A behavioral data scientist unravels the ‘gender exercise gap’

A survey of the Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index found that 8,000 adults – almost 38% of women – had not exercised in the past year, rising to 48% among 16-24 year olds. The figure was lower for men. The NHS on its website stipulates that a person between the ages of 19 and 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.

So why does this gender gap exist?

There are numerous factors that contribute to women not being able to exercise regularly.

While the media has covered these statistics about women’s lack of exercise, they haven’t mentioned the other data in this Nuffield report which states that 40% of these women in the study group cited embarrassment as the main reason for not exercising. exercise (compared to 29% of men). We know from research that women tend to be more dissatisfied with their bodies. This concern for an idealized body image is greater in adolescents and young adults, mainly due to the influence of social networks. A meta-analysis of 20 research papers showed that negative body image is closely related to scrolling through social media, especially Instagram.

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Women in particular negatively compared their own bodies to those of celebrities and their peers. Through various research studies over the years, we’ve seen that teens and adults with low body image are less likely to be physically active compared to those with higher body image. Even those women who work out and are athletic often suffer from the contradiction of appearing strong and toned but still desiring the idealized body image.

dr pragya agarwal

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

Simon Songhurst

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

Although in the last year we have started to see more companies designing and promoting sportswear for various bodies, many of these brands are expensive and only go up to size 18, which does not include sizing. 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 their children, while fathers averaged a measly 25 minutes”

Gyms and swimming pools can be intimidating places too, I know from experience. I find it daunting to go to these places as a novice and beginner, someone who isn’t very fit and can’t hit the treadmill or put in 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 sportswear design and the culture that has developed in some of the gyms and pools – can lead not only to embarrassment but also to a lack of motivation to go to the gym, run or swimming.

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Then there is the road race, which is always free and available to everyone. Well almost. A 2021 Runner’s World survey of more than 2,000 women showed that 60 percent of women had been harassed while running. Of these women, nearly 25% also reported regularly being the target of sexist comments or unwanted sexual advances while jogging on their own. And 6% said they had even feared for their lives. 37% of the women had limited their running to specific times of the day and 11% stopped running altogether. Many had stopped running regularly. Four out of five women had found it unsafe to be alone after dark to walk or run.

Why don’t women take advantage of the hours of the day? Some may wonder. It’s because women tend to carry much of the emotional and physical burden of raising children in a heterosexual marriage or partnership. National Center for Social Research data collected through time-use diaries for parents with children under 16 found that mothers spent an average of about 2 hours and 21 minutes cooking, cleaning, and other household chores, while for men this figure was only about 57 minutes. Mothers spent 1 hour and 5 minutes actively caring for their children, while fathers averaged a measly 25 minutes per day.

This unequal unpaid work was especially accentuated during the last two years of the pandemic. A study conducted by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2020, captured data from 3,500 families with two parents of the opposite sex and found that mothers cared for children for an average of 10.3 hours a day (2.3 hours more than parents). Women also did 1.7 hours more housework than fathers. So where the hell do they have time to exercise?

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

Most of the women who replied to my tweet about this said that taking care of the kids, running after them, carrying cleaning equipment is back-breaking work, and they have no energy or time left to consider joining a gym or going out. run. . Also, the only time they come to is after the kids have gone to bed (which are like mine, they don’t go to bed before 9pm!) when it’s too late and it’s not safe to go running or they are too physically and mentally exhausted to consider any physical activity.

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If we look only 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 hinted that women are significantly more likely than men to experience Covid for a long time. Of 1.3 million people across more than 600,000 research articles published between June 2020 and 2021, it was found that during a prolonged period of covid, women were more likely to experience the condition, with a ratio of probability 1.22 (95% confidence interval, 0.75 to 0.93). 22% more women than men reported a variety of symptoms, including symptoms of fatigue, which were found to be less common in men.

While this is the case, as I discuss in my forthcoming book Hysterical, gender bias still persists in our health domain, which is why women’s pain and condition are often dismissed and ignored and called hysterical and overly sensitive. This has also led to some of these symptoms persisting for weeks and months. With Covid prolonged, it has become even more difficult for women to engage in any rigorous physical activity.

black mother practicing yoga with baby in living room

JGI/Jamie Grillfake images

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

“There is a need to have a more nuanced discussion that examines the 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 grew older. I recently started taking tennis lessons, shedding some of the embarrassment of starting a sport I might not be good at, and wearing active sportswear that I don’t feel comfortable. Besides these obstacles, and the fact that I don’t have time to do it regularly, it’s been nice to have these occasional tennis lessons. They have given me the self-confidence that we can all be athletes and play most sports at any age we want.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal is an author and behavioral data scientist and her upcoming book Hysterical: Explosion of the myth of gender emotions It comes out September 1 with Canongate and is available for pre-order.


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