Ayesha Clarke, of Hartford, ran track in middle and high school. She was a sprinter, and especially enjoyed relay races.
She also ran track in the Junior Olympics.
Clarke is 31 now, an auditor with the state Department of Revenue Services, and the mother of two children, ages 4 and 3. Like many young mothers her age, she doesn’t exercise as much as she used to, but she has noticed a difference between women who exercised as teenagers, and women who didn’t.
“I think as we get older, most people who were athletic, they do get a little bit bigger, but those who were never athletic [are] much bigger and unhealthy now,” Clarke said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children and adolescents exercise an hour or more each day, and a new study adds an additional layer to why girls should exercise.
A study recently published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention says that even exercising for an hour or so a week as teenagers can lower the risk of cancer in middle age. Women who exercised between the ages of 13 and 19 may also live longer, regardless of whether they continued to exercise as adults.
The long-term study looked at nearly 75,000 Chinese women ranging in age from 40 to 70 years old. Researchers looked at how many of the women had died in the course of the study, and whether the cause of death was from cancer or cardiovascular disease, and found that those who exercised roughly 80 minutes a week as teenagers had a 16 percent lower risk for death from cancer and a 15 percent lower risk for death from all causes. Women who exercised both as teens and adults benefited most all, with risk for death from all causes and death from cancer reduced by 20 percent and 13 percent, respectively, the researchers said.
Participation in team sports during the teen years had almost as strong an effect.
To Clarke’s point, women who exercised as teens also had a lower BMI (a measure of body fat), and ate more fruits and vegetables. Many of them continued some form of exercise as adults. Exercising as adolescents for more than 1.3 hours a week was linked to a lower risk of death from all causes.
The health study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, suggests that in order to have a later effect, early exercise – team or individual — must be fairly physical. Walking or biking to and from school was not included in the study.
What’s necessary, researchers say, is sustained exercise – the kind that comes from team sports, or school athletics. Researchers have long pointed to Title IX – which governs all federally funded education programs – for opening up athletic opportunities for girls. According to a report from National Women’s Law Center, participation in athletics by girls “skyrocketed” after 1972. The Maryland-based Sports and Fitness Industry Association keeps track of how many children between the ages of 6 and 17 play sports frequently, and they’ve published a host of hopeful statistics that include:
• Forty-seven percent of girls are on a team sport by the age of 6.
• The average of age of girls first enrolling in organized sports is roughly age 7½.
• Basketball is the most popular sport among girls.
• Forty percent of girls between grades 6 and 8 said that sports “are a big part of who they are.”
But Title IX hasn’t filled every gap. The association also found that 25 percent of high school girls who live in cities have never participated in organized sports. And a recent study from the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls, a project of the University of Michigan, shows marked inequity in access to sports for high school girls in Connecticut. According to the report, in the 2009-10 school year, girls had just 79 percent the opportunity to participate in as boys. Compare that to Massachusetts, where the ratio is 88 percent, or New York, where it’s 83 percent.
The study called for increased federal enforcement of Title IX; public disclosure of high schools’ gender equity data; and increased attention in urban schools to provide athletic opportunities for girls, among other recommendations.
Knowing what we know about the importance of exercise for girls, we (obviously) have some work to do.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven, and the Robert C. Vance Chair for Journalism and Mass Communication at Central Connecticut State University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.