The Big Sister project was set out with a clear mission: to bust the myth that teenage girls are innately averse to exercise.
Women in Sport is the UK’s leading charity for female sports research. They designed the Big Sister project to combat a sharp drop-off in sport during teenage years. It was created by and shaped for girls, putting their needs and voices front and centre.
Big Sister was created out of a shared vision. It aims to break down barriers and address the stigma and gender stereotyping which can prevent girls from leading happy, healthy and active lives. Especially at a time in adolescence when they could benefit most.
Exercise can help prevent issues like anxiety during teenage years. It can also lower the risk of osteoporosis for women later in life.
Why the project is needed
Last year, a report by the charity Women in Sport found that 1.3 million teenage girls who once considered themselves ‘sporty’ are disengaging from sport following primary school.
A fear of being judged by others, a lack of confidence in their ability, body image, and puberty were found to be significant barriers to participation.
Determined to create change, Women in Sport led the creation and implementation of the Big Sister project. They did this with the support of a consortium of partners. Places for People, its leisure provider Places Leisure, and Hey Girls, a social enterprise dedicated to tackling period poverty.
The project was created to enable girls to find out about the physical and emotional changes that happen during puberty, whilst offering practical ways to get and stay active in supportive environments.
How the Big Sister project works
Big Sister was first launched in May 2022. It started out by offering free 3-month gym memberships to girls aged between 9-15 at Places Leisure centers in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Norfolk.
This gave girls unlimited use of the gym and swimming pool. It also gave them access to female-only workout classes and virtual classes through the Places Locker app. Alongside this, a digital hub provided an extensive range of resources, support and practical advice from 20 trained Big Sister peer mentors.
The Big Sister project: a huge success
Thanks to the Big Sister project, more than 3,000 teenage girls have taken up activities at their local leisure centre. They follow a program that encourages them to enjoy sport, exercise and physical activity during puberty.
Over the course of 10 months, this resulted in 55,000 individual leisure center visits. Of the girls surveyed, 6 in 10 say they are now more motivated to take part in sport and exercise. They also reported feeling happier (59%), more confident (62%), more resilient (63%) and now enjoy sport and exercise more (64%).
“My mum has five girls, so we can’t afford to go out a lot. But with Big Sister, we could go swimming all the time. I learned to swim, and I wouldn’t have done this so quickly if it weren’t for the free swimming,” said Grace, aged 11, about the project.
“I like that I have made new friends that I didn’t know before. I’m not worried now to try something new because I know now that if I try it, I might enjoy it,” said Aisha, aged 10.
“This is important”
To combat period poverty, more than 19,000 girls were supported with free disposable and reusable period products. They were also provided with educational resources from Hey Girls, after Women in Sport research found that 7 in 10 girls avoid sport while on their period.
Stephanie Hilborne OBE is the CEO of Women in Sport. She said, “Big Sister has bust the myth that somehow teenage girls are innately averse to exercise. We have proven that given the right opportunities, teenage girls will use gyms and pools and get involved in sport. But far too often girls don’t get that chance.”
“This is important. Teenage girls are in the midst of a mental health epidemic. Anxiety is running rife, and we know that exercise can be an antidote. The girls who took up the offer of free access to leisure facilities, free period products and advice from inspiring mentors, said they were not only more active but were happier and felt more resilient. 6 in 10 girls told us they now enjoyed sport and exercise and were more confident to try other new things in their lives.”