14th Jul 2020

COVID-19 FAQ: What is the importance of physical activity for teenage girls’ during the pandemic?

14th Jul 2020

Curated by Emma Cowley

Research suggests that COVID-19-related lockdowns negatively affect teenagers and especially adolescent girls’ mental health.

Covid-19 is affecting the physical and mental health of teenage girls forced into lockdowns

A Chinese study of 12-18-year-old adolescents conducted during the 2020 lockdown found that over 45% of girls and close to 42% of boys reported depressive symptoms and 38% versus 36% reported anxiety. Factors contributing to the poorer mental health during home confinement were found to be decreased physical activity (PA), along with more screen time and irregular sleep. The lockdown-related reduction of PA can be quite dramatic. Chinese researchers reported a five-fold drop (from 540 minutes per week to 105 minutes), in children and adolescents, with the proportion of sedentary children and teens increased from 21% to 65%. The COVID-19-related spike in inactivity is putting a further burden on adolescent girls’ mental health, some of whom might avoid physical exercise for psychological reasons. Data from before the global lockdowns indicated that 9 out of 10 teenage girls were not meeting physical activity (PA) recommendations (60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity PA per day). Home confinement has compounded the problem by dramatically reducing the physical space available for exercise. Although long-term data is not available yet, it can be expected that quarantines lasting several months further impacted adolescent girls, who were experiencing more mental health issues than teenage boys and were three times more likely to self-harm even before the pandemic started.
What can be done to help teenage girls during the lockdown? Research is still being conducted into specific interventions tailored to mitigate the effects of home confinement. However, previous studies into school programmes to improve teens’ physical and mental wellbeing offer hope. A Chilean study found that high school students’ anxiety levels reduced by 13% and self-esteem improved by 2% after they introduced a new PE curriculum. However, increasing the level of physical activity may not be enough for adolescent girls. A longitudinal study following girls not engaging with physical education (PE) in Scottish schools found they were often inactive because PE classes did not fulfil their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. The researchers included consultation and a choice of activity into the curriculum, which increased the participation of girls in PE. (Some respondents, for example, said they were keener on fitness training than athletics, hockey, rugby or cross country).

In addition, the HERizon Project, I am involved in has found that girls describe the support of others as a leading facilitator and the judgement of others as a leading barrier in engaging in PE.
Inactive girls have low confidence in their skills and fitness and often do not want to exercise in the presence of others. Ironically, the lockdown offers an opportunity to study the effectiveness of home exercise for this group. The project builds on the findings of a 2017 study that no significant differences were found between cardiovascular fitness between a lab and home-based exercise. To study adherence for home-based exercise we have involved psychologists who are using Self-Determination Theory to motivate and empower adolescents to take ownership of their health.

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard. NB: The pinboard contains research papers that have not been peer-reviewed yet, meaning that they have not gone through the standard scientific validation process yet.

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Curated by

Emma Cowley

PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University, focusing on developing a co-created home-based HIIT intervention for adolescent girls in order to increase the rate of physical activity adherence.

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