There's A Reason More Women Don't Exercise (And It's Not What You Think)

"Free time is a luxury."
Halfpoint via Getty Images/iStockphoto

You’re reading Move, the nudge we need to get active, however makes us happiest and healthiest.

Almost half of women have done no vigorous exercise in the past year, according to a new survey from Nuffield Health – and our desire to keep active has nothing to do with it.

Though two-thirds of the women polled for the Healthier Nation Index cited a lack of motivation for scuppering their fitness routine, on social media, women have been quick to point out that it’s more complicated than that.

The survey is the latest research to point to an exercise gender gap, because while 47% of women haven’t exercised, the percentages for men are lower, with just over a third saying they have not exercised in the last 12 months.

On Twitter, author and journalist Nell Frizzell called out Britain’s “unaffordable childcare system” for disproportionately restricting the “earning, health, careers and freedom of women”. And she makes a good point.

The average cost for a part-time nursery place is now £7,000, according to the NCT, and two thirds of families are paying more, or the same, for their childcare as they do their rent or mortgage.

If you’re paying that much just to go to work, it’s unlikely you’ll fork out even more money to free up some time for the gym.

In the replies on Twitter, others pointed out that it’s not just childcare preventing women from exercising.

We know from numerous studies that women still shoulder the majority of “unpaid work” in the UK, including caring for children and older relatives, alongside cleaning the home, doing laundry and preparing meals.

This isn’t just about being financially poor due to childcare costs, it’s about being time-poor thanks to the imbalance of domestic responsibility in society.

Women’s lack of physical activity has absolutely nothing to do with their desire to keep active.

Anna Cargan, 35 from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, is a mum of three children ages five, six and nine, and says she’s joined and left the gym several times in recent years without using her membership.

“My husband works long shifts for the ambulance service and I run my own kids clothes small business,” she explains. “I try to fit all my work into school hours and the kids the rest of the time, and there’s never any time left for me, as much as I want to exercise and have all the best intentions of doing so, when you’re so short on time it always falls to the bottom of the priority list.”

Somewhat ironically Cargan’s children are very sporty and she says part of the reason she doesn’t have time to exercise is because she ferries them to training and matches for football and rugby six days a week.

Anna Cargan, who runs her business <a href="https://buildabundle.co.uk/" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="Build A Bundle" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="62dfbbeee4b03dbb991d1886" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://buildabundle.co.uk/" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="7">Build A Bundle</a> alongside childcare.
fish2photography
Anna Cargan, who runs her business Build A Bundle alongside childcare.

She also works “full-on” in term time, never taking any time off while the kids are at school, so that she can take more time off in school holidays.

“If there was more affordable holiday childcare available then I do think I would find it easier to fit in exercise, either by being able to do some in the holidays or by being able to justify taking an hour to myself in term-time – instead of feeling like I’ve got to work every single school hour, knowing I don’t work as much in the holidays,” she says. “It’s a bit of an all-or-nothing approach.”

This tricky schedule clearly has health implications and Cargan admits: “I know I’m unfit.”

“I want to exercise for health and energy benefits as I know I would feel better if I did,” she adds. “I keep having good intentions - maybe one day I will prioritise it!”

Lorraine Marsh, a 38-year-old mum of a 10-year-old, doesn’t actually think cheaper childcare would necessarily help her to stay more active, instead pointing to the exhaustion of women balancing it all.

“I used to be able to regularly do yoga but since stepping into entrepreneurship and a start up business, I am finding it so hard to commit to a routine,” says Marsh, from Royal Tunbridge Wells.

“I signed up for gym membership for six months which was a complete waste. I thought I could go whilst my son is swimming but no, I feel too ran down after a whole day at work. I manage a jewellery studio which is open six days a week and meeting clients is always my priority.”

Lorraine Marsh, who runs the business <a href="https://thediamondsetter.co.uk/" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="The Diamond Setter" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="62dfbbeee4b03dbb991d1886" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://thediamondsetter.co.uk/" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="9">The Diamond Setter</a>.
Lorraine Marsh
Lorraine Marsh, who runs the business The Diamond Setter.

Marsh says there are fitness events where you can bring kids along for free – such as a local Parkrun – but adds “the number of women and families who commit to this are still very low, including me!”

“I was always faithful to exercising and I know the benefits of exercise to my mental health,” she says. “I feel so helpless sometimes because I know it is just my own self who’s holding me back. The urge is there but I feel time slips away so quickly.”

Some mums are finding time to exercise, but it often means squeezing in a workout during unsociable hours.

Sue Bordley, aged 50 and based in the Wirral, gets up at 5.15am because it’s the only time she has to swim while juggling her career as an author of swim-related books and looking after her children, ages 14 and 12.

“I hit my local pool at 6am before starting work for the day, then looking after my two kids in the evening,” she explains, adding that her husband teaches karate in the evenings.

To help more mums to get active – and enable her to set her alarm at a reasonable time of day – Bordley would like to see more options for mums bringing their children along to exercise classes.

“Things have probably improved in recent years with things like buggy aerