Study: Fathers strongly influence daughters’ activity levels

When my daughters were small I made a point of being active with them. We climbed monkey bars together, swam at the pool, rode bicycles, played badminton, kicked the soccer ball, roughhoused in the living room, climbed rock faces in the park, and practiced hitting with a plastic bat and ball in a vacant lot. It was heaps of fun, and that was the whole point. I wanted to play with them, but I also wanted them to learn to love physical activity, and I figured it was important to show them how it could be fun.

It seemed to work. Both of my girls stayed active throughout high school when many of their classmates didn’t, and both of them continue to enjoy being active to this day. They move with confidence in just about any and every physical environment, including their workplaces, and that’s a tremendous benefit to their lives.

Now a new study from the University of Newcastle in Australia demonstrates that my experience with my daughters isn’t a fluke. It shows that active fathers are very influential in boosting girls’ physical activity.

The study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, brought together 115 fathers aged 29 to 53 years and 153 daughters aged 4 to 12 years, and put half of them through a nine-month program called “Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered” (DADEE). The program included weekly activities and educational sessions attended by both fathers and daughters in rough and tumble play, fitness and physical activity, sports skills, challenge and adventure, and discussion of the challenges surrounding gender prejudice and female role models in physical activity.

In the end, the study group witnessed clear and sustained improvements in the physical activity levels of program participants. Fathers who were physically active and engaged with their daughters saw their daughters grow more active and confident, and they also saw improvements in their own activity levels and wellness.

The Australian study has important implications for parents. While it is established science that children need plenty of regular physical activity to ensure optimal growth and development, numerous studies show that gender prejudice continues to reduce girls’ participation in sport and physical activity at home, at school, and in the community. As a consequence, girls end up being less active than boys and tend to develop less physical confidence and competence. They also tend to have lower levels of cardio-respiratory fitness and less hand-eye coordination than boys their same age.

The DADEE program demonstrated the good that can come from fathers being active role models and advocates for their daughters’ physical activity. If you are a dad with a daughter, I encourage you to investigate all the different ways you can help her to discover the fun of physical activity.

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