Period shame is causing girls to skip PE and that needs to change

Marie Claire Dorking
New research has revealed that period embarrassment is stopping girls take part in PE [Photo: Getty]

School girls are skipping PE because they’re worried about people finding out they’re on their period, new research has revealed.

The survey of 2,000 adult women, by period education programme betty for schools, revealed that almost half (46%) of young women say they’ve used their period as an excuse to miss PE.

The research, released as part of Women’s Sport Week (19-25 June), also revealed the reasons women had given for skipping PE due to their period.

Over a third of women (39%) cited a fear of leaking, while almost a quarter (24%) were concerned that their pads could slip or would be visible (24%).

Half of the women surveyed said they had experienced periods that were too heavy or painful to take part in sport at some point in their lives. But, proving that all period experiences are different, fewer than one in five said that they regularly felt in too much pain to do any exercise.

Whether they chose to actually excuse themselves from PE or not, almost two thirds (63%) of those polled said they dreaded PE lessons while on their periods.

The reluctance can be largely attributed to taboos around periods with almost three quarters of women claiming that period shame was one of the main barriers to girls participating in sports in school.

And that in turn could have a negative impact on how women view sport in later life. Three out of five women said that avoiding PE at school because of periods negatively impacted the way they felt about sport into adulthood.

Girls are skipping PE due to period shame [Photo: Pixabay via Pexels]

As a response to the findings, betty for schools is launching a campaign to encourage parents and teachers to talk more openly to children about periods and exercise.

“We know the value of exercise for our bodies and our minds – at all ages – and it’s really worrying that so many girls are finding that the weight of taboo around periods prevents them from participating in sports,” says Becky Hipkiss, Education Manager at betty for schools.

“More needs to be done to teach young girls about the benefits of exercise and to help them overcome the embarrassment about this perfectly natural time of the month. This has to start at school, with PE teachers being understanding of different girl’s needs, but also creating a comfortable environment in which girls feel empowered to work within the changes they experience each month. Girls also need to be wearing the right size and type of products which mean they can exercise without fear of leaking.”

It’s a campaign that Sam Quek MBE, England and GB Hockey player is keen to support.

“For me, sport and exercise are a huge part of life. I find it really sad that periods – something all women experience for a big part of our lives – are creating a barrier to sport for so many,” she says.

“We have to work to break down taboos around periods – this starts with elite sportswomen being more open and honest, with schools creating the environment where girls can talk about the changes the bodies are going through, and education that empowers us all to know and understand our bodies better.”

And Sam has put together her own tips and advice about exercising while you’re on your period:-

  1. Exercise can help

Personally, I like to exercise when I’m on my period. Doing exercise helps me ease off cramps, even if part of me just wants to lie on the sofa! Every woman and body is different, but why not get up for a walk and see how it makes you feel. If it works for you, try adding a bit more movement – yoga, jogging, a swim, running up and down the stairs – into your routine when you’re on your period.

  1. Dress to impress (yourself)

Let’s be honest – we all want to be in our big pants during that time of the month! If you’re going for a run, hitting the gym or doing anything active on your period, something as simple as wearing the right gear can make all the difference to how you feel. Pick clothes you feel comfortable in – if you’re worried about visibility or leaking then try joggers or leggings with a long t-shirt. Sometimes when I’m training, I’ll double up and wear cycling shorts under my normal shorts on top to feel extra comfortable. Wear whatever makes you feel good! 

Sam Quek has put together some advice on exercising during your period
  1. Check in and be prepared

Keep an eye on things if you’re worried. It doesn’t disturb your work out if you nip to the toilet every now and again just to check there is no leakage and everything is still in place! If you’re in PE lessons or an exercise class, ask a friend to keep an eye on things too and let you know. Also, take extra pads with you and change them more regularly if you are worried.

  1. Rest and repeat

It’s great to keep exercising if you can, but make sure you are taking it easy enough. Generally, I modify my training routine when I’m on my period. I start with stretching, because I find my muscles are tighter when it’s my time of the month. When we’re team training, the coaches ask us to say when we’re on our periods so that we can do a lighter version of the workout. The same applies if you’re exercising solo. Do what you normally would, but take lower weights, go a slightly shorter distance, or jog instead of sprinting, if you feel you need to.

  1. Listen to your body

If you’ve got cramps, headaches and head spins then take it easy. Pain is a response to what the body needs so don’t ignore it. It’s really important not to push yourself too hard, because on your period you are more susceptible to strains and small injuries. Make sure you don’t force your body beyond its limits – especially if it’s telling you it needs a rest.

  1. Don’t stay silent

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is talk! As I’ve got older I’ve got more open about periods – they’re a perfectly natural thing and after years of having them, you learn to grow and to live with them, and to not be embarrassed. The worst thing we can do is pretend that they don’t affect us if they do. Mood swings, pain, lack of patience – they’re all a natural part of the body’s response to chemical changes. Talk with your friends, the women in your exercise classes or at the gym, your mum, sisters or female family – anyone! After all, we all go through them and you never know how you might bond when you open up about periods.

  1. Know yourself

If, when and how you exercise is a personal decision – no one should feel forced to do anything if they don’t feel physically up to it or just don’t want to. That said, fear of others knowing or guessing that it’s your period should never stop you. Taboo isn’t a good reason to skip sports and we can’t let it hold us back!

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