Why are teenage girls less active than boys?

The barriers to girls staying active and how we can overcome them. By Kirsten Braun.

girls of different ethnic backgrounds doing stretches prior to exercise

The Federal Government’s ‘Girls, make your move’ campaign is aimed at getting young women to be more physically active. Studies show that only 5.9% of girls in year 11 were meeting the physical activity guidelines compared to 18.7% of boys. This is a stark contrast to younger girls, with around two thirds of girls aged 9-11 participating in an organised sport.

Physical activity in the teenage years plays a crucial role in the future health of young women. This is when they develop their peak bone mass, for example, which will help reduce their risk of osteoporosis later in life. It can also help ward off anxiety and depression, maintain a healthy body weight and contribute to a positive body image.

So what happens in the teenage years to cause young women to become more sedentary? Understanding the reasons why young women are opting out of physical activity is the first step in boosting their participation. Here are the top contributing factors:

Academic pressures

As young women reach senior grades of school, academic pressures often take a priority. Many organised sports require several sessions of training in addition to game day, which is a large time commitment for a student. Daily homework and study for exams can make it difficult to fit these sporting activities in.


At this age young women’s peers are often more influential than their parents. For some young women this peer influence can keep them participating in a sport. However, if their friends discontinue an activity they are far less likely to participate on their own. Similarly, young women are less likely to want to participate in family activities that they would have at a younger age, such as a family bike ride.

Body image

Many young women suffer from poor body image and this can have a very real impact on their willingness to participate in physical activity. They may feel insecure about their changing bodies and not want to do anything that accentuates it, such as wearing swimmers or a tight-fitting sports uniform. Those who are overweight, obese or who have larger breasts are particularly vulnerable.

Competing interests

There are often other activities that interest young women at this age that directly compete with the time for a physical activity. For many young women part-time work is often appealing to earn some financial independence. Shopping, going to the movies and/or beach and social media are other activities that may take up young women’s time.


The cost of organised sport participation has escalated in recent years. The costs of sport registration, equipment, uniforms and travel to venues can be a real financial burden, especially for single-income families. It can mean that for affordability reasons children need to choose only one activity or even miss out altogether. 


When young women reach a certain age they are often expected to participate in an activity or sport at a competitive level, whereas they might just want to participate for fun. Participating at a competitive level is often accompanied by larger time and financial commitments. The result is young women drop out altogether, rather than continuing to participate in some capacity.


Studies have shown that even by age eight girls will have less lean muscle mass and poorer hand-eye coordination than boys. If activities offered focus on physical performance this will inevitably favour boys which can result in eroding girls’ confidence in their sporting abilities. If girls do not feel competent at an activity it can lead to feelings of embarrassment and an overall dislike and avoidance of physical activities. The over-competitive nature of some team sports can also leave some young women deciding they are not good enough to participate (see Competitiveness section). 

Lack of exposure for female sports

If young women do not see women’s sports televised or featured on the sports news frequently they miss out on having female sporting role models. The absence of exposure of female sportspeople in the media leaves young women feeling that it is not something that is achievable or even valued.

Tips for continuing participation

  • Participate in sports with other young women besides immediate school friends. Maintaining different groups of friends can help maintain an interest in sports even if school friends drop out.

  • Mothers can be great role models. If young women see their mothers taking time to be physically active it reinforces that it is valuable and achievable.

  • Investigate new options for exercising as a family. Hiking, indoor climbing, adventure racing and triathlons might all be options.

  • Incorporate more incidental exercise such as walking or cycling to a friend’s house or taking the dog for a walk.

  • Take time to follow a women’s sporting team or individual and watch their games on television or, ideally at a live sporting event.

  • For girls who are not as competitive, activities such as yoga or Pilates might be good options. In addition, some schools and universities offer social sport options in addition to competitive options.

  • Check out new sports to keep young women interested. One of the fastest growing sports for children is, for example, stand-up paddle boarding.

  • Avoid having screens in young women’s bedroom as research shows that this alone reduces their participation in physical activity.

Last updated: September 2016.

©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2016 Issue 3.



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