Behavioral data scientist unravels ‘gender exercise divide’

A survey by the Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index found that 8,000 adults – nearly 38% women – had done no exercise in the past year, with the figure rising to 48% for 16-24 year olds. The figure was lower for men. The NHS on its website states that a person aged 19 to 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.

So why is there this gender gap?

Many factors contribute to the fact that women cannot exercise regularly.

Although the media covered these statistics on lack of exercise in women, they failed to mention the other data in this Nuffield report which indicates that 40% of these women in the study group cited embarrassment as their main reason for not exercising (compared to 29% of men). We know from research that women tend to be more dissatisfied with their bodies. This preoccupation with an idealized body image is greatest among teenagers and young adults, mainly due to the influence of social media. A meta-analysis of 20 research papers showed that negative body image is strongly linked to social media scrolling, especially Instagram.

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Women in particular negatively compared their own bodies to those of celebrities and their peers. In several research studies over the years, we have found that teens and adults with low body image are less likely to engage in physical activity than those with higher body image. Even women who exercise and are athletic often suffer from the contradiction of appearing strong and toned while still desiring the idealized body image.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal explores the complex societal and emotional barriers women face to exercising regularly

Simon Songhurst

There is also a strong correlation between the design of sports and gym clothes (as well as swimwear) and body image. Modest sportswear remains a challenge to find. When clothes do not fit properly on a person, covering most of their body, many women may perceive that the cause is a defect in their body and not in the clothes. This can then manifest as negative feelings about their body, which can prevent them from being motivated to exercise.

While over the past year we’ve started to see more and more companies designing and promoting activewear for various bodies, many of these brands are expensive and only go up to size 18, which doesn’t is not an inclusive size. Labeling them as “plus” sizes can also reinforce the stigma that accompanies a larger body size compared to the idealized norm.

“Mothers spent 1 hour and 5 minutes actively caring for children while fathers spent an average of 25 minutes”

Gyms and swimming pools can also be intimidating places – I know this from experience. I find it intimidating to go to these places as a relative novice and first timer, someone who isn’t in great shape and can’t pound the treadmill or do countless miles in the pool. Unless you have the right clothes and the right body, it’s very easy to feel like an outsider. And this lack of inclusion – in the design of sportswear and the culture that has developed in some gyms and pools – can lead not only to embarrassment, but also to a lack of motivation to go to the gym, run or to swim.

woman learning dance moves in a class

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Then there is road racing which is always free and available to everyone. Well, almost. A 2021 Runner’s World survey of over 2,000 women showed that 60% of women had been harassed while running. Of these women, nearly 25% also said they were regularly subjected to sexist comments or unwanted sexual advances when running alone. And 6% said they even feared for their lives. 37% of women had limited their running to specific times of day and 11% had stopped running altogether. Many had stopped running regularly. Four out of five women found it dangerous to go out alone after dark to walk or run.

Why don’t women use daylight hours, some might ask. This is because women tend to carry much of the emotional and physical burden of parenthood in a heterosexual marriage or partnership. National Center for Social Research data collected using time use diaries for parents of children under 16 found that mothers spent an average of about 2 hours 21 minutes cooking, cleaning and other household chores, while for men this figure was only around 57 minutes. Mothers spent 1 hour and 5 minutes actively caring for children while fathers spent an average of only 25 minutes per day.

This unequal unpaid work has particularly increased in the last two years of the pandemic. A study by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2020, collected data from 3,500 families with two parents of the opposite sex and found that the mothers looked after the children during in average 10.3 hours per day (2.3 hours more than fathers). Women also performed household chores for 1.7 hours longer than fathers. So where the hell do they have time to exercise?

“It has become even more difficult for women to participate in rigorous physical activity”

Most of the women who responded to my tweet about this said that taking care of the kids, running after them, lugging around cleaning supplies is exhausting work, and they have no energy or time left to consider join a gym or go out for a run. . Also, the only time they come to their own is after the kids have gone to bed (i.e. they’re like mine, don’t get to bed until 9pm!) When it is either too late and dangerous to go for a run, or they are too physically and mentally exhausted to consider physical activity.

healthy woman doing yoga at home

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If we only look at the last year, another factor that has played a role in limiting women’s physical activity has been the effects of Covid. Research has suggested that women are much more likely than men to experience a long period of Covid. Of 1.3 million people across more than 600,000 research papers published between June 2020 and 2021, it was found that during a long period of Covid, women were more likely to suffer from the disease, with a ratio of odds of 1.22 (95% confidence interval, 0.75 to 0.93). 22% more women than men had a variety of symptoms, including symptoms of fatigue which were considered less common in men.

Although it is, as I say in my next book Hysterical, gender bias persists in our field of health, so women’s pain and condition are often dismissed and ignored, with women being branded as hysterical and overly sensitive. It also led to some of these symptoms persisting for weeks and months. With the long Covid, it has become even harder for women to participate in any rigorous physical activity.

black mother practicing yoga with baby boy in living room

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So yes, exercise is important and both men and women should be encouraged to get as much physical activity as possible. But rather than using this report as another stick to beat women, blaming all of their mental and physical health problems on lack of exercise, there needs to be a more nuanced discussion that examines barriers to exercise. . The lack of resources, time and energy seems to be the main one. Once we start having a more intersectional, inclusive, and honest conversation about how women can practice some form of exercise even when they think — and have been told — they’re not athletic or they’re unlikely to be good at it, we can get more women to exercise (and men too). It’s never too late to start.

“There is a need for a more nuanced discussion that examines barriers to exercise”

Some of us grew up believing that we weren’t athletic and therefore avoided any type of sport or physical activity as we got older. I recently started tennis lessons, getting rid of my embarrassment about starting a sport I may not be good at and wearing active sportswear that I don’t feel comfortable in. Besides those stumbling blocks and the fact that I don’t have time to do it regularly, it’s been good to have those occasional tennis lessons. They gave me the belief that we can all be athletic and play most sports at any age that we like.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal is an author and behavioral data scientist and her upcoming book Hysterical: Exploding the myth of gendered emotion is out September 1 with Canongate and available for pre-order.


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Sean N. Ayres