heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers. Kids become overweight because they expend fewer calories than they consume. Not exercising enough is particularly prevalent among adolescent girls who, at this self-conscious time in their development, are too often taught to believe that sports are “unladylike.” Not surprisingly, kids who play sports and are physically active are much less likely to be overweight than those who are “couch potatoes.” And, a healthy body composition contributes to better lifelong health overall.
Stronger Immune System
Moderate exercise strengthens a child’s immune system by increasing the levels of various disease-fighting substances in the body, including interferon and interleukin-1. Being in shape can help a person combat diseases ranging from the common cold and flu to cancer.
Less Menstrual Discomfort
Exercising several times a week has been shown to decrease menstrual complaints in girls: their periods are more regular and they have lighter flow, less cramping and discomfort, and shorter duration of flow.
Stronger Bones and Lower Chance of Developing Osteoporosis Later in Life
By increasing the strength and thickness of their bones when they’re young, exercise helps young women avoid osteoporosis in later life. In addition to “weight-bearing” exercise (anything you do on your feet) such as running, walking, and aerobic dance, strength training with weights is extremely effective at building bone strength. Because strength training is now thought to be so important for young girls, you may want to find a strength-training program for your daughter or design one yourself.
Modern scientific evidence reinforces the age-old belief that a healthy body is a prerequisite to a healthy mind. Or, put more simply, if you want to help your daughter excel in school, get her into sports!
Numerous studies have examined the effect of sports participation on girls’ academic performance, and the results are stunning.
Here’s how young female athletes compare to girls who don’t play sports:
- They have higher grade-point averages.
- They score better on their SATs.
- They have a lower risk of dropping out of school.
- They have a better chance of getting into, staying in and performing well in college.
Girls who play high-school sports significantly outperform nonathletic girls in academic subjects such as science and math that tend to be dominated by boys. Because experts believe that the male dominance in these subjects is psychological and has nothing to do with intelligence, this suggests that participating in sports gives girls the confidence to participate on a more equal footing in the classroom with boys. In addition, exercise may actually make our brains work better! Experiments have shown that physically fit rats are smarter at figuring out mazes than their overweight peers.
The physical benefits of playing sports are almost a given; what I find really exciting is the fact that physical activity has a profound effect on the emotional and psychological health of girls. Exercise has repeatedly been shown to improve how girls feel about themselves in areas such as self-esteem, self-concept, self-confidence and perceptions of competence. Girls who are active also tend to be more optimistic, which has a direct bearing on motivation, and therefore achievement. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, 80 percent of female Fortune 500 executives identified themselves as former “tomboys.”
Experts believe that it is not just enhanced fitness that improves girls’ emotional and psychological health (although this is certainly a factor), but also the very act of participating in sports that is empowering.
With improved self-esteem come benefits that all of us parents can appreciate: a lower risk of sexual behavior and pregnancy, as well as reduced drug and alcohol abuse. Girls who are athletes are also less likely to smoke or to have eating disorders.
In addition, physically active girls are less likely to be victims of anxiety and depression, two conditions that are sadly on the rise among teenage girls in our society (girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer from anxiety and depression). In fact, exercise is such an effective preventive measure against developing emotional problems that it is increasingly being used by therapists to treat patients, and doctors routinely prescribe exercise to combat depression. The prestigious International Society of Sport Psychology finds a positive relationship between physical activity and mental health, concluding that exercise can help with anxiety, mild depression and stress reduction, both short-and long-term.
The emotional and psychological rewards of participating in sports for girls include better self-image, higher confidence, increased energy, less tension and a stronger ability to deal with challenges life might throw their way.
Hannah Storm hosts the weekday edition of ESPN’s SportsCenter. She is also on the board of advisers for espnW, the network’s new initiative for women’s programming. For more information, visit hannahstorm.com.