Using exercise to build the next generation of confident women

Dr Phatho Zondi is a mother of 2 young girls, a Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician and Virgin Active's expert advisor on all things related to women's health. She's back with some great tips on how exercise can empower the next generation of confident women. 

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It’s a family affair 

Be intentional about the quality time you spend with your children. Make sure that some of that family time also involves physical activity or exercise. Being active as a family – and getting the extended family, neighbours and friends involved too – is the best way to cultivate a life-long love of physical movement in young children. 

Active mothers raise active girls

Research shows that girls, in particular, closely emulate what their mothers do. Active mothers are more likely to raise active teenage girls compared to their sedentary counterparts. The key is to make exercise a fun-filled activity that is enjoyable, encourages development of a skill or where personal progress can be demonstrated – and celebrated. Exercise should not feel like a chore and it should never be used as punishment.

Girls naturally tend to gravitate towards activities where they find personal connections or form friendships, and they tend to seek environments that make them feel affirmed, validated, and safe – which in the long run, keeps them coming back for more.

Established fitness chains and health club providers like Virgin Active offer tailormade children’s programmes in safe spaces, that encourage healthy physical development and promote active lifestyles from a young age. This allows your child to see you going to gym to train while they spend their time at the club engaged in age-appropriate movement activities. From 8, they can train with you as they are allowed to use certain areas/equipment and attend certain classes. 

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Break gender stereotypes

There are an increasing number of opportunities for girls to partake in what have traditionally been seen as boys’ sports, such as soccer, cricket, rugby, skateboarding and many more! Encourage your daughters to try any and all of these sports.

Many school teams and sports clubs now have mixed teams or female-only teams. Even if they don’t, if your girl is interested in playing a particular sport, ask the coach if she can play with the boys. Before puberty, there are no significant differences between girls and boys in terms of speed, strength or any other sports performance-related parameters. In fact, girls are often stronger than boys pre-puberty. Furthermore, at a young age children are less likely to subscribe to pre-conceived gender biases and will be naturally curious to try different sport if these are presented as options to them. Be supportive of their interests and remind them that they can do absolutely anything they want to if they put their heart and mind to it. 

Positive reaffirmation for the win 

Consistent and gentle positive affirmation acknowledging participation and improvement of skill or fitness level is important. This type of encouragement builds confidence, especially when it comes from parents or coaches. Don’t just encourage and praise your girl in the sports and physical activities that she naturally excels in, be sure to acknowledge her efforts across the board. This will foster resilience and will motivate her to consistently show up. It will encourage your daughter to try new and unfamiliar activities, even if she is not good at them – a particularly valuable life skill.

Too often, emphasis is placed on winning, output or being the best at a particular sport or activity. While pushing personal boundaries and training hard has its upsides, being too competitive can also often be harmful and disheartening for young kids and may, in fact, discourage them from participating. Rather nurture the idea of sportsmanship and team spirit, and celebrate personal progress. Attending their sports days, if you are able to, showing your support and cheering them on also goes a long way in boosting self-confidence.

Foster intuition 

Encourage your girl to be aware of how her body changes with age and, once she reaches menarche, how she responds to hormone fluctuations throughout the month. By helping her understand her menstrual cycle and how her body responds, she can adjust the type and intensity of her training accordingly. Some girls feel strong and energetic or sluggish and bloated depending on where they are in their cycle. Understanding these shifts and being able to communicate this is valuable. Not everyone responds the same way during their cycle. This is what we should teach all young girls from an early age: to understand their body, to listen to their body and to respect their body.

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Published on August 19, 2021