When we were children we couldn’t wait for lunch break to get active. After hours of lessons we could run wild in the playground, playing football, doing jump rope, a game of tag. Then at a certain age it becomes uncool to play. Then in High School, many of the girls in my year would hide in the locker room, or deliberately “forget” to bring their gym kit on PE day. As adults, exercise can take on negative associations. Who wants to exercise after a long and tiring day at work? It can feel like a chore that has to be done. As adults we can forget one important thing:
YOU CAN STILL HAVE FUN!
This also applies to exercise. Be excited to move and run, jump, and play.
We all know that an inactive lifestyle puts you more at risk of obesity and other illnesses and diseases, such as cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression (1).
Women are more at risk than men. Something I learned during my Masters Dissertation, is that women are still less physically active than men in all regions of the UK, and globally (2). I became interested in understanding women’s attitudes, motivations, barriers, and behaviours towards exercise. This is the key to increasing participation in sport and physical activity.
Also, I have personal experience of how rewarding it can be to find a sport or activity that clicks with you. I would like more women to enjoy similar benefits.
I joined a roller derby league a few years ago and re-discovered how fun exercise can be. If you are not sure what roller derby looks like, a friend once described it as looking like: “rugby on roller skates.” (3)
It’s a fast, full-contact sport on roller skates. I remember the adrenaline rush that came from skating fast, and the feeling of belonging to a community. I met women of all shapes and sizes who, having previously never been interested in exercise before, suddenly become obsessed with roller derby and training hard. It’s a tough sport, but at times it felt like being kid again. It brought the fun back into exercise.
So if exercise can be so enjoyable, why are fewer women doing regular exercise than men?
Barriers to sports participation for girls and women
Research has shown there are multiple barriers that contribute to gender differences in physical activity, starting at a young age. These can broadly be divided into three categories: practical, personal, and social and cultural barriers. Here are a few examples.
Barrier: personal safety
Personal safety on the streets, on public transport, and near sports venues can be a problem for women. Travelling to and from venues for sports or physical activity can be a barrier. Ensuring activities take place in venues that are safe for girls and women can help: taking into account transport links, street lighting, and safety in the area (4).
Barrier: lack of self-esteem and body confidence
Research shows that in general, girls report greater body dissatisfaction than boys (5). Many girls do not take part in exercise because of concerns about their appearance and lack of confidence (5);(6);(7). Ensuring girls and women have privacy in changing rooms can help, as well as allowing women to wear clothing they feel comfortable in (7).
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL BARRIERS
Barrier: female invisibility in the media and lack of role models in sport
There is an imbalance in the media coverage of women’s sport when compared to men’s sports. On average, there is less than 5% of sports coverage in national and local print media dedicated to women’s sport (4);(8). This lack of coverage of women’s sports leads to an absence of female role models to inspire girls and women to live healthy active lives.
Common motivators/benefits for women
We know that taking part in physical activity can bring numerous health benefits for everyone. Exercise can boost self esteem, improve mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing risk of stress, depression, and dementia (1). Previous research has shown particular health benefits for women, as well as motivators to keep active.
HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
Benefit: Prevention of illnesses and diseases
There are certain illnesses and diseases that are more likely to affect women than men. For example, osteoporosis is a disorder that primarily affects women. It can have a severe impact on quality of life, causing pain and loss of independence. Regular activity beginning in childhood and maintained into adulthood helps improve bone health and prevent osteoporosis (9).
Lack of physical activity is also a major risk factor in the development of Type-2 Diabetes. Diabetes is a serious risk factor for heart attacks and heart and blood vessel diseases. Women tend to have poorer outcomes from the disease than men. The risk for fatal coronary heart disease associated with diabetes is 50% higher in women than it is in men (9).
Given the relationship between inactivity and serious disorders and diseases, increasing girls and women’s participation in physical activity can potentially reduce their prevalence.
IMPROVED MENTAL HEALTH
Women experience a higher incidence of depression and anxiety disorders than men in the UK (10). Exercise and physical activity have been shown to be clinically effective at combatting depression and anxiety disorders (11);(12);(13).
Benefit: Sense of community
It is well known that people are generally happier when they have strong relationships and have a feeling of belonging. Research on women in sport has shown that exercise with a group is a powerful way to establish a sense of community, as well as developing support and encouragement to keep motivated to exercise (14);(15);(7).
Benefit: Feeling empowered Women have described feeling more confident and empowered from taking part in sports teams. This can come from becoming more physically confident from becoming more athletic (16);(17);(18), and feeling like belonging to a team.
Benefit: Body confidence ‘Body image’ has been described as an internal representation of a person’s outer appearance. Women are at higher risk of negative ‘body image’ than men (19). Exercise is potentially a way for women to improve their mental as well as physical well-being. Research on women and sport has shown that sport can help women develop a healthy respect for the body: emphasising strength and athletic ability over appearance (8).
There is evidence to show that participation in sports is linked to better academic performance for girls at school (20);(21). Furthermore, there is also evidence for better outcomes in employment for women and higher levels of productivity for those who are physically active. Being physically active can help with concentration, team-work skills, communication, motivation, and resilience (22).
The Bottom Line
When it comes to doing exercise, we know there are loads of physical and mental health benefits.
