It’d be easy to believe that just about every girl is involved in some kind of physical activity, with all-girl teams crowding the playing fields every weekend and elite women athletes getting more attention than in years past.
Not so. Too often, girls give up on exercise as they head toward the tween years, notes Dr. Donna Lopiano, former director of the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Girls aged 11–17 surveyed for a 2006 Girl Scout Research Institute report, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living, doubt that they’ll ever be competent at sports like the “jock girls” are, and they often shy away from activities because they don’t think their bodies look good. Add in the growing numbers of girls who are already showing signs of obesity-related illnesses and health complications, and you understand why millions of girls don’t get the advantages—not to mention the sheer fun!—that comes from physical activity.
Getting active makes girls feel better because physical activity releases mood-elevating chemicals in the brain—and is a stress reliever. The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh, the Girl Scout Research Institute report notes. And studies link higher activity rates with lowered odds of substance and relationship abuse, teen pregnancy, and emotional and academic problems.
To get girls gung-ho about staying active, try this one-two plan with double benefits: Help her find an activity she likes, and then do it with her at least some of the time. “Combining physical activity with personal interaction works really well with girls,” says Lopiano, who founded GoGirlGo!, the WSF program aimed at getting inactive girls active.
Many parents find that something as simple as a regular walk together yields surprising benefits. A dad who goes with his 14-year-old daughter on a daily 20-minute dog-walking stroll finds that “we talk about nothing in particular and things just come up, like boys, drugs, grades, mean girls, teachers, problems, other family members (good or bad), successes, failures, goals, and dreams.”
Another dad finds when he and his eight-year-old girl take their regular after-school walks, his interest can unleash some great parent-daughter conversations: “I ask her the same three questions: What did you learn today? Did you have fun? What cool things happened? It’s almost a game for us, but it also gives us a window to talk, which opens up to other things."
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