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Her Life Depends On It
Sport, Physical Activity and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls
“Her Life Depends On It,” is the most comprehensive compilation of research to date about the impact of physical activity on the physical, psychological and cultural health of girls. The report points to physical activity and sport as fundamental solutions for many of the serious health and social problems faced by girls. These include obesity, heart disease, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression – which accounts for much of the more than $1 trillion spent on healthcare for treating these issues.
This report is a comprehensive compendium of research that points to physical activity and sport as fundamental solutions for many of the serious health and social problems faced by American girls.
An appreciable mass of evidence-based knowledge about girls’ involvement with sport and physical activity has been generated during the last decade. The amount and quality of this research are uneven and varied.
For example, a good deal of research examines the associations between physical activity and risk for coronary heart disease, but studies that focus on risk for Alzheimer’s disease are just beginning to issue. Researchers have verified links between high school athletic participation and teen pregnancy prevention, although more longitudinal research is needed to thoroughly confirm the connections.
Overall, however, this report shows that the current state of knowledge on the relationship of physical activity to the health and social needs of American girls warrants the serious attention of public health officials, educators and sport leaders. American girls are confronted by a daunting array of health risks in their youth and in later life:
The U.S. Institute of Medicine has defined the mission of public health as “fulfilling society’s interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy” (Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health, 1988). This research compiled in this report strongly suggests that sport and physical activity provide conditions that help to assure girls’ health and well-being. Some findings identified in this report include:
Despite the growing research evidence, girls do not have enough encouragement or opportunity to participate in sports and fitness activities. Nearly one out of every two high school boys plays sports, while only one in three high school girls participates. (National Federation of State High School Associations, 2003) Special interventions aimed at increasing the physical activity level of girls are essential (National Women’s Law Center & Harvard School of Public Health, 2004).
Every girl deserves the opportunity to be healthy, happy and herself. But the solutions to meeting girls’ health needs stretch far beyond education and individual choice. There has been a serious erosion of infrastructural supports for physical fitness and athletics.
This report shows that this backsliding is not just about failing to provide more girls with athletic and fitness opportunities—it’s about endangering the public health. Health processes and outcomes are influenced by a multitude of factors. While researchers have made admirable progress identifying links between physical activity and girls’ health, the scientific journey has just begun.
And researchers are also learning more about the negative health outcomes associated with sport and exercise: e.g., overtraining can lead to permanent injury; female athletes in certain sports are especially prone to develop eating disorders; female college athletes binge drink more often than female non-athletes. Research findings that pertain to both favorable and unfavorable health impacts from sport and exercise are included in this report.
Economic inequalities exert powerful influences on health and illness. Not all girls have the same sports and fitness opportunities due to the economic circumstances of their families, schools, and communities. As some of the findings in this report suggest, the fitness and athletic experiences of poor girls and many girls of color are often mediated by poverty and racial discrimination.
The knowledge that physical activity and sport can help to prevent illness and problem behaviors is only the first step in enhancing the health and well-being of American girls. Knowledge must be transformed into policies and practice. Meeting the challenge of inactivity among girls will require a consistent, diverse and multifaceted commitment.
To read the entire report and citations in PDF, click here.