Equity & Diversity

Researchers Say Girls Thrive in Single-Sex Gym Classes

By John Gehring — August 30, 2005 3 min read
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High school girls exhibit higher levels of vigorous activity if they participate in single-sex, nontraditional gym classes that include aerobics, dance, and other activities tailored to meet their interests, a new study concludes.

The findings from researchers at the University of South Carolina-Columbia are significant because of concerns about the progressive decline in physical activity among teenage girls as they mature and the increasing rates of obesity and diabetes among girls that age.

The study, “Promotion of Physical Activity Among High School Girls: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” is published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.Researchers evaluated how an intervention and a control group of 2,744 high school girls in 24 South Carolina high schools differed in their daily rates of physical activity.

Read an abstract of “Promotion of Physical Activity Among High School Girls: A Randomized Controlled Trial” from the American Journal of Public Health.

Girls in the intervention group attended schools that adopted the Lifestyle Education for Activity Program, or LEAP, designed by researchers to change both instructional practices during gym and the overall school environment as it relates to health education.

The gym classes, which generally separated female and male students, were designed to offer an alternative to the competitive team sports found in many physical education programs. LEAP also included health education lessons that promote skills needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Students in the control group attended traditional gym classes, in which students played basketball, soccer, and other team sports.

Follow-up evaluations showed that 45 percent of the girls in the LEAP intervention program reported vigorous physical activity each day, compared with 36 percent of the girls in the control group. Researchers said this was the first study to show specifically that a school-based intervention can increase regular physical activity.

Self-Conscious?

Russell R. Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health who led the research team, said girls have been shortchanged in typical gym classes for years.

“Some girls are self-conscious being physically active in a gender-integrated group, and there is a tendency for girls to get marginalized and drift to the sidelines rather than participate actively,” Mr. Pate said. “Having gender-separate groups facilitates having a selection of activities that can be tailored to the interests of girls.”

Separating girls and boys during physical education classes, he said, was the norm for about 20 years beginning in the 1950s. After the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding, gym classes were slowly integrated by gender.

But Mr. Pate pointed out that while Title IX requires equal opportunity, it does not require coeducational sports teams or fitness environments.

“At this critical stage in their development, girls and boys are different enough it makes sense to separate them,” he said.

Neena Chaudhry, the senior counsel for the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, praised the goals of the study, but argued that more information was needed before advocating single-sex physical education classes.

“Is it the single-sex environment that is responsible for the gains in the study?” she said. “It’s hard to know. The concern is you could separate boys and girls without such evidence and reinforce stereotypes in which girls get the short end of the stick.”

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