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Wild words | A thought on influencing the next generation of sports and fitness

In Doha in 2019, Sprinter, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce defeated her teammate and rival Elaine Thompson in a world-leading time of 10.71s. In doing so, she became the first Mother since 1995 to become a World Champion sprinter.

When four-time CrossFit Games athlete Valerie Voboril became pregnant in 2011, she was one of the only elite CrossFit females to become a mother, and recently in 2020, Kara Saunders competed in the CrossFit games just 5 months after giving birth, finishing an impressive 12th overall.

There are many other examples of high-performance athletes who have put careers on hold to have a child. Many of whom have successfully returned to their sport. However, when you consider the impact pregnancy and childbirth have on a female body, the return to exercise can often be daunting. However, this dropout rate is not just limited to elite athletes. It is believed that this increased postpartum dropout rate; among other factors; could be having a huge impact on the next generation of healthy active women.

As recently as 2016, a meta-analysis of exercise drop out rates showed that females are far more likely than males to drop out of fitness or sport once they become a parent. In 2018 a study which examined the associations of physical activity levels between parents and their pre-school children based on gender and weekday/weekend found a significant correlation between mothers and child's moderate to vigorous physical activity and total physical activity. Clearly demonstrating how important it is to our next generation to see women participating in sport and physical exercise and how sedentary behaviour can strongly influence pre-school children. Furthermore, despite participation by girls in sports and fitness increasing at all levels, young girls remain six times more likely to drop out than boys.

This alarming statistic is a problem for more than one reason. Firstly, whilst adolescent girls' participation in exercise can be driven by influence from mothers, without the increase in participation after school, there may be fewer mothers around to influence the next generation of sports and exercise enthusiasts.

Whilst there are clearly some systemic barriers to sports and exercise for young girls. Personal safety on the streets, on public transport, and near sports venues can be a problem for women meaning travelling to and from venues for sports or physical activity can be a barrier.

In addition, there is an imbalance in the media coverage of women’s sport when compared to men’s sports. On average, there is less than 5% of sports coverage in national and local print media dedicated to women’s sport. This lack of coverage of women’s sports leads to an absence of female role models to inspire girls and women to live healthy active lives.

Finally, research shows that in general, girls report greater body dissatisfaction than boys. Many girls do not take part in exercise because of concerns about their appearance and lack of confidence. The incessant rise of social media platforms like Instagram, etc, is continuing to pressure young girls' body confidence. This coupled with the temporary blip in performance that may occur during puberty which includes weight and body shape changes and the start of young girls menstrual cycle.

Hannah Wilson, Flow Females Complete Performance Director and Untamed Ambassador suggest that at this time we should encourage girls to be patient and enhance what is happening.

" Take this time to reinforce skills such as landing, jumping, throwing with a focus on technique and functional movement. This approach supports the fact that girls may experience a greater risk of injury when compared to boys. However, what we do see is many young girls withdrawing from sport or doing far more exercise than what is required and hugely undereating."

It is clear that whilst these issues exist, we must be better at removing the barriers to entry for young women as a society. We must encourage young girls to explore what their bodies can be capable of without fear of negative connotations or reprisals. In addition, as an industry, we must educate and prepare young girls for this environment. This can involve providing more guidance on using a much wider variety of equipment, ensuring they know how and why they are using them. Encourage girls to try and explore new methods of fitness. Smaller boutique boot camps, small group training, CrossFit boxes and independent gyms can be a great way to get involved in exercise for the first time. Allowing young girls to acclimatize to the methodologies and remove the stress of involvement.

To continue to help young girls be active, we must continue to create role models within both ourselves and in mainstream sports. Surrounding yourself with active like-minded people can have a real impact on both our own health and that of our young children. Secondly, By choosing an appropriate activity that is both achievable and fun is a great way to make exercise more sustainable.

To summarise, we believe that education is key for both mothers and daughters. We must focus on creating well-educated role models for our young girls. Those who understand the impact of fitness and performance and who can act as role models for the next generation of healthy active women.

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