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Celebrating International Women's Day

Health of the Female Athlete



I wanted to mark International Women's Day with a blog celebrating female health and how far we have come in recognising the 'Athletic Female'.


Thankfully we are starting to be more aware of, and discuss, female specific health issues such as menstruation, how injury risk for some injuries is greater for females than males, the effects of hormones on physical health (from a young age through to menopausal and post-menopausal ages), enabling women to return to sport post-partum and issues surrounding the pelvic floor and stress incontinence to name but a few!


The sports kit available to female athletes has also been in the news again this week with discussion around how football boots are made for 'male feet' and not adapted to 'female feet', therefore potentially increasing injury risk for females. Many sports teams and tournaments (Wimbledon) are also moving away from playing in white shorts or skirts because of potential incidences of leaking during menstruation.


This is a positive place to be for females, because for too long these issues have not even been recognised let alone dealt with. Females worldwide have put up with things because 'that is how it is'. However, from a health perspective, we might be putting females at an unnecessary disadvantage and increased risk of injury by not acknowledging the fact that they are not just 'mini men' and therefore we cannot necessarily just apply science that applies to males to a female population. We are different.


Unfortunately, only 6% of sports science research is done on women only1. The other studies either look at both male and female subjects or are on male only subjects. It would be great if we can generate more research which can be applied to females so that we can successfully enable them to be more active.


Activity and health are inextricably linked. We know for both males and females the health and socioeconomic benefits of being active or participating in sport is significant, yet Sport England identify that 39% of females are not active enough2.


Do you remember their 'This Girl Can' campaign which they launched in 2015 to try to get more females active3? Adverts showing red, sweaty women exercising rather than glamourous beauties who haven't broken a sweat (or probably done any exercise either) using slogans like 'I jiggle, therefore I am'.


This relative inactivity starts at a young age. Many young girls who enjoyed sport at primary school age start abandoning sports in teenage years (43%)4. There can be many reasons for this - physical changes which happen throughout puberty (periods, development of breasts), body image, self-perceived or societal ideas of femininity, self-belief, time pressures5 etc, but also perhaps availability of facilities, groups, clubs, and coaches to a certain extent?


The problem is that this carries on into adult life, with a third of women aged 41-60 not meeting the Chief Medical Officer's recommendations of 150 minutes exercise a week6. There will be many reasons for this as well - lifestyle, commitments, lack of time, but also lack of confidence, knowledge of where to go or where to start, perhaps teenage memories that put adults off exercising.


This continues into our 'older and wiser' years with women being twice as likely as men to suffer a fracture6 and nearly 22% of women over 50 years old having osteoporosis compared to nearly 7% men7. Now this isn't just caused by whether you were active or not in your earlier years and is due to a combination of factors, but it highlights the differences between male and female health. (On this note, I highly recommend the Royal Osteoporosis Society for further information about osteoporosis: https://theros.org.uk).


The problem is that we know the benefits of exercising on our mental and physical health are huge, so why aren't women engaging in more activity? Or should I ask, why aren't they able to engage in more activity?

 

 

 

That saying of 'if you see it, you can be it' is so true. On a positive note, female sport is far more widely televised nowadays. If people see someone like themselves achieving something then they believe that they can too. Participation in netball significantly increased after the England netball team won gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games for example. My 10-year-old goddaughter swims at her local club and competes in the county championships, she has been saying that she wants to swim at the Olympics one day after her recent successes in the pool. How many little girls would have even thought like that 20 years ago?


The great news is that things are changing. The Paris Olympics will be the first Olympics where equal numbers of males and females are competing8. Unfortunately, this has taken over a century to achieve, but at least it is happening.


Attitudes have also definitely changed in that time as well. Women first took part in the 1900 Olympics in Paris9 (but only in the 'ladylike' sports of tennis and golf and even then, they were only allowed half swings in golf to remain ladylike), but despite this participation, this was an era where women were generally deemed to be 'too frail, delicate or weak to break records'. In fact, once upon a time it was widely believed that strenuous sport wasn't just 'unfeminine', but it was unhealthy for women and may cause them to become infertile10.


Whilst in 2024 we celebrate the Lionesses successes as a relatively 'new phenomenon', women's football was actually hugely popular in the late 1800's. By 1920 it had grown in popularity to the point where a female football match played at Everton's Goodison Park drew a crowd of 53,000 (which was more than the men's games of the time). However, in 1921 the FA decided to ban professional women’s football as it was deemed 'too unsuitable' for women. The ban remained in place until 197111.  Yes, that's right, 1971. Think about all the things that the world had achieved by that time - except allowing women to play professional football.

 

There are so many more things to say about female health and the research, knowledge, awareness or opportunities available to women, (so maybe there are some more blogs to come...!), but right now, let's celebrate how far we have come on this International Women's Day 2024, but to also highlight how far we have to go....

 

 

 



References

1 Cowley et al (2021). 'Invisible Sportswomen': The Sex Data Gap in Sport and Exercise Science Research. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal. 29, 146-151

10 Anstiss, S. (2022). 'The Female Frailty Myth' (Chapter 3). Game On. The Unstoppable Rise of Women's Sport. 2nd ed. Unbound.

 

 

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