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15th Feb 2024

New research suggests that school uniforms may impact physical activity

Jody Coffey


There has long been a debate about whether or not children should still wear school uniforms

New research conducted by Cambridge University has suggested children who wear school uniforms may be less physically active.

The global study found that uniforms may serve as a ‘barrier’ against physical activity by using data about the participation of more than a million five-to-17-year-olds from 135 countries.

It found that in countries where a majority of schools require students to wear uniforms, fewer young people tend to meet the average of 60 minutes of physical activity per day recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Data suggested that, regardless of uniform policies across most countries, fewer girls than boys reach the recommended exercise levels. 

The results of the research questioned whether ‘specific characteristics’ of wearing a uniform were restricting ‘opportunities’.

In primary schools that did have a mandated uniform policy, the gap in physical activity between girls and boys was even wider.

The percentage difference between boys and girls and meeting physical activity guidelines across all countries was, on average, 7.6 percentage points.

Senior author, Dr Esther van Sluijs, an MRC Investigator, says girls may feel less confident engaging in physical activity compared to boys.

Credit: Getty

“Girls might feel less confident about doing things like cartwheels and tumbles in the playground, or riding a bike on a windy day, if they are wearing a skirt or dress.

“Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problem.”

It’s important to note, however, that the results do not prove that school uniforms limit children’s physical activity and the researchers stressed that ‘causation cannot be inferred’.

Instead, the study indicates, for the first time on a large scale of statistical evidence, that uniforms may pose as a ‘barrier’ to physical activity.

Dr Mairead Ryan, a researcher at the Faculty of Education and Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, led the study, and she says this evidence will support decision-making about uniforms.

“Schools often prefer to use uniforms for various reasons. We are not trying to suggest a blanket ban on them, but to present new evidence to support decision-making.

“School communities could consider design, and whether specific characteristics of a uniform might either encourage or restrict any opportunities for physical activity across the day.”

Dr Ryan adds that physical activity helps to meet physical, mental, and well-being needs, as well as academic outcomes, for all young people, regardless of gender.

The authors of the study put forward the evidence with the argument this warrants further investigation into whether there is a relationship between school uniforms and lower activity levels.

“We now need more information to build on these findings, considering factors like how long students wear their uniforms for after school, whether this varies depending on their background, and how broader gendered clothing norms may impact their activity.”