7 ways to make movement more appealing to teenage girls

Recent research has highlighted alarming levels of inactivity among teenage girls. Data suggests that inactivity and sedentary time are two of the driving forces behind rising rates of poor mental health, obesity, and disinterest in sports and physical activity.

We know that time and financial constraints can pressurise parents and make it more difficult for teenagers to pursue their interests. Below, our National Fitness Assurance Lead Olivia Tyler and Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn discuss creative ways us parents can use conversation and local services to help make movement, sports, and physical activity more appealing to teenage girls.

Why it’s so difficult

Teenage girls can start to lose interest in sports and physical activity as they age for several reasons, including social fears like worrying about bullying and changing friendship groups.

Other common reasons are:

  • Changes to their body
  • A lack of education on things like sports bras
  • Periods
  • Body image and self-consciousness
  • A lack of access to ‘all-girl’ programs and classes
  • Social stigma
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Balancing academic and sporting interests
  • Shifting interests
  • Inadequate facilities for girls
  • Negative experiences

1. Playing and enjoying football

Traditionally, football has been a game for boys that’s felt out of reach for girls. In an interview with Nuffield Health, women’s football icon Rachel Yankey spoke about how she would cut her hair and dress like a boy to play football at a level that suited her ability.

Even today, the thought of being the only girl at a training session can be daunting. Thankfully, things are changing, and young girls are more encouraged to enjoy football today.

The recent success and popularity of the Lionesses has had a lot to do with introducing football to a new audience and making the beautiful game feel more inclusive for young girls.

If your daughter is interested in playing more football, use the FA football finder tool to find a girls club or session near you. If you’re looking for something less formal, click here to find casual matches for girls near you.

The Greater Game

At Nuffield Health, we’re proud to launch The Greater Game initiative alongside the FA.

The Greater Game teaches coaches and parents about using football and training sessions to help educate young people about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices.

Collaborations with schools help integrate football into PE lessons and after-school clubs to make the game more accessible for girls who might not want to play at a local club.


2. Online YouTube workouts

Increasing the amount of time your daughter spends on the move doesn’t have to mean leaving the house or taking part in social clubs they don’t want to attend.

Lots of young girls struggle with how they look and feel when exercising around others and have grown to associate exercise with self-consciousness and worry.

Some of the most common reasons young girls give for avoiding exercise entirely include:

  • Body image
  • Thinking people are looking at them
  • How they look when they exercise
  • What they’re wearing
  • The social aspect of group exercise
  • Whether they’re doing things right

Talking about these feelings and reassuring your daughter that everyone has felt this way at some point is a great way to validate their feelings.

If you know they struggle with any of the above (they’re not alone), try gently introducing them to some of the great online workouts and routines available online. Building confidence at home and learning some basic routines is a great foundation that can ultimately kickstart a confident and positive relationship with movement and exercise moving forward.

3. Move Together Classes

As parents, we know how hard it can be to find engaging ways to get teenagers moving.

If you’ve got a daughter aged 11 to 16, Move Together classes are a great way to promote the benefits of physical activity in a fun and secure environment.

These free classes are run by a Nuffield Health instructor and can include everything from activities and dances to movement sequences and games.

Classes are inclusive and great for helping young girls:

  • Socialise and meet new friends
  • Enjoy movement outside of a school environment
  • Develop their own relationship with exercise
  • Build strength and confidence
  • Learn more about what fitness and exercise means for teenage girls
  • Find exercises that work for them

Think your daughter might be interested? Click here to find out more

4. Engaging dance classes

Lots of young girls are reluctant to exercise in front of others, be it at school in PE or at after-school clubs.

Dance classes are a great way to get them moving with their friends in an inclusive and focused environment. By concentrating on dancing instead of movement, lots of girls soon forget they’re exercising when they start having fun and enjoying themselves.

These non-judgemental environments encourage everyone to participate regardless of their skill level or experience with dance. You can find classes that incorporate a variety of styles, including hip-hop, contemporary, ballet, jazz, and Zumba.

Beginner-friendly classes are also an option, where the focus is on fun and enjoyment rather than performance. These classes foster a sense of community and teamwork which helps girls build solid friendships and social connections that are built around a shared interest.

The emerging popularity of TikTok and choreographed dancing as a form of group exercise has also contributed to more young girls wanting to start contemporary dance. Even if they’re learning these at home, they’ll quickly see improvements to their cardiovascular fitness and coordination.

5. Praise the effort, not the result

We’re all more likely to engage with things we’re apprehensive about if the fear of failure or judgement is removed.

When you focus on effort, you emphasise the importance of trying and persevering instead of achieving and winning. This will help build your daughter's confidence, as she feels good about her efforts regardless of the outcome. Encouraging persistence and resilience teaches your daughter that improvement and success come from consistent effort.

This encouragement doesn’t have to be around a specific goal either. For example, letting your daughter know that you’re impressed they tried a new sport in PE or walked home from school instead of getting the bus shows them that you’re interested and that you praise positive health and wellbeing choices.

By consistently praising your daughter's effort in physical activities, you create a supportive and encouraging atmosphere that will ultimately affect all areas of life. This approach nurtures self-esteem and willingness to engage in physical activities, leading to a healthier and more active lifestyle.

