Young women are less likely to exercise than young men. Even when they do, data indicates that they do it at a lower level of intensity than their male peers. Is our approach to physical education to blame?
It’s is undoubtedly part of a bigger issue, in which 90 per cent of Australian young people don’t move enough and nearly 70 per cent of adults are either sedentary or have low levels of physical activity.
When the Victorian Government commissioned research in 2015 to to better understand what’s holding women back, the answer was incredibly simple. Almost half of women aged 18-24 reported they were embarrassed about exercising in public and worried about judgement from their peers. That doesn’t go away as we age, either, because about 40 per cent of women over the age of 25 felt the same way. So what’s lacking from our physical education?
Physical education and a fear of judgement
Richelle Olsen describes herself as an “everyday woman”. However, her adventure resume is impressive, including hiking to Everest Base Camp, running a 25km race in the Spanish Pyrenees, competing in more than 20 triathlons and cycling 5000km from Canada to Mexico.
She lives on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula and runs Escaping Your Comfort Zone, a community that describes itself as the plus-sized women’s adventure revolution. When it comes to physical education, however, she sighs.
“I hated PE at school. I detested it, I was the slow, unco one. In the team environment, that’s not a nice place to be, because you feel like you’re letting people down,” she says.
In fact, although she currently makes her living inspiring women to get outdoors, her first real foray into the outdoors didn’t come until she went on a trip to South America when she was 21. She hiked the world-famous Inca Trail in Peru, and it was an experience that changed her life.
“It opened up a whole new world to me. I had no fitness, I didn’t know too much about fitness at the time, I nearly died,” she laughs.
“The beauty of the outdoors was amazing. I’m one of those people who just agrees to stuff, that’s how I ended up doing Everest Base Camp. I didn’t know how long it was going to take, how much climbing it was, or that fact that I didn’t really like walking. It’s just a give-it-a-go attitude I’ve always had… It wasn’t until my 30s that I started embracing the outdoors truly.”
When she came home from her cycling trip across North America, she decided to leave her corporate job and start a community to champion women and encourage them to spend time together outdoors.
“I was always in a bigger body and nothing has stopped me from adventuring, but I’ve met a lot of other people who had their friends and family tell them they were too fat to even think about it. You always worry about people making fun of you, but I wanted to be a cheerleader for those people,” she says.
“Watching people turn their lives around from being entirely inactive, and the kinds of people who never imagined they’d be adventurous, they’re now buying kayaks and buying roof racks and getting out there with their friends. It’s amazing to watch.”
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Need for team sports alternatives
The benefits of regular physical activity go well beyond having a strong and healthy body. Exercise can help manage stress, alleviate depression and anxiety, enhance your mood and boost mental alertness – all things that are crucial to living a happy life at any age.
Girls Make Your Move isn’t unique – in fact, it was inspired by a similar campaign run in the United Kingdom, which found there were two million fewer women than men regularly playing sport.
When asked, 13 million women told Sport England they would like to participate in more sport and physical activity but just over six million of them were not currently active. When it investigated what was stopping them, the organisation found that for many women, sport has baggage.
They described it as “competitive, difficult, unfeminine, aggressive and not aspirational” and pointed to widespread criticism of the muscular bodies of professional athletes in the media and online.
Every Australian high school has its own policy on physical education, but team sports like netball and hockey are undoubtedly the norm, accompanied by carnival sports like athletics and swimming. While many girls do enjoy the physical and social aspect of team sports, they’re not for everyone.
“Women’s activity levels are becoming an alarming issue,” says Brooke Williams, a former elite athlete who now works as a physical education teacher at Cobram in Victoria.
“Women are less active than men because it’s less socially acceptable. It’s common for men to bond through sport and being physically active, whereas women prefer to socialise in different ways.”
She says in terms of motivating girls to develop lifelong exercise habits, there should be a focus on all different types of exercise experiences – not just the “standard sports”.
“This could mean experiencing a Reformer Pilates class, yoga, rock climbing or simply attending a gym. It allows them to make connections and learn new skills to keep active,” she says.
“I think gone are the days where PE teachers should be pushing the standard beep test as competitive environments limits participation and gives them a negative experience.”
Adventure can improve women’s physical education
Caroline Pemberton has a unique perspective on being judged on her appearance. She’s a former beauty queen who was crowned Miss Australia in 2007, and she’s on a mission to change the way we encourage adolescent girls to think about their bodies.
She’s always been an avid outdoorswoman, and has been hiking, surfing, diving and mountaineering in some 65 countries. She’s now dedicating her time to running MissAdventure at Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches. It’s an education program that introduces adolescent girls to the world of action sports like surfing, sailing, hiking and climbing.
“People thought that Miss Australia came first, and then I turned into Miss Adventure, but the adventure girl was always there. Miss Australia was a random bump in the road that helped me find out a lot about myself,” she says.
“When you walk into a room with that sash on is people literally look you up and down and go in their mind, you can see them thinking it, ‘Is she hot enough to be Miss Australia in my opinion’? 99 per cent of the time, the answer is no. You’re never going to please everyone, so that’s quite confronting.”
She admits she used to retreat to nature when it all got too much.
“The only place I could find that was sacrosanct, that was sacred space, where my appearance mattered not one iota, was in Mother Nature. In fact, she liked me better when she rough and tumbled me in the surf and left me with hair on my face and an earful of sand,” she says.
“I just realised, you know, imagine if we could give that sacred space to young women, before the storm of adolescence?”
The program uses adventure workshops as a conduit for bigger conversations, built and designed by Caroline and a team of child psychologists, teachers and experts. Each adventure has a theme – for example, going surfing and then talking about riding waves of emotions.
“[It] became a movement to instil young girls with a deep sense of self worth and teach them some life skills like resilience, how to work through failure, goal-setting, and how to have a healthy body image.
“Adventure makes us raw and makes us who we are.”
What is your view on physical education for girls? What could we be doing better to help them build healthy habits to take into adulthood? Let us know in the comments below.