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Why are physical activity rates lower amongst women?

Are there differences in physical activity and sport participation across genders? We explore in this extract from Social Issues in Sport.

If we compare statistics for physical activity among women with those for men, we find some striking differences. Specifically, inactivity is higher among women (31 percent) than among men (28.6 percent), and it increases with age, standing at 24.5 percent for ages 18 to 44, 31.8 percent for ages 45 to 64, 35.7 percent for ages 65 to 74, and 51.4 percent for age 75 and above. Women are also more likely than men to fail to meet national guidelines for both aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening activity (American Heart Association 2013).

The Women’s Sports Foundation has found that interest in sport is similar among younger boys and girls but that some key differences do exist. Girls tend to start sport participation a year or two later than boys do, which often means that they have less experience, skill, and practice than boys of the same age. By age 14, girls drop out of sport at a rate six times higher than that of boys. In short, girls tend to start participating in sport later and drop out of it sooner than boys (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency 2012).

Differences also appear with the overall category of females. For instance, girls of colour and those from low-income families typically end their participation in organised sport sooner than peers who are White or from middle- or higher-income families. In addition, girls living in urban and rural areas enter sport later and drop out earlier than those living in suburban communities. Reasons for these differences include household chore responsibilities, the need to care for younger siblings, lack of funds, transportation issues, and unsafe neighborhoods.

To address the question of why girls drop out of sport, one study (Boxill, Glanville, and Murray 2011) collected data from teachers and from girls aged 14 to 17. The major factors identified by girls who represented national sport governing bodies included wanting more free time and having friends who dropped out. Adults cited girls becoming shy about their bodies, though girls that age did not agree with this assessment. Both adults and girls felt that girls often found something else they liked to do better, and in fact girls do seem to be attracted to a wider range of social activities than boys are.

Social Issues in Sport book cover

Adapted from:

Social Issues in Sport

Ron Woods and B. Nolan Butler


American Heart Association. 2013. Physical inactivity: Statistical fact sheet—2013 update. Accessed January 5, 2015.

Boxill, J., Glanville, D., and Murray, T. 2011. What sport means in America: A study of sport’s role in society. International Sport Coaching Journal 4 (Spring): 2–45.

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. 2012. Where we stand in our obsession to win. Accessed July 23, 2020.

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