6. Use positive language

As parents, the language we use when we talk about movement and exercise can affect the way our children see and relate to it.

For example, light-hearted phrases that we wouldn't think twice about could be interpreted differently by a child who doesn't understand the nuance of the statement.

For example, take some of the commonly used phrases below:

  • "That class nearly killed me"
  • "My PT destroyed me today"
  • "I hate running"
  • "That workout was a nightmare"

Most adults would look past the language and appreciate the sentiment, but over time, the consistent use of negative language around children can have a detrimental effect on the way they view things.

Instead, see how your children react when you experiment with more positive language like:

  • "That class was really hard but I got through it"
  • "My PT makes me work hard so I can meet my goals"
  • "I don't find running easy but I always feel better afterward"
  • “That session was difficult, but I’m really proud I pushed through”

7. Start mind and body-positive conversations

As parents, another great way of encouraging positivity around exercise is to make ourselves more aware of what other sources are influencing the way they think and feel.

To some extent, most teenagers are exposed to social media influencers and will see content, conversations, and images that can skew their perception of health and wellbeing. This includes selfies, advice on food, humorous reels about not being active, and potentially damaging advice that isn’t based in fact.

Influential information and images are consumed over and over via reels and clever algorithms ensure that the content that they engage with is delivered to them more frequently. This leaves little opportunity for us as parents to ‘vet’ or fact-check the information they’re consuming.

It might be a good idea to talk to your daughter about some of the things you see her looking at, sharing, or certain trends that you become aware of. How you talk to your daughter can be the key to open and exploratory conversation, where she feels encouraged and empowered to reject or challenge the content she consumes.

Teenagers can be at a stage in life where they want (and actively seek) separation from the thoughts and attitudes of their caregivers, so it’s key to listen and encourage (with love) them to think differently about what they are taking in.

Some conversation starters that can be useful include:

  • What do you really think about that advice?
  • What makes you think it might be true?
  • How do you think they know that?
  • How much of what you just watched do you believe?
  • Have you investigated that yourself to see whether it's true?
  • Do you know about filters and body-changing apps to make people look different?
  • What looks nice about that body? Do you think it's all-natural?

Our top tips for keeping girls engaged

It’s common for children to grow out of hobbies and interests as they get older. Unfortunately, this is true of movement and physical activity too.

A large percentage of teenage girls say the only exposure to sports and physical activity that they get is from PE lessons at school. We want to help change that.

Take a look below for some of our top tips for keeping young girls engaged with movement from a young age:

Talk about change

Change can be scary for us all.

When a child goes through puberty, their body starts to change and grow in ways that can be incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, more than four in five (84%) teenage girls say their interest in sport and fitness diminished after starting their period.

Make sure your daughter knows that these changes to her body don’t have to be an obstacle to movement and fitness. Periods and certain physical changes are all things we don’t like to talk about, but transparency typically makes young girls feel more comfortable and at ease as they continue to grow.

Reinforce the social benefits

As a parent, it can be easy to forget about all the social benefits of exercise, sports, and physical activity. If your child is attending clubs and activities with their friends, they’re far more likely to maintain interest over time.

One thing that can help here is trying to stay in touch with other parents at school and at the social clubs your child attends. This has become a lot easier than it once was because of how popular group chats and social media have become.

Chat about what your kids are experiencing and whether they’re still enjoying the sport they’re playing or the clubs they’re attending. If your young girl has close friends, having a catch-up with their parents can help you find out if interests are aligned and whether their wider friendship group might be up for trying something new.

Don’t make exercise about weight or body shape

Statistics published by The Mental Health Foundation show how body image concerns are impacting the mental health of a large percentage of teenagers:

  • 31% say they have felt ashamed about how they perceive their body image
  • 40% say social media has caused them to worry about their body image
  • 35% have stopped eating or restricted their diet at some point because of body image concerns
  • 40% said that things their friends have said have made them worry about their body image
  • 35% worried about their body image often or every day.

By constantly reiterating the health benefits of exercise, we as parents can cause our children to lose sight of the joy and excitement that sport and movement can bring.

If a child already has body image concerns or doesn’t feel comfortable exercising around others, hearing that they need to do it to “stay healthy” or to make their body appear a certain way can cause them to withdraw and feel like they are doing something wrong.

Whilst it’s important to strike a healthy balance here, helping children associate movement and physical activity with fun and enjoyment from a young age means they’re more likely to carry these positive habits and routines into their teenage years.

Limit screen time

This is easier said than done with teenagers, but limiting a child’s screen time is a must if you want to promote the benefits of a healthy and active lifestyle.

Children who don’t spend all their time in front of a screen tend to understand how to enjoy physical movement alongside the benefits of technology.

As parents, it’s important we reinforce the importance of this balance from a young age to avoid our children solely associating ‘fun’ and ‘a good time’ with watching television, playing video games, and scrolling social media.

Lastly, try to lead by example when it comes to screen time. Whilst we think of teenagers as ‘grown up’, they’re still subconsciously learning and adapting their behaviour from us as parents. If your teenager sees you taking time away from your smartphone or computer after work, they’ll be more likely to mimic your behaviour and follow suit.

Last updated Friday 14 June 2024

First published on Friday 14 June 2024