How London Sport is tackling girls' low physical activity participation rate

Elite women’s sport may be on the rise, but at a grassroots level, there is still an issue with girls’ participation in physical activity.

According to Women in Sport research, 43 percent of girls who enjoyed physical activity and sport in primary school disengage and fall out of love with activity during their teenage years.

In addition, 61 percent of girls feel judged, with half lacking the self-belief to continue their participation. More than a third don’t feel safe exercising outside.

One organisation bidding to tackle this problem is London Sport, which aims to bring the physical, mental and social benefits of an active life to groups and communities in the capital city.

London Sport’s Make Space for Girls project will look to address the issue that facilities and provisions are often designed without the consultation of teenage girls, or dominated by teenage boys or other groups.

GiveMeSport Women sat down with London Sport’s chief executive Emily Robinson to discuss the project and how participation rates of girls in physical activity can be increased.

“We can definitely do more about some of the things raised in the Women in Sport research,” Robinson explained. “But it does happen, I think, in certain areas where you can design a piece of physical activity or sport and think girls will come, and then be a bit stumped when that doesn’t happen.

“So at London Sport, we tried to take a more insight led approach to really understand what the different barriers might be. We have to bear in mind that as women, we’re not all the same.

“Girls are not all the same. There might be some main themes that run through things, but we need to kind of get into the details a bit more.”

In 2020, in a bid to understand the barriers to physical activity amongst women and girls, London Sport carried out research in three East London boroughs.

“It came up with some really interesting insights,” Robinson said. “Mothers who didn’t have much time had a particular need to have their fitness activity delivered with free child care.

“Younger women in the area were really motivated and driven by social media and Instagram influencers, and were happy to do online exercise.

And then in particular, for women from religious groups, it was about the right clothing and being able to have female led sessions or women only sessions.

“So we’ve got to get into the details, and be specific about finding out what is holding people back, and then take the often very simple steps of taking those barriers away.”

Robinson admitted that London has parks and physical activity spaces in abundance, but argued girls could often feel unwelcome in those places.

“I think quite often the focus has been on physical buildings, rather than people and how they feel about things,” she said.

“For example, skate parks, we’re seeing a few more of those being built. And they’ve had some great successes in getting people skateboarding or cycling and getting out, but often they tend to be dominated by teenage boys.

“So, we’ve got to think more about what teenage girls would need. We’re currently working on a project [Make Space for Girls] which makes space for girls around locations they may feel more comfortable in.

“We’re looking at, given how many empty shops are on the high streets, whether we can use those sorts of places. Rather than building a skatepark that they’re not going to come to, or saying ‘come to this leisure centre’ and they’re not quite sure about how they will feel there.”

Robinson described the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the closure of leisure centres and gyms across the country, as a “backwards step”. Even with society slowly returning to normal, the virus is still having an impact on physical activity participation rates.

“We’ve got some particular concerns about women and girls with disabilities or long term health conditions, who might still not feel comfortable being with people because COVID-19 is still here.

“So we’re thinking very carefully about what we can do to support people. Whether that’s digital engagement, doing stuff in your own home, or other ways of supporting people once they’re ready to go back out in society.”

Robinson also revealed London Sport were hoping to use digital technology to increase physical activity participation across all groups.

“Seeing more women playing the sport, that inspiration does help for children and young people, but even if you see somebody on the TV doing something, it’s about where do I find it? Where do I access it?

“Often looking things up online can be quite difficult. We’ve got a tool called Get Active, where people can search online to find classes and clubs near to them, and we’re working to use data and digital technology to make things more accessible.

“It’s so easy isn’t it, shopping online and booking an appointment for yourself online? But actually trying to book sporting stuff can be quite tricky. We’re going to see if we can make some of those things easier.”

Robinson is new to her role with London Sport, having taken up the role in February. It is still relatively uncommon to see a woman in an executive role in sport, which makes it all the more significant when women take up such positions.

“I do think having women around the top table makes a difference when we come to designing programmes and thinking about how to do things,” Robinson agreed.

“I think there are still quite a lot of taboos in sport, like talking about periods and the menopause. But I think it is really hard for men to talk about those things. It’s all things we need to feel more comfortable talking about, and I would encourage more men to talk about that.

“But I do think having women in leadership positions in sport is important, and hopefully we’ll see more of that, particularly in the professional sports and clubs, which I think have still got some way to go.”

Emily Robinson is CEO of London Sport. London Sport’s vision is to make London the most physically active city in the world. For more, visit www.londonsport.org

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