A resource to assist organisations in understanding the needs of young women, and support quality experiences in active recreation and sport.
It is well-known that teenage girls and young women face diverse barriers to participation in sport and active recreation. This is corroborated by national research that highlights a strong decline in physical activity for this demographic.
This report provides key insights into the perceptions of young women aged 12-17 – their behaviour, experiences, needs and desires – to help those working with young women navigate these complexities and support young women on their physical activity journey. It is designed to be a starting point for those looking to better engage with and provide for young women as we recognise that not all environments and communities are the same, and young women are a diverse group with different and evolving needs.
How are young women participating?
Understanding the value of physical activity
This evidence suggests that there is a clear difference between how young women behave and their knowledge and intentions.
It is important that the reasons for the difference are understood in order to design experiences that support young women and provide opportunities to establish a life-long love of being active.
The good news is that young women understand the value of physical activity and want to be more active.
Participation over time
There is a consistent decline in participation as young women get older. Māori and Pacific young women spend more time being active than their Pākehā counterparts while Asian young women have significantly lower levels of participation.
However, for the most part, the experience of growing up female in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the relationship with physical activity within that, is more similar than it is different across ethnicities.
The number of activities young women participate in also decreases with age. Amongst other reasons such as increased pressure on time, this is a reflection of how young women narrow their focus as they figure out what they enjoy, It is also a function of young women believing they need to be good at an activity to join in or continue participating. Later sections of this report explore the reasons behind the declining participation in more detail.
Activities over time
From age 15, the number of physical activities young women participate in drops by 29% compared with 18% for young men. As young women get older, the kind of activities they participate in also changes from organised physical activities to self-driven activities. By age 17, the top three activities young women undertake are running, workouts and walking: all informal activities. The average number of hours young women spend informally participating in activity is significantly lower than it is for young men.
If young women drop out of organised activity it does not necessarily mean they will participate in or increase informal activity. As we will discover, young women struggle to maintain motivation to participate in informal activities, leading to a decline in overall activity levels.
Barriers to participation
Overall, young women experience more barriers to participation in physical activity than young men, regardless of their participation levels and whether they want to increase their participation or not.
In addition, compared with young men, young women who want to increase their participation are more likely to identify ‘too busy’, ‘struggle to motivate myself’, ‘I am not confident enough’, ‘I have no one to do it with’ and ‘I don’t want to fail’ as barriers.
When time is precious, young women will choose to spend their time doing something they enjoy and where they feel confident and supported. Unless physical activity offers that support and enjoyment, they are unlikely to access it.
A New Zealand qualitative study commissioned by Sport NZ in 2020 focused on how young women felt about physical activity. It found that the level of engagement in activity underpinned the barriers to participation mentioned above. This data has been cross-referenced with quantitative data to understand young women’s attitudes and beliefs towards physical activity.
Young women who are disengaged or moderately engaged are more likely to be influenced by environmental and social factors when it comes to maintaining their activity levels.
For example, within the qualitative interviews they may initially say they are ‘too busy’ or ‘too tired’ to participate in physical activity; however the discussion uncovered they were intimidated by an environment, or worried about their performance. In comparison, highly engaged young women will prioritise physical activity.
In summary, engagement suffers when fun disappears, particularly for moderately engaged young women. Social judgement, body confidence, and confidence in their abilities all factor into young women’s decision to disengage with physical activity or not, as we discuss later in this report.
What’s important to young women?
Understanding key motivators and influences
This section introduces what research indicates are key motivators and influences for young women’s participation in physical activity. The following section provides more detailed qualitative and quantitative data, with the aim of providing a base-level understanding of the perspectives of young women, in order to identify the opportunities to develop quality opportunities and support for them.
Overall, feelings of enjoyment, happiness and fun play a key role in young women’s positive physical activity experiences. This relationship flows both ways, with the benefits of being active having a positive impact on wellbeing and satisfaction. Young women who participate in over seven hours of physical activity a week have higher levels of happiness and are more likely to find concentrating on schoolwork easier after being active.
The importance of ‘fun’ in physical activity cannot be over-emphasised; it outweighs and counteracts the stress, emotional pressures, and social and family complications of young women’s daily lives. Many young women report the outcomes of physical activity are feelings of accomplishment (through completion not skill), self-worth and empowerment. This sense of accomplishment incentivises continued or future participation.
