Girls who reach puberty earlier than their peers are less active and have a poorer quality of life, according to new research.
Studies found these effects of early maturity could be linked to negative self-esteem and a lower level of perceived peer acceptance.
Children of the same age can differ considerably in their degree of physical maturity - with some entering puberty at a much younger or older age.
Early maturation - largely controlled by genetic effects - is associated with greater gains in height, weight and fat mass in girls.
Researchers say this results in a physique that is considered less suitable for physical activity and less consistent with Western ideals of attractiveness.
Girls who reach maturity early are more likely to suffer increased distress, anxiety, depression and take part in drinking, smoking and drug taking.
Dr Sean Cumming, from the University of Bath’s Department for Health, said girls who mature earlier should be encouraged to stay active.
“The decline in physical activity across adolescence is well established but influence of biological maturity on this process has been largely overlooked,” he said.
“There is good reason to believe that variation in biological maturation contributes to health outcomes in adolescence, especially at the extreme ends of the maturity continuum.
“What is promising, however, is that the effects of maturation on health outcomes in adolescent girls appear to be mediated by perceptions of the self.
“That is, early maturing girls perceive themselves as being less attractive, sporty, and physically fit.
“If early maturing girls can be encouraged to view puberty as a normal and attractive part of maturational process, and not a barrier to physical activity, then they may be more likely to remain active and healthy throughout adolescence.”
The studies, funded by the British Academy, included more than 500 female students aged between 11 and 14.
Researchers assessed the biological maturity of the participants. The percentage of predicted adult stature attained was then used as an index of maturation status.
The quality of life of the girls was assessed using the KIDSCREEN-10 index, which measures physical and psychological well-being, mood and emotions, self-perceptions, autonomy, family and peer relationships, school environment, bullying and financial resources.
Dr Cummings added: “Peers also appear to play an important role in relation to the health behaviours of early maturing girls.
“Whereas those early maturing girls who report high levels of peer acceptance are as active as ‘on time’ and ‘later’ maturing girls, those who report low peer acceptance are markedly less active.
“Puberty results in a series of physical and functional changes, many of which have important social stimulus value.
“As such, it is not surprising that the perceptions of reactions of others also play an important role in this process.”
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