A new physical activity programme called Big Sister has been launched in the UK to help girls embrace activity during puberty and reduce the rising numbers who turn away from exercise at secondary school.
Big Sister will empower girls and support them through the challenges of changing bodies and monthly periods, with the guidance, resources and camaraderie of a girl-led community – a network run for girls, by girls.
Big Sister is funded by charity Women in Sport, through the Tampon Tax Fund, Hey Girls, a social enterprise passionate about ending period poverty and the taboos around menstruation and delivered by Places for People’s charity Places Foundation and its leisure management arm, Places Leisure.
According to a recent report by Women in Sport, Tackling Teenage Disengagement, 43 per cent of teenage girls who once considered themselves sporty start to disengage from sport following primary school.
One of the programme’s key messages, delivered through the girls’ community, is how exercise can support mental health and reduce anxiety, as well as boosting self-belief and self-esteem. It also gives a voice to many of the worries girls have about exercising, from the negative ways a period can make them feel, to fears around body image, peer judgement and gender barriers.
“It is a travesty that gender and economic inequalities are leading to so many teenage girls missing out on the exhilaration and fulfilment of exercise – we need to give girls a break from the gender stereotypes that limit their freedom,” said Stephanie Hilborne OBE, CEO at Women in Sport.
“It is simply wrong that one in three young girls avoid sport and exercise because they feel self-conscious about their appearance and seven in ten don’t feel comfortable exercising during their period. We're determined to disrupt this system by providing the knowledge, education and support girls need during puberty.”
In partnership with Places Leisure, Big Sister is trialling the full iteration of its scheme for 9-15 year olds and is offering free six-month club memberships across eleven leisure centres in Norwich, Sheffield, Rotherham and Amber Valley. The offer includes a gym induction (for 11–15-year-olds), swimming pool access, group workouts and free period products and advice.
“Many teenage girls are faced with barriers that can affect their enjoyment of sports and exercise, from body image, puberty and a general fear of judgement," said Paul McPartlan, CEO at Places Leisure. "The Big Sister project offers safe and supportive environments where they can gain a newfound confidence and love of sports and exercise, which will hopefully lead to a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity. "Our mission, as a social enterprise, is to create active places and healthy people and initiatives such as these are so important if we are to create thriving communities where physical activity and its many benefits can be accessed by all.”
Girls can download the Places Locker app. As well as providing an easy way for those with gym membership to book activities and classes, any user can participate in hundreds of workouts from the app’s Virtual Studio. These include Les Mills classes which are updated every 12 weeks.
By visiting the “get active” section on the Big Sister website, girls can also explore a collection of activities and sports that are running all over the country.
Big Sister peer mentor, Ellen, 19, said: “Puberty is tough for everyone, I wish I’d had the confidence to start exercising at a younger age. I only recently found the type of exercise for me, the one I enjoyed – where I got most sweaty – and would finish my session on a high with a feeling of invincibility.
“I became confident in my ability in terms of what I can do and stopped comparing myself to others. I also feel better in myself, I have way more energy and feel so much more comfortable in my own skin.”
To promote good menstrual health, break down the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation and ensure period poverty is not a barrier to getting involved in sport and activity, girls participating in the programme can get access to free disposable and reusable period products and educational resources from Hey Girls.
“Together we can drive positive change for girls at this critical time in their lives,” added Hilborne. “Big Sister provides free access to gyms and swimming pools, free period products and free advice from inspiring Big Sister peer mentors which can make a real difference. We know what young women are capable of and we must not sit back and watch another generation of girls denied the chance to be active happy teenagers and adults.”