What Works Wellbeing operated from 2014 to 2024. This website is a static repository of all assets captured at closure on 30 April. It will remain publicly accessible but will not be updated.  Read more
Jul 2, 2019 | by Spirit of 2012

Does increasing girls’ and women’s participation in physical activity improve their wellbeing?

This week’s blog come from Spirit of 2012, an organisation set up to recreate the spirit of pride and positivity that defined the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Here they outline the evaluation findings from the Sporting Equality Fund, grants distributed by the Scottish government to get more women and girls participating in physical activity. 

On International Women’s Day in March,  we published our evaluation of the Sporting Equality Fund, a £325,000 set of grants from the Scottish government to get more girls and women participating in physical activity. Fourteen organisations were awarded up to £25,000 for year-long projects – all were asked to look at how participation increased wellbeing. Across the fund as a whole, we saw average life satisfaction go up from 6.9 to 8.0 out of 10, with similar rises across the other three ONS wellbeing indicators. 

Surprising impact on sense of feeling life ‘worthwhile’

We had predicted that life satisfaction (12%) and happiness (8%) would both be areas where there was potential for change, as these domains are traditionally associated with active lifestyles. However, there were similar increases in the number of participants who felt that their life was worthwhile (11%) – something we might expect more of volunteering projects.

Lowest starting point showed biggest improvements

Most of the projects in this fund were working with small numbers of participants, so we must be careful about reading too much into the data. However, those projects that saw the biggest changes in wellbeing – across all domains – tended to be those where the average starting point had been lowest. These were often projects working with small groups of women and girls, with complex barriers to participation, such as women with addiction problems, refugees and girls with challenging home lives.

We also learnt important lessons about improving girls’ and women’s participation in physical activity.

What helped people to show up?

  1. Reaching out to women and girls in spaces where they already go:  To have the best chance of increasing wellbeing, the projects had to reach women and girls who were not already participating in this sort of activity. For some projects this meant partnering with schools, and encouraging teachers to refer girls who were reluctant to take part in PE. Others, such as The Venture Trust, used different referral partners. And some got to know girls in places where they already hung out – chatting about the project at the local chippy, for example. 
  2. Making sure advertising wasn’t ‘aspirational’: KA Leisure found that using stock images to advertise their activity was off-putting, as potential participants felt intimidated and like they would not fit in. Once they swapped to including local girls in their recruitment flyers, numbers increased.  
  3. Not leading with physical activity: Some of the projects didn’t do any physical activity during the first session. Instead they focused on socialising, introducing increasing amounts of physical activity over time. 

What helped people come back?

  1. Trusted relationships: Qualitative feedback overwhelming stressed the importance of building trust both within the group, and with the leads. Activities were designed for participants to get to know the people running the project, as well as build friendships with each other. It seems likely that the sense of trust and belonging were both drivers of the increased sense of wellbeing. 
  2. Providing choice: Community projects asked participants which sorts of activities they would like to try, and then found the staff and equipment to cater for it. Where there were single sports on offer, organisations provided taster sessions so that people could see if the activity was for them. 
  3. Making it ok to miss a session: The project leads also recognised that many participants had busy and complicated lives. Many traditional physical activity or sports courses require upfront payments and minimum attendance: this can be very off putting for people whose circumstances, such as illness, shift work or family responsibilities, make it difficult to plan ahead. Although most of the sessions operated in weekly ‘blocks’, project staff make it clear that if they had to miss classes it wouldn’t mean they had ‘dropped out’: they would be welcomed whenever they could make it.

What helped people stay?

  1. Integrating the family: Projects worked with participants to identify the barriers that normally prevented them from taking part regularly, and worked around them. Bike for Good, for example, made it clear that young children were welcome too, which made it easier for parents to take part.  
  2. Providing next steps: Projects took a personalised approach to working out what progress looked like. For some, it was steadily increasing the number of sessions participants attended, or thinking about how they could integrate the skills they had learned into everyday life. For others it was taking on a volunteering role within the project or doing a leadership qualification. 
  3. Confidence: The clearest link between wellbeing and sustained activity was evidenced through participants’ increased confidence. Projects that focused on creating a nurturing environment in which people were treated as individuals saw the biggest wellbeing gains. 

Sport, dance and physical activity for young people

Previous article
Next article


Practice Examples
Jul 18, 2016
Incorporating physical activity into participants’ lifestyles
Jan 10, 2018 | By Alan Tomlinson
Visual arts, mental health and wellbeing: evidence review
Guest Blog
Apr 8, 2020 | By Chris Rolls and Dr. Rachel H. Tribe
Online creativity groups and mental wellbeing
Guest Blog

[gravityform id=1 title=true description=true ajax=true tabindex=49]

Sport, dance and physical activity for young people

Previous article
Next article