Young women are being held back from participating in sport at school due to taboos around periods, new research suggests.
In a survey of 2,000 adult women, almost half (46%) stated that they had used their periods as an excuse to skip PE classes when they were younger, even when they felt well enough to take part.
The top reason given for skipping sports classes was a fear of leaking, with two in five (39%) admitting that this was a serious concern for them.
Around a quarter of women (24%) also said they excused themselves because they were scared of their sanitary pads being visible to others or slipping around as they exercised.
The research was conducted by period education initiate Betty For Schools to mark Women’s Sport Week (19-25 June).
In light of the findings, the initiative is launching a campaign to encourage parents and teachers to talk to children more about periods and exercise.
The survey uncovered that periods themselves would not stand in the way of girls participating in sport.
Fewer than one in five (18%) actually felt too tired or in too much pain to take part in exercise, suggesting that embarrassment rather than physical concerns were the major barrier to participation.
However, women’s experiences of periods are all different.
Half (50%) 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.
Whether they chose to opt out 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 the pervading social taboos around periods, with three in four (74%) women stating that period shame was one of the main barriers to girls participating in sports in school.
Commenting on the findings, Sam Quek, England and GB Hockey player, said: “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.
“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.”
The importance of better education about periods for young women was something the majority of respondents emphatically agreed upon. Over two thirds (68%) said that if girls were better educated about periods and how they affect their bodies, they wouldn’t be so reluctant to take part in sports at school.
Significantly, three out of five (59%) women agreed that avoiding PE in school because of periods can negatively impact the way girls feel about physical exercise and sport into adulthood.
This suggests that the habits we develop around PE and sport in school can go on to form the basis of our attitudes to exercise in later life.
Becky Hipkiss, education manager at Betty For Schools, said: “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.
“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.”
Free betty for schools PSHE resources for teachers are available to download at bettyforschools.co.uk.
The website also includes top tips for parents and teachers on how to tackle conversations with confidence about periods and exercise and Sam Quek’s personal advice on how to handle sport and exercise during your period.