Are fitness tests widening the gender gap?

New research confirms that competitive testing gives an advantage to boys and reduces interest and enjoyment of PE in girls

Women on a group run
(Image credit: Getty Images)

From the classroom to the boardroom, issues around inequality between the sexes are an ongoing issue. In recent years, there's been a renewed interest in understanding the gender pay gap and why there are fewer women in senior business roles. 

Now, new research suggests that such inequalities also exist when it comes to aspects of physical fitness.

For the study, researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore asked three age cohorts of young people - primary, secondary and pre-university - their opinions on a range of fitness testing activities employed by schools as part of Singapore's National Physical Fitness Award.

Overall, researchers found that female students’ fitness testing perceptions were more negative than male students, distinctly at secondary school level. It also found that female students were in no hurry to lace up their best running shoes for women, with running middle distances of around a mile ranking as their least favorite task.

Fitness tests are common around the world and often take place during Physical Education (PE) classes. Supporters claim that they help tackle obesity in children and reduce the risk of developing long-term health conditions later in life. However, there's not much hard data to support this view, so some question the value of forcing children to perform mandatory fitness testing. 

three women enjoying a run together

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The study's authors wanted to also look at what motivates children to enjoy certain physical activities. They found that female students were more likely to enjoy fitness tests if their teachers were passionate and made the sessions fun through music. The researchers also suggest that girls are more likely to rate these activities favorably if the tests were self-assessed and allowed them to work in pairs or all-female classes.

This supports previous research, which showed that high-performance in a formal fitness test was associated with improved attitudes towards PE for boys but not for girls. If the goal of fitness tests is to make children interested and excited about maintaining physical activity throughout their lives, then these differences could have a substantial impact on women's health outcomes and sporting performance as an adult.

There's growing evidence that the way we structure education, in both PE and academic studies, may be partly to blame for gender disparities at school and later in life. A research paper published in 2010 found that competitive testing in math resulted in worse outcomes for women. As a result, they may be less likely to enjoy STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), leading to fewer women studying these areas at university and going into related fields.

Fortunately, attitudes are shifting, and there's a growing awareness of the societal challenges women face throughout their lives. Social media particularly has made it easier to get accessible information on fitness, health, and nutrition. Online communities support and motivate each other, offer space for people to talk about their challenges, and help improve participation.

Whether you enjoyed gym class at school or not, the good news is that it's never too late to get fit. Once you've decided on a plan of action, it's worth investing in some of the best workout clothes for women to keep cool and comfortable whatever you're into.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.