Girls and women need more time in nature to be healthy

November 9, 2018 by Rebecca Spencer And Sara Fl Kirk, The Conversation
Getting enough physical activity can be challenging for women and girls, because they have to negotiate complex gender roles, stereotypes and cultural narratives about the body. Credit: Shutterstock

Supporting girls and women in their efforts to be physically active must become a global public health priority. Preliminary results from our research at Dalhousie University suggests that access to nature may be key to achieving this.

A recent study in The Lancet Global Health pooled global data from the past 15 years and showed persistent and worrying trends: Women continue to get insufficient , and the gap between levels of women and men is widening.

Similar trends are seen in aged 12 to 17. Only two per cent meet the requirements of the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines —which include adequate sleep and at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Our own review of the evidence also found that girls have complex relationships with physical activity, requiring an ongoing negotiation of gender roles and stereotypes. They have to navigate cultural narratives focused on the "body" in many parts of their lives every day. They are expected to be pretty but to appear , to be thin but not too skinny, to be fit but not too muscular.

We are currently engaged in research to explore the of adolescent girls and young women through a technique called photovoice, in which participants take photographs to represent their own experiences.

A participant shows some of the photographs she submitted. Credit: Kylee Nunn Photography, Author provided
Flowers, trees, and water

In this study we asked seven research participants to take photos to explore their health, nutrition, and physical activity experiences and to bring them back to discuss in a group, and look for themes or trends.

They found themes relating to challenging norms and stereotypes and to the importance of social support and confidence. They discussed their perceptions that "everything is gendered" and that there are activities girls are "supposed to do." They talked about sometimes feeling excluded from sports dominated by boys, and expectations around what girls should wear while being active.

They also discussed how they challenge those norms. The girls, for example, took photos engaging in non-traditional physical activities like aerial circus silks and climbing trees in skirts. They also stressed the importance of support from friends and family to feel safe in challenging norms. There was also a surprising finding: the emphasis they placed on being outside in nature.

Although nature and the environment were not part of the intended research purpose, being outside emerged as important. Many of the girls and young women shared photos of natural elements, like flowers, trees and water.

A photo of a tree submitted by a research participant. Author provided

They also took photos of themselves, their friends and families engaging in physical activity outside. This most often included general active outdoor play, but also, more specifically, activities like hiking and camping.

We learned that nature provided important context for these girls and to feel comfortable, safe and confident to navigate the complex gender norms around physical activity.

Safe spaces outdoors

A recent review shows that, due to urbanization and parental fears, youth are less connected to nature than ever before and are missing out on health benefits as a result.

This trend is duplicated in popular culture, with books, songs and films depicting nature less and less over time.

A photo of a flower submitted by a research participant. Author provided

Similarly, a large-scale survey in the United States shows youth spend more time with technology than nature but also indicates they value their time with nature and need more opportunity for that connection.

With the United Nations' recent warning that we have only about a decade to alter climate change without devastating consequences, engagement with nature has never been more urgent. This can be done through encouraging , supporting active transportation and providing safe spaces for women and girls to participate.

Achieving gender equity

Interestingly, the evidence indicates that women face barriers to experiencing nature.

Gendered expectations, fear for their safety and feelings of objectification and vulnerability mean girls and women have to negotiate these feelings in order to participate in outdoor recreation.

A photo of a girl climbing a tree submitted by a research participant. Author provided

Achieving is a key challenge for the 21st century, reinforced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which also highlight the importance of nature, environments, sustainability and health.

The benefits of physical activity to mental and physical health are extensive but are not being realized by half the population. Studies are starting to explore gender and the outdoors, while the importance of nature to women is gaining momentum.

But there's more to do to determine how this finding can support gender equity. The importance of nature for health promotion is an emergent trend in research, and the focus of the upcoming International Union for Health Promotion and Education Conference.

Can nature be the key to promote physical activity among girls and ? More research is needed to know for sure, but it certainly shows promise.

Explore further: Friends play bigger role than others in how active girls are in late childhood, study shows

Related Stories

Friends play bigger role than others in how active girls are in late childhood, study shows

April 24, 2018
Who your daughter hangs out with at school plays a major role in her physical activity levels, according to a new University of Alberta study.

Modern conflict: Screen time vs. nature

October 22, 2018
Even rural kids today spend more time in front of screens and less time outdoors, according to a new study of middle-school students in South Carolina.

Gender stereotypes begin at age 10

September 10, 2018
Last year in Shanghai, the grandmother of an 11-year-old girl pondered her granddaughter's future. "Girls should be economically independent," the woman said. But, she added, marrying a rich man is also an important goal, ...

Girls, young women fall short on exercise: study

June 11, 2018
(HealthDay)—Many teens and young adults in the United States—particularly women and girls—are physically inactive, a new study reveals.

Physical activity encouraged more in boys than in girls

March 9, 2016
School and family influences on physical activity may be stronger in boys than in girls in Australia, according to a study published March 9, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Rohan Telford from the University of ...

Recommended for you

Emotional abuse may be linked with menopause misery

November 19, 2018
Smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have long been linked to heightened symptoms of menopause. Now, a study headed by UC San Francisco has identified another factor that may add to menopause torment: an emotionally ...

How AI could help veterinarians code their notes

November 19, 2018
A team led by scientists at the School of Medicine has developed an algorithm that can read the typed-out notes from veterinarians and predict specific diseases that the animal may have.

Does an 'echo chamber' of information impede flu vaccination for children?

November 19, 2018
Parents who decline to get their child vaccinated against the flu may be exposed to a limited range of information, a new national poll suggests.

Bullying and violence at work increases the risk of cardiovascular disease

November 19, 2018
People who are bullied at work or experience violence at work are at higher risk of heart and brain blood vessel problems, including heart attacks and stroke, according to the largest prospective study to investigate the ...

Sucking your baby's pacifier may benefit their health

November 16, 2018
Many parents probably think nothing of sucking on their baby's pacifier to clean it after it falls to the ground. Turns out, doing so may benefit their child's health.

Newborn babies' brain responses to being touched on the face measured for the first time

November 16, 2018
A newborn baby's brain responds to being touched on the face, according to new research co-led by UCL.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.