Physical Activity and Organized Sport Among Girls

by aglowka December 13, 2019 comments

Physical Activity and Organized Sport Among Girls

There is abundant research about physical activity and organized sport participation among female youth, especially because their physical activity rates consistently decline with age. 

Girl skateboarding with help from volunteer
Skate Like a Girl via Seattle Parks and Recreation. 

State of Play: Seattle-King County found that while males and females participate in organized sport at the same rate (approximately 80% across all age groups), females are overall less likely to be physically active than boys. 

  • Sixteen percent of female youth, as compared to 22% of males, meet the CDC’s physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes of activity every day.

  • Females also report fewer days per 7-day week (3.97 versus 4.41) that they participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity.


There are other similarities between males and females. 

  • Soccer and basketball are the most-played organized sports for both genders.

  • Participation in organized activity drops off as both groups age. At the time of the survey, 85% of females and 83% of males under 15 years of age participated in organized physical activity or sport over the past year. In contrast, 76% of females and 73% of males ages 15 and over did.

    • Among females specifically, 90% of 5th-graders versus 68% of 12th-graders participated in organized physical activity or sport in the past year.

  • Males and females also visit the parks and outdoor spaces near them at similar rates: 89% of males and 92% of females had visited their nearby outdoor spaces at some point during the warmer months of the past year. 

    • Twenty-eight percent of males and 29% of females visited more than once per week.


Barriers for girls specifically include lack of time, less confidence in physical abilities, and limited visibility of inspiring female athletes.

  • Among girls who have never participated in organized physical activities or sports, most selected “I’m not good enough to play,” as one reason why. This is compared to the top reason selected among boys: “I am not interested in sports.” 

  • Among girls who have stopped participating in organized physical activities or sports, most report lack of time to play due to schoolwork as one reason why. Boys again report not being interested in sports as a top reason for stopping.

  • In a focus group of adolescent girls, we heard one of the reasons girls may be less inclined to participate in sports as they get older: there are not as many professional opportunities that seem visibly attainable or inspiring, unlike there are for boys. King County does have two professional women’s teams - the Reign and Storm, which means there is some professional visibility for girls in this region.


Specific interventions to increase physical activity among girls follow some of what we’ve heard may work for all youth.

  • School remains a critical intervention point. Scholars have studied a variety of strategies that may impact physical activity rates especially as girls enter into adolescence. Pearson, Braithwaite, and Biddle (2015) assessed the impact of various interventions, including those occurring through school, and found that school-based supports, which their advantage of a supportive physical environment, easy access to recruitment and availability of professional staffing had a higher effect than other strategies in increasing physical activity levels. They recommend that school-based interventions involve girls in planning physical activity programs, and ensure that extracurricular physical activity is appealing and not simply a repetition of existing activities from physical education, some of which may be more appealing to boys. 

  • Choice and noncompetitive opportunities may be particularly beneficial for girls with low physical activity levels. Owen et al. (2019) found that girls with lower physical activity rates most enjoy and desire noncompetitive opportunities within the school setting, and perceive the after-school “club environment” as only for those with a certain sport competence. They explain that increasing physical activity (PA) levels among less-active girls could partially be done “through greater autonomy through freedom of choice during school‐based PA opportunities...through increased choice of activities, girl only classes, inclusion and small group interaction, girls' enjoyment of PE was higher, and their daily levels of PA were higher.”

  • Women are one untapped population of coaches and thus, inspiration to young girls. One outdoor recreation program leader interviewed as part of State of Play: Seattle-King County says she is interested in finding ways for women to be more involved as instructors because of the imbalance she sees in her organization. Having more women coaches may do more than just address the coaching shortage; it may help build sport participation for girls. As another coach said, the perception that “girls don’t play sports” begins at an early age, and she feels that by coaching her son she is “getting it out there that sports are for everybody.” 

    • Another byproduct of having more women coaches may be more attention to youth development. In our coach survey, women report themselves as focusing their practices on mastery, fun, injury prevention and autonomy to a greater degree than men. 


In our next blog post, we’ll explore what local and regional organizations and leaders are doing to engage female youth in physical activity in ways that are meaningful and effective.



*Women’s self-ratings were significantly higher than men’s on a scale measuring the use of positive youth development behaviors/approaches in practice (p<0.0001).






Owen, M., Kerner, C., Newson, L., Noonan, R., Curry, W., Kosteli, M. C., & Fairclough, S. (2019). Investigating Adolescent Girls' Perceptions and Experiences of School‐Based Physical Activity to Inform the Girls' Peer Activity Intervention Study. Journal of School Health.

Pearson, N., Braithwaite, R., & Biddle, S. J. (2015). The effectiveness of interventions to increase physical activity among adolescent girls: a meta-analysis. Academic pediatrics, 15(1), 9-18.