In the UK and globally, women are still less physically active than men. This matters, because participating in physical activity promotes health and mental wellbeing: preventing a range of serious conditions like type-2 diabetes, and developing social, emotional and life skills.
If more girls and women can engage with sport and physical activity then many aspects of their lives can potentially be changed for the better. This is why it’s important to understand motivators and barriers in relation to exercise.
Find an activity that is fun for you. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or something that makes you feel ill at the thought of it. Find an activity that you think is fun, rather than absolute torture. You’ll be more likely to stick to it.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Whether it’s shooting hoops with friends, trampolining, or something a bit different like circus skills or roller derby. Like me, you never know what you might end up really enjoying or the friends you might make.
Having fun while exercising is something that is not considered enough when you become an adult.The benefits of finding an exercise that is fun (and keeps you motivated) are profound. It should not stop when we grow older.
(1) NHS., 2016. Benefits of Exercise [online]. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/
(2) WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION., 2016. Physical inactivity: a global health problem. [online].[viewed 16 May 2016]. Available at: http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_inactivity/en
(3) Video: https://youtu.be/cjkJfjTe-Ds
(4) WOMEN’S SPORTS AND FITNESS FOUNDATION., 2009. Barriers to sports participation for women and girls. [online]. Available at: https://www.lrsport.org/uploads/barriers-to-sports-participation-for-women-girls-17.pdf
(5) SPORT ENGLAND., 2006. Understanding participation in sport: what determines sports participation among 15-19 year old women? [online]. [viewed 25 May 2016]. Available from: https://www.sportengland.org/media/3323/understanding-participation-among-15-19-year-old-girls-summary-report.pdf
(6) RESEARCH SCOTLAND., 2016. Equality and Sport Research [online]. Available from: https://www.sportscotland.org.uk/media/1886385/Equality-and-Sport-Research-Final-Report.pdf
(7) WOMEN IN SPORT., 2017. Girl’s Active Survey. [online]. Available at: https://www.womeninsport.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Girls-Active-statistics-1.pdf?x99836
(8) PACKER, C., GEH, D.J., GOULDEN, O.W., JORDAN, A.M., WITHERS, G.K., WAGSTAFF, A.J., BELLWOOD, R.A., BINMORE, C.L., and WEBSTER, C.L.,2014. No lasting legacy: no change in reporting of women’s sports in the British print media with the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Journal of Public Health. vol. 37, pp.50-56.
(9) WOMEN IN SPORT., 2015. From barriers to benefits: the economic benefits of women and girls participating in sport. [online]. Available at: https://www.womeninsport.org/resources/barriers-to-benefits/
(10) WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION., 2002. Department of Mental Health and Substance Dependence [online]. Available at: http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/545.pdf
(11) HERRING, M.P., JACOB, M..L., SUVEG, C., O’CONNOR, P., 2011. Effects of short-term exercise training on signs and symptoms of of generalised anxiety disorder. Mental Health and Physical Activity. vol. 4, pp. 71-77.
(12) HERRING, M.P., JACOB, M.L., SUVEG., DISHERMAN, R.K., O’CONNOR, P., 2012. Feasibility of exercise training for the short-term treatment of generalised anxiety disorder: a randomised controll trial. Psychotherapy and Pscychosomatics. vol. 81, pp. 21-28.
(13) RIMER, J., DWAN, K., LAWLOR, D.A., GREIG, C.A., MCMURDO, M., MORLEY, W., MEAD, G.E., 2012. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Systematic Review. Issue 7. No: CD004366.
(14) THEBERGE, N., 1995.Gender, Sport, and the Construction of Community: A Case Study from Women’s Ice Hockey. Sociology of Sport Journal. vol. 12, pp.389-402.
(15) PELAK, C.F. (2002). Women’s collective identity formation in sports: a case study from women’s ice hockey. Gender and Society. vol. 16, pp.93-114.
(16) ROTH, A., and BASOW, S.A. 2004. Femininity, sports and feminism. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. vol. 28, pp. 245-265.
(17) GEORGE, M., 2005. Making sense of muscle: the body experience of collegiate women athletes. Sociological Inquiry. vol. 75, pp.317-345.
(18) ECKLUND, A. and MASBERG, B.A., 2014. Participation in Roller Derby, the Influence on Body Image. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. vol. 32, pp.49-64.
(19) CAMPBELL, A. and HAUSENBLAS, H. 2009. Effects of exercise interventions on body image: a meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology. vol. 14, pp.780-793.
(20) BAILY, R., WELLARD, I., and DISMORE, H. (2005). Girls’ participation in physical activities and sports: benefits, patterns, influences, and ways forward [online]. WHO. Available from: https://www.icsspe.org/sites/default/files/Girls.pdf
(21) STEAD, R. and Nevill, M., 2010. The impact of physical education and sport on education outcomes: a review of the literature. Institute of Youth Sport [online]. Available at: https://www.icsspe.org/system/files/Stead%20and%20Neville%20-%20The%20Impact%20of%20Physical%20Education%20and%20Sport%20on%20Education%20Outcomes.pdf
(22) BUSC., (2013). The impact of Engagement in Sport on Graduate Employability [online]. Available from: file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/BUCS_Employability_Research_Report_1.pdf