Maintaining social interaction and having fun are two of the main motivators for young women to continue participating in physical activity. However many young women believe that participation for fun is not universally endorsed by adults in their lives. This leads some young women to believe that an activity must have elements of competition or skill development for them to continue participating in it.
Young women also believe schools expect participation to have a performance element, which is measurable and competitive. They believe schools demonstrate limited support for non-competitive activities and can make it quite challenging to form socially oriented, friendship-based teams. Many schools are focused on trials and putting participants together based on their ability rather than their social connectedness.
As well as being a motivator, the influence of friends can inhibit young women from joining or continuing with an activity. Some young women believe physical activity interferes with their opportunity to socialise because their friends do not participate. Young women are:
- more likely than young men to have friends who are not physically active
- less likely to have friends who favour the same activities as they do.
In the United Kingdom, 63% of young women would not play sport or exercise without a friend by their side and this is also evident in Aotearoa New Zealand. Friends who participate in the same physical activity act as a buffer to dropping out.
When young women talk about really enjoying physical activity, it is a situation in which they are having so much fun they have forgotten that barriers exist. This includes those who have low engagement with physical activity.
I want...to have fun and socialise
Throughout their teenage years young women believe that organised physical activity becomes increasingly serious and competitive. This includes sport, physical education at school and other structured activities such as dance. The increasingly competitive nature of the physical activities on offer is a consistent deterrent for many young women. For many, the fun component of physical activity disappears, so they are no longer motivated to participate.
I want... to feel safe to participate and not be judged
The competitive and comparative basis of sport and PE are environments that expose young women to judgement by both their peers and adults present in that environment. This has been reinforced over time by constant comparison and the measurement of capability in all physical pursuits. One in two young women says she does not enjoy PE or fitness classes at school.
Young women desire safe spaces free from judgement, or where they feel less vulnerable to judgement. They will choose not to participate in environments that condone such judgement and will drop out of activities when they feel continually compared to others.
Some young women will elect to pursue physical activity at home, often using technology such as YouTube to provide guidance. More young women across all ages use technology while being active.
I want...to keep fit and healthy
Young women believe there are societal pressures to observe certain weight and health standards, and this affects their reasons for participating in physical activity.
An Otago study of young people aged 15–18 years (2016) found that 54% of young women believed their body was “too fat” while only 22% of young men felt the same way. A 2018 youth wellbeing report of those aged 12–24 years found body image was a top issue for 46% and 82% of those with body image concerns identified as female. It is not surprising that concerns about body image underpin the relationship some young women have with physical activity.
Young women are aware the social media world of beauty does not reflect reality; however despite rejecting unrealistic physical ideals intellectually, they feel the emotional pressure to be a different shape. The continued societal emphasis on body image means many young women are resistant to untrusted sources discussing their bodies without permission, irrespective of whether the discourse is positive, negative or neutral.
Body confidence can significantly impact how young women feel about taking part in physical activity as well as their willingness to continue participating, particularly in public settings. Situations where young women feel physically on show are demotivating and young women will remove themselves from situations where they feel unaccepted physically or socially.
Whether or not body image is the motivator to participate, positive outcomes of being active are the same. Positive outcomes include feeling ‘better about myself’, ‘more capable’, ‘more confident’ and ‘less stressed’.
Creating environments that promote body confidence without directly referencing weight or shape is therefore important for ensuring young women feel safe to participate.
I want...to feel confident in what I am doing
Young women’s confidence decreases during their teenage years. Agreement with the statement ‘I feel confident to take part’ declines from 76% at age 12 to 53% at age 17.
There are two components to confidence: confidence in abilities and confidence in the environment.
Participating in physical activity makes many young women feel better about themselves, increasing their feelings of capability and competence, and bolstering their confidence. Confidence is the result of physical activity, not the main reason for participation. This sense of confidence is based on personal achievement rather than ability.
Confidence in their own abilities is challenged when young women feel judged poorly on their physical competence. No matter how capable they are, their confidence and perceptions of competence are affected by negative social and environmental feedback. They place greater emphasis on others’ attitudes towards their competence, than on their actual skill level. Being in situations where others make young women feel physically inferior reduces their confidence and causes them to disengage from physical activity.
A lack of confidence in the safety of the environment and culture of a specific physical activity, will negatively affect young women’s participation. As young women get older, the more competitive nature of sport promotes an increasingly pressured environment that can drive them away from participating. Young women lacking in confidence will not participate in trials and may find it difficult to re-join sports they enjoy. If young women lose their confidence to participate, they are more likely to drop out.
In comparison, physical activities with a more social emphasis have the same wellbeing benefits as competitive physical activity, while young women also feel better about themselves and more confident in addition to enjoying a potentially less stressful environment.
Challenging or intimidating physical activity environments are also experienced by young women when they participate outside traditional sporting environments, e.g., gyms. Feeling unsafe or intimidated will discourage young women from participating and if they are not confident that a new environment will be safe and/or welcoming, they are unlikely to try to participate in the first place.
It is clear the confidence levels of girls and young women impact on their willingness to participate in or continue with an activity. Welcoming and supportive environments that focus on positive outcomes and encourage young women to evaluate their competence favourably are critical to keeping them engaged in physical activity.
I want...activities to fit around my other commitments
As they get older, young women cut back on a variety of activities, not just physical activity.
As young women move through their teenage years, they experience increased competition for their time. Obtaining National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) qualifications places greater demands on time and contributes to increased mental and emotional strain as young women try to focus on achieving and maintaining good grades. In addition, the reduction in physical activity, among other activities, corresponds with beginning employment for those aged 15 to 17 years.
Many young women find it difficult to commit to structured activity or sport if they either: a) are aware they might have difficulty maintaining that commitment for the season, or b) believe the environment punishes them when they demonstrate a (perceived) lack of commitment. At a competitive level, sport is seen to be time-consuming. In addition, different sporting commitments clash as sports seasons are lengthened.
The higher the pressure for pure performance, the greater the likelihood young women will opt out. Even amongst young women who focus on and enjoy competition and achievement at a more elite level, the expectation placed on them by others and their own desire to succeed can be hard for them to manage and become demotivating.
The solution for some young women is to transfer their sporting involvement to self-driven, unstructured activity. However, committing to unstructured activity is difficult. By age 17, 36% say ‘it’s too hard to motivate myself’. It is more challenging for young women to maintain a commitment to physical activity without the external expectations to attend that are present in organised physical activity.
Young women who successfully navigate this transition are more highly engaged with the benefits of physical activity and have built a support network of friends around them to help motivate them. They also motivate themselves with positive self-talk that focuses on the personal benefits of physical activity. This helps them to overcome the major barriers linked to starting the activity. Additionally, some young women have created a ‘no judgement, no pressure’ environment and ensure they have fun while participating.
The opportunities for young women to participate in physical activity need to be balanced with increasing school workloads, after-school responsibilities, paid work, and the need to remain socially connected. While it is not possible to avoid clashing timetables, it is possible to create environments where young women want to prioritise physical activity because they know the environment is fun, supportive, builds up their confidence and will not punish them when life gets in the way.
What insights tell us
- Focus on wellbeing
Enhance young women’s holistic wellbeing by creating opportunities and environments in which young women can thrive, enhancing wellbeing rather than adding stress and pressure.
- For young women, with young women
Take time to engage with them, understand their world, their fears, their concerns, their worries, their aspirations, their motivations and their wants.
- Every move counts
Value and encourage all forms of physical activity and some physical activity is better than none.
- For 'the feels'
‘Feel good’ moments are key motivators for young women and most of the time these come from fulfilling their own goals and aspirations, not from competitive results.
- Free of judgement
Create physical and social environments free of judgement, embarrassment and expectation.
- Young women as leaders
Create opportunities to give them a voice and a platform to lead.
- The power of sisterhood
Use the power of friendship and peers to motivate young women to join and engage in activity by creating offerings that encourage social connection.
- Digital lives
Think how you can use devices, digital platforms and social media to engage with young women and offer your products/activities.
- Not just for the sporty
Quality physical activity can look like, feel like and sound like lots of different things, not just traditional sport.
- Physical activity 'on demand'
Think about options that can fit around young women’s lives, opportunities and activities that young women can decide when and how to engage with.