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 News Article

Fitness for Girls and Women

By Maj. Barbara Luke, USAFR
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 19, 1998 – My daughter is an avid soccer player who loves the game but doesn't necessarily understand the rules. She just loves the action.

Whenever someone asks me what position my daughter plays, I laughingly reply that she "plays the field." She wouldn't know a forward from a fullback; she runs everywhere chasing down that elusive soccer ball!

Despite her "damn the rules, full speed ahead" attitude, I'm so proud of her because she is active, involved and determined. That's very important because today's young girls, on the verge of the 21st century, are entering an era of new challenges and rapid changes.

"Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls," a report by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, states that increasing physical activity among girls is a "formidable public health challenge, but the potential rewards are a more vigorous nation, better health and greater leadership opportunities for girls, prevention of premature death and unnecessary illness, and a higher quality of life."

Women have made great strides. Participation in school athletics and Olympic sports and the recent inauguration of the Women's National Basketball Association have heralded new emphasis on fitness for girls. Yet, we are still confronted with persistent stereotypical attitudes as well as many unexplained associated factors that require additional research, such as the relationship between eating disorders and certain sports (i.e., figure skating, gymnastics, etc.) and the unexplained delay in the onset of the menstrual cycle in female athletes who train at high levels.

The report states women still encounter barriers toward achieving greater physical and athletic opportunity. Traditionally, women's participation in sports was condemned as unladylike, and public health officials issued warnings concerning the dangers of strenuous physical activity. Recent studies are concentrating on the interaction of sports and sexual harassment and whether physically active girls are more assertive when confronted with inappropriate behavior.

Several key research recommendations are highlighted in this report:

  • Encourage girls to get involved in sports and physical activity at an early age.
  • Challenge stereotypes that impede girls' participation in sports.
  • Use exercise and sports as therapeutic and preventative interventions enhancing the physical and mental health of adolescent females by offering them positive feelings about body image, self- esteem, competency and success, and self-confidence.
  • Establish regular physical activity to reduce girls' risk of obesity and hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood).
  • Reduce symptoms of stress and depression among young girls through physical activity.
  • Expand opportunities and eliminate gender stereotyping through positive experiences from physical activity and sports.
  • Recognize physical activity and sports as an effective and money-saving public health asset.

The report states involvement in physical fitness activities can teach young girls problem-solving skills, promote feelings of self- worth and psychological well-being, and reduce the likelihood their risk of developing many deadly health-related conditions.

Although additional research is needed to study the medical aspects of increased physical activity, the biophysical benefits gained by getting young women involved in fitness and sports activities have been proven.

(Luke is an action officer in the Office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel support, families and education.)

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