By the Honorable Nan Hayworth, MD, Member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition
This year we observe National Women’s Health Week in the midst of a global public health crisis. The pandemic has turned life upside down for families and communities across the country, testing women’s strength and stamina in unprecedented ways.
Women have been a force throughout our country’s history, rising up to every challenge — as we are at this time. In that sense, this special week championing women’s health has perhaps never come at a better time—because what we do now is laying the foundation for a new and urgent dedication to strengthening and sustaining our bodies and minds.
For all women, the foundation for lifelong health is laid when we’re girls. As a female physician, I can tell you how powerfully women benefit from good habits right from the start — and how vital it is for girls to be physically active to develop the bones, muscles, lungs, heart, and mind that will carry them through adulthood. Healthy habits that begin in childhood and adolescence set the foundation for a healthier adulthood. Physical activity in adulthood can decrease risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, and even certain cancers.
So, it’s wonderful that this month is also National Physical Fitness & Sports Month. As a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, I’m privileged to be on the team promoting opportunities and access for all children to participate and thrive in activities that help develop their abilities and prepare them to be their best, as individuals and as leaders within their families and communities. Sports are a great way for youth to gain the benefits of physical activity and develop life skills that will translate to their lives outside the context of sports. And although sports are on hold during this time, they remain an important part of our future. There’s a sport for everyone—and when we encourage and help each other get involved and stay involved, everyone wins!
Research has proven many benefits, and they extend far beyond the more obvious physical benefits. Sports participation can help youth build self-esteem and confidence, improve organizational and self-management skills, strengthen social and interpersonal skills, and enhance concentration and memory. Ultimately, being active, having mentors, and learning how to be a good team member and leader equips girls with the capabilities they need to succeed in education and in life — no matter what path they choose for their future.
The ways in which participating in sports help us to learn to push past obstacles, to set and reach goals — and to help others do the same — are especially important as we face, together, the new burdens of social distancing.
For all the good news about girls’ sports participation, we face some uphill battles: studies have shown that only about half of all girls participate in sports, and girls drop out at a rate up to 3 times higher than boys. We can do better!
The National Youth Sports Strategy includes actionable strategies to help us unify the U.S. youth sports landscape around a shared vision: that one day, all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports — regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code. Here are some of the strategies that can help promote the health and strength of girls in every community:
- Create opportunities for all young people to have access and participate in sports. Can youth in your community participate in sports through schools, clubs, and public parks and facilities? Are these opportunities accessible to young people of all ability levels?
- Support coaching within your community — and try to recruit coaches who reflect the demographics of the community. When coaches have life experiences that resonate with the girls they work with, those relationships will be even more beneficial.
- Partner with local institutions — including schools, clubs, and public health organizations — to help assess the needs and capabilities in your community. You can help identify opportunities, remove barriers, and make sports inclusive for all.
- Foster resilience. Encourage youth to try different sports and activities to help them find something they really enjoy. Playing different sports throughout the year helps reduce the risk of “burnout.” And by learning different kinds of movements and using different muscles in different sports, they are less likely to get injured.
Speaking of resilience, we all know that social distancing is changing the infrastructure for all our activities, and we’re making adjustments that will continue steadily and gradually for months to come. Now more than ever, we need everyone to find innovative ways to ensure that sports can enrich the lives of every girl across the nation.
You can get involved during National Women’s Health Week by attending the Empowering Girls Through Sports webinar on Tuesday, May 12, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. PDT (3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. EDT). Hosted by the HHS Region 10 Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), the webinar will feature speakers from Girls on the Run (Treasure Valley, Idaho, chapter) and Parasport Spokane. They’ll share more information about the National Youth Sports Strategy and use real-life examples to illustrate how sports can help girls build the physical, social, and emotional skills they need to succeed.
There’s no better way to promote women’s health than by starting girls on the best possible path — and girls’ sports can help lead the way!