On the heels of Michelle Obama's announcement of her anti-obesity program, it turns out sports may improve girls' later employment and educational lives as well as their health. But what to do about the klutzes?
Girls' sports do appear to have some preventive effect on obesity in adulthood. According to Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times, economics professor Robert Kaestner found that girls who played sports had a 7% lower risk of being obese in their 30s and 40s. Kaestner acknowledges that the reduction is small, but it's still a larger effect than that of any public health program. What's really interesting about girls' sports, though, is that they appear to affect women's lives as well as their bodies. Economist Betsey Stevenson (who knows how to pick an attention-getting topic, if her previous studies of women's happiness and marriage rates are any guide) looked at states with high girls' sports participation as a consequence of Title IX. According to Parker-Pope, she found that increased sports participation in childhood "explained about 20 percent of the increase in women's education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women."
The nature of Stevenson's study allowed her to eliminate factors like individual girls' personalities and come closer than ever to drawing a causal link between playing sports and educational and job attainment. Says Stevenson, "It's not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life." All of which bodes well for Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative "Let's Move," which aims to increase kids' physical activity and takes the Obama girls' sports participation as a model. But commenter Former New Yorker raises a criticism on the Times Well Blog:
That's great for girls who are athletic. But the girls who are clumsy and last picked for teams are the girls who need the benefits most
How does this help them? This makes me feel that we haven't come any further. We're just including athletic popular girls in the mainstream [...]
It has to be made so that all kids–boys and girls want to be involved in some sports
As someone who was not only always picked last but who routinely failed such basic gym tests as "throwing" and "jumping," I share her concern. While I enjoyed some games growing up — the more they resembled "disorganized running around" the more I liked them — school sports usually made me feel incompetent, and I ditched them as soon as I could in favor of marching band. There's no perfect way to shield kids from others' mockery, but throwing students of all different abilities together with little supervision and expecting them to play team sports is a surefire recipe for making the weakest athletes feel like shit. And at least in my experience, feeling like shit doesn't necessarily make kids try harder — it can stop them trying at all. Including even klutzy girls in physical activity would require more personal attention, but it wouldn't be insurmountable. I, for instance, was good at running, and would have loved to focus on it more — but at my school everyone had to go through the same gym "units." More individualized physical education might help less athletic girls get some of the benefits of playing sports. But of course, this would require time and money: Michelle Obama, take note.