Title IX's Positive Unintended Consequence: Girls Have a Lower Probability of Obesity

Research on girls' sports participation and lifetime physical activity and weight

From 2005 to 2008, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago carried out two studies to determine the impact of Title IX legislation on physical activity and obesity in girls and women.

The enactment of Title IX of the Educational Amendments in 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, led to a dramatic increase in girls' sports participation. Although effects on obesity were not considered at the time (prior to the increase in U.S. youth obesity levels), these two studies examined such effects.

The first study examined the effect of the increase in girls' participation in high school sports on adolescent girls' (ages 12 to 17) physical activity and weight. The second study sought to determine whether these effects persisted into adulthood for this cohort.

Key Findings: Researchers reported the following findings in "Effects of Title IX and Sports Participation on Girls' Physical Activity and Weight," published in Advances in Health Economics and Health Services Research:

  • A 20 percent increase in girls' participation in high school sports between the 1970–71 and 1977–78 academic years was associated with a 24 percent increase in the probability of engaging in "much" physical activity during recreational activities, a 4 percent decline in body mass index and a lessened probability of being overweight or obese.
  • This is the only study to date establishing the effects of a strong and enforced school-based physical activity policy on population-level (national) obesity.

In an unpublished follow-up report, "Title IX, Girls' Sports Participation and Adult Female Physical Activity and Weight," researchers reported the following findings:

  • The decrease in obesity associated with increased athletic opportunities for this cohort of adolescent girls continued into adulthood, primarily among women with a high school education or less.
  • Surprisingly, expanded athletic opportunities for this cohort did not have any lasting effects on their overall physical activity levels later in life.