New research from the University of Georgia says that three out of four teens aren’t getting enough exercise. Interestingly, the lack of exercise is most pronounced in female students. The research shows that the school environment can increase physical activity among teens.

The data came from a statewide survey of over 360,000 high school students. Lead study author Janani R. Thapa says that schools can make a big difference by helping to create healthy eating and exercise habits.

“The length of recess, physical facilities and social environments at schools have been found to affect physical activity among students,” said Thapa, an associate professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health.

She says the state of Georgia has been observing declining levels of physical activity among all adolescents, and that the numbers are higher among middle school and high school girls.

It’s not just the sports offered at a school, but also the school climate that plays a role in how active kids are. For example, social support, school safety and bullying can all determine how comfortable kids feel about participating.

“We do not know much about the role of school climate on physical activity,” says Thapa. “There must have been barriers that were faced by certain groups of students. Hence, we wanted to investigate the difference by gender.”

The data for the study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, included eight characteristics of climate: school connectedness, peer social support, adult social support, cultural acceptance, physical environment, school safety, peer victimization (bullying) and school support environment.

Girls reported less physical activity than boys, with only 35% of females being active compared to 57% of males. Physical activity declined steadily from ninth grade to 12th grade for both genders. But when the school climate was determined to be more positive, students were more physically active.

Bullying was a major influence over whether or not students participated in physical activity. Female students who reported being bullied were more likely to be physically active, while male students who reported being bullied were less likely to be physically active.

Thapa explains that the findings may have to do with gender norms.

“For example, female students who are active in sports and physically active may not fit the gender norm and hence may face bullying,” says Thapa.

The findings suggest that K-12 schools can do a lot to promote participation in physical activity and that they should consider how to improve students’ sense of safety and well-being at school.

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