ATHENS, Ga. — Troubling new research reports that 75 percent of American teens aren’t getting enough exercise. Notably, researchers from the University of Georgia say lack of exercise is especially common among teen girls.
On a more positive note, study authors add that a student’s school environment can go a long way toward fostering more physical activity. According to the team, schools help shape behaviors in students, for better or worse, such as dietary habits and exercise frequency.
“The length of recess, physical facilities and social environments at schools have been found to affect physical activity among students,” says lead study author Janani R. Thapa, an associate professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health, in a university release.
The state of Georgia recently put policies and programs in place intended to boost physical activity across K-12 schools. Prof. Thapa is one of the lead evaluators of these programs.
“Over time, the state has observed declining levels of physical activity among all adolescents, but the rate is higher among female middle and high school students,” she explains.
Bullying affects how much exercise kids get
The research team suspected that school climate plays a heavy role in determining how comfortable students feel playing sports or participating in other physical activities. The term “school climate” refers to factors including social support, safety, and bullying.
“We do not know much about the role of school climate on physical activity,” Prof. Thapa explains. “There must have been barriers that were faced by certain groups of students. Hence, we wanted to investigate the difference by gender.”
These findings are based on a statewide survey encompassing over 360,000 Georgia high school students. Researchers asked each teen about their exercise habits and overall school climate. More specifically, the data included information on school connectedness, adult social support, cultural acceptance, physical environment, school safety, peer victimization (bullying), school support environment, and peer social support.
Female teens reported less physical activity (35%) than their male classmates (57%). Notably, physical activity frequency also declined from grade to grade (from 9th to 12th grades) among both genders.
Despite that trend, when a school’s climate was particularly conducive to exercise, both male and female students generally ended up working out more.
Bullying stood out as a factor worth mentioning. Teen girls who experienced bullying were more likely to exercise, but the opposite held true for bullied boys. Study authors speculate this may be related to gender fitness stereotypes.
“For example, female students who are active in sports and physically active may not fit the gender norm and hence may face bullying,” Prof. Thapa concludes.
The study is published in the Journal of Adolescence.