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By Dr Charles Pedlar and Dr Nikki Brown

Physical activity participation among females is lower than males at all ages. Only 12% of 14 year old girls reach physical activity guidelines. 

At the same time, inactivity is known to be causative of various cancers, heart disease and poor mental health.  However, times are changing thanks to some major campaigns like ‘This Girl Can” and “Couch to 5K”.  Although there is still a long way to go, there are signs of change in the UK and around the world. 

The Exercising Female and the Female Health and Wellbeing Research Group in the School of Sport, Health and Applied Science is at the cutting edge. The group seeks to advance research into the barriers that prevent women from participating in sport or exercise at all levels and age groups, from period problems to sports bras to iron deficiency.   The group’s research has shown that more than half of sportswomen feel that their menstrual cycle affects their performance, and almost half of adolescent girls reported avoiding participating in sports because of their breasts.

Upcoming conferences

Later this month, Dr Georgie Bruinvels will present a colloquium with Dr Kate Ackerman (Harvard Medical School) at the American College of Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting in Minneapolis entitled Periods, Performance and the Pill.

In June, Dr Nikki Brown and Dr Georgie Bruinvels will present their research work at a conference at Staffordshire University. The ‘Blood, Sweat and Fears’ conference will debate female-specific, sports and exercise medical issues, and raise awareness of the issues and opportunities for female exercise participation.  Georgie will be delivering a presentation on the menstrual cycle, iron deficiency and exercise. Nikki will be focusing on breast biomechanics, providing an overview of the performance and health implications of inappropriate breast support during exercise.

Research impact

Georgie, a Research Associate in the School and a Research Scientist with industry partner Orreco successfully defended her PhD at UCL in April this year entitled Women’s health in sport: The prevalence and impact of heavy menstrual bleeding and iron deficiency.  Georgie has since been travelling to Australia, New Zealand and the United States to present invited talks at various groups and organisations including High Performance Sport New Zealand, LaTrobe University, and The Australian Catholic University. Word has spread fast around the world thanks to Orreco’s FitrWoman App (www.fitrwoman.com) which acts as a vehicle for delivering scientific information to women, helping them to exercise despite the challenges that fluctuating female hormones can cause.  

Dr Charlie Pedlar oversees the Orreco/St Mary’s relationship and supervised Georgie’s PhD, commented: “The understanding of the impact of the female hormones on exercise is poor.  However, there are some nuggets in the literature that can really help women to adjust their training and nutrition, in addition to possibly avoiding injury.  For example, choosing what type of exercise to do on any particular day of the cycle can make it more beneficial or achievable.  Not many women are going to go searching for research papers, which is where the app comes in, distilling the research down to simple daily tips and advice.”

This innovative approach is just one example of how the Female Health & Wellbeing Research Group are sharing their research findings and advice with women. Other examples include the publication of an information guide for women on hot to choose a well-fitting sports bra, written by Nikki in collaboration with NHS Choices. Additionally, Georgie and Nikki recently teamed up with the Women’s Sports Network charity to provide information and advice about periods, breasts and bras for a series of sports manuals for female athletes. Atefeh Omrani, a PhD student and member of the research group supervised by Nikki, is also about to launch a breast education initiative in a number of schools to teach girls about breast health, bra fit and appropriate breast support.  This is a collaborative effort with the internationally renowned Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth and the University of Chichester.

There is much research still to be done to understand what the drivers are that prevent women from exercising and to optimise strategies to overcome these barriers. Bigger cohort studies with longitudinal data are needed so that we can provide the best possible tools and advice in the future to support female sports and exercise participation at the grass roots and elite level, and across all life stages.