Gender-Diverse Teens Face Barriers to Physical Activity
WASHINGTON – Concerns about negative judgment and lack of inclusive facilities topped the list of barriers to physical activity reported by gender-diverse teens in a poster presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. Other barriers included body dissatisfaction and discomfort or pain from binding or tucking, based on data from 160 individuals.
Previous studies suggest that gender-diverse teens have lower levels of physical activity than cisgender teens, but data on the specific barriers to physical activity reported by gender-diverse adolescents are lacking, according to Karishma Desai, BA, a medical student at Northwestern University, Chicago, and colleagues.
The researchers reviewed data from adolescents aged 13-18 years who identified as transgender or nonbinary and lived in the United States. Participants were recruited through flyers, wallet cards, email, and social media. They completed an online survey that included questions on preferred types of physical activity and potential barriers to physical activity. Major barriers were defined as items that “almost always” or “always” got in the way of physical activity.
Overall, 51% of the participants identified as female/transfeminine, 31% as male/transmasculine, 9% as genderqueer or agender, 8% as nonbinary, and 1% as unsure. A total of 86 participants were assigned male at birth, 73 were assigned female, and 1 was assigned intersex or other. Nearly all of the participants (96%) had begun social transition; approximately half (48%) reported using a chest binder, and 75% had been or were currently taking gender-affirming hormones.
Potential negative judgment from others was the top barrier to physical activity (cited by 39% of participants), followed by body dissatisfaction from gender dysphoria (38%) and discomfort with the available options for locker rooms or changing rooms (38%). Approximately one-third (36%) of respondents reported physical discomfort or pain from binding or tucking as a barrier to physical activity, and 34% cited discomfort with requirements for a physical activity uniform or athletic clothing at school. Other gender-diverse specific barriers to physical activity included bullying related to being transgender (31%) and the inability to participate in a group of choice because of gender identity (24%).
In addition, participants cited general barriers to physical activity including bullying related to weight (33%), dissatisfaction with weight or size (31%), and bullying in general or for reasons other than gender status (29%).
However, more than 50% of respondents said they were comfortable or very comfortable (4 or 5 on a 5-point Likert Scale) with physical activity in the settings of coed or all-gender teams (61%) or engaging in individual activities (71%). By contrast, 36% were comfortable or very comfortable with a team, group, or class that aligned with sex assignment at birth.
The majority of participants (81%) were comfortable or very comfortable with their homes or a private location as a setting for physical activity, 54% with a public space such as a park, and 43% with a school setting.
Increasing gender congruence was the biggest facilitator of physical activity, reported by 53% of participants, the researchers noted. Other facilitators of physical activity included increasing body satisfaction (43%), staying healthy to avoid long-term health problems in the future (43%), and staying healthy to prepare for gender-related surgery in the future (18%).
The study findings were limited by the use of self-reports and the use of a convenience sample, as well as the lack of data on race, the researchers noted. However, the results suggest that access to all-gender teams, standardizing physical activity clothing, and increasing inclusive facilities may promote greater physical activity participation by gender-diverse adolescents, and offering private or individual options may increase comfort with physical activity, they concluded.
Study provides teens’ perspectives
The current study is especially timely given the recent passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of the anti-trans sports bill preventing transgender women and girls from playing on sports teams “consistent with their gender identity,” said Margaret Thew, DNP, medical director of adolescent medicine at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in an interview. Ms. Thew was not involved in the current study.
“The House bill seeks to amend federal law to require that sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth, for the purpose of determining compliance with Title IX in athletics,” Ms. Thew said.
“Despite political responses to sports participation for transgender adolescents, we have not heard the perspective of the teens themselves,” she emphasized. “It is imperative for parents, coaches, and clinicians to hear the adolescents’ concerns so they can advocate for the students and provide the needed support.” In addition, Ms. Thew noted, “these concerns may also provide overdue changes to the required uniforms described for specific sports.”
Ms. Thew said she was surprised by the finding of transgender teens’ comfort with coed teams and individual activities, both of which may be opportunities to promote physical activity for transgender adolescents.
However, she added that she was not surprised by some of the results. “Many transgender adolescents experience the discomfort and further body dysmorphia of being put into gender-conforming attire such as swimwear, spandex shorts for female volleyball players, or field hockey skirts, for example.”
Although many schools are establishing safe, comfortable places for all adolescents to change clothing prior to physical education and sports participation, “resources are limited, and students and parents need to advocate within the school system,” Ms. Thew noted.
“We as a society, including athletic clothing makers, need to hear the testimony of transgender adolescents on the discomfort from body modifications to better support and innovate attire to meet their needs,” she added.
“The take-home message for clinicians is twofold,” said Ms. Thew. “Clinicians need to advocate for transgender patients to have the same opportunities as all teens when it comes to sports participation and physical activity. Also, clinicians need to ask all adolescents about their comfort in participating in physical activity both on club/school teams and independently,” she said. “If barriers are identified, clinicians need to work to support the adolescent with alternative activities/attire that will promote healthy physical activities for overall health.”
The current study also suggests that transgender adolescents who may have interest in, but discomfort with, physical activity should be redirected to coed or individual sports available in their communities, Ms. Thew added.
More research is needed on innovative sports attire that would improve comfort for transgender adolescents and thereby encourage physical activity, Ms. Thew told this news organization. More data also are needed on which sports transgender adolescents participate in and why, and how these activities might be promoted, she said.
Finally, more research will be needed to examine the impact of the recent House bills on physical activity for transgender youth, Ms. Thew said.
The study was supported by the Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Ann and Robert H. Lurie’s Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Ms. Thew had no financial conflicts to disclose, but she serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Pediatric News.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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