“PE won’t give me abs”: Understanding Factors Influencing Girls in Physical Activity and Physical Education by Iona Holmes

Iona was a BEd PE student at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in July 2017. This blog is a summary of her year 4 Investigation that explored the experiences of physically active girls in PE, and in their after-school physical activity contexts.


Girls’ low levels of engagement in both Physical Education (PE) and physical activity (PA) has been a particular concern for society and teachers over the years (Pate et al, 2007; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Sociological research in this area has been dominated by Foucauldian inspired studies that explore girls’ how girls (re)produce dominant gender discourse (Paetcher, 2013), where a slim, attractive and feminine ‘look’ claims superiority (Barr-Anderson et al., 2008). However, feminist research has acknowledged the impact of modernism on a shift in discourse and production of new femininities in the PA context. Here, women strive to be healthy, fit and powerful and excel in conventionally male contexts (Azzarito, 2010). This is important because, while young women’s involvement in PA is increasing, the literature continues to report that young females remain disinterested in PE (Brooks & Magnusson, 2007; Flintoff & Scraton, 2001). Understanding the factors that motivate girls to participate in PA, may be useful in the development of PE contexts that aim to be more positive and engaging for female students. Consequently, this investigation aimed to explore the factors that influence physically active adolescent females’ motivations and experiences of both PA and PE.


Welks’ (1999) Youth Physical Activity Promotion model was adopted as a social ecological approach to provide understanding of young people’s PA behaviour in relation to individual, social and environmental factors. Three focus group interviews were carried out with physically active girls (n=10) from one state secondary school in Scotland.



The girls in this study were reflective of modern femininities, empowered by PA, yet also influenced by fitness and health discourses. These girls did not express feelings of restriction in their PA, although their motivations for PA were unequivocally to get fit, lose weight and get in shape. These societal pressures were linked to desires to display competence in this new era that expects girls to be athletic yet remain desirable. An interesting finding was the value the girls ascribed to PE. The subject was largely discredited due to its’ inability to produce sufficient exercise or induce bodily changes. Several girls outlined the need to ‘sweat’ and work hard in order for exercise to be ‘worth it’ otherwise risk feeling guilty.

Social and Environmental

Recreational PA was facilitated by friendships and relaxed settings, for example- the gym. Spaces such as the gym offered the girls anonymity where they could exercise without the pressures of judged by people they knew. By contrast, their PE classes were subsumed by peer culture, social capital and expectations to publicly demonstrate competence. These active girls did not entirely dismiss PE but explained how they reduced the amount of effort they put into it because of the social nature of the subject, and because of its position in the timetable. Getting ‘sweaty’ during exercise was considered essential but not plausible in a school environment where the pressures of looking good for the rest of the day were more important.

Social Media

As social ecological models are often used in these types of studies, the aim of this investigation was to explore any contemporary social or cultural influences that may impact adolescent girls. Social media was immediately highlighted in the girls’ dialogues. It served as a source of inspiration for girls who would look at pictures and videos of fitness models and attempt to replicate their workouts. However, equally, girls used it as a platform to showcase their fitness efforts and monitor others with one participant claiming, “If you didn’t take a picture of it, did it really happen?”


Although the sample size of this study was small, it highlights some of the factors that positively impact adolescent girls’ participation in PA, and the factors that constraints their participation in PE. Teachers who are able to recognise the modern discourses surrounding girls’ engagement in PA and PE, will have a better understanding of the ways in which they can act on students’ experience, and foster more positive and engaging learning environments for girls.



  • Azzarito, L., (2010). ‘Future Girls, transcendent femininities and new pedagogies: towards girls’ hybird bodies?’, Sport, Education and Society.15 (3) 261-275.
  • Barr-Anderson, D, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Lytle, L.,Schmitz, K, H., Ward, S, D., Conway, T, L., Pratt, C., Bagget, C, D., Pate, R,R., (2008). ‘But I Like PE’, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 79 (1), 18-27.
  • Brooks, F., and J. Magnusson. (2006). ‘Taking Part Counts: Adolescents’ Experiences of the Transition from Inactivity to Active Participation in School-Based Physical Education.’ Health Education Research 21 (6): 872 –88
  • Flintoff, A., and Scraton, S., (2001), ‘Stepping into Active Leisure? Young Women’s Perceptions of Active Lifestyles and their Experiences of School Physical Education’, Sport, Education and Society. 6 (1), 5-21.
  • Paetcher, C. (2013). ‘Girls and their bodies: approaching a more emancipatory physical education’,Pedagogy, Culture & Society. 21 (2), 261-277.
  • Pate, R, R., Dowda, M., O’Neill J,R., Ward, D, S., (2007) ‘Change in physical activity participation among adolescent girls from 8th to 12th grade’. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 4, 3–16.
  • Welk, G, J., (1999). ‘The Youth Physical Activity Promotion Model: A Conceptual Bridge Between Theory and Practice’, Quest, 51:1, 5-23.
  • Whitehead, S. and Biddle, S. (2008). Adolescent girls’ perceptions of physical activity: A focus group study. European Physical Education Review 14(2), 243-62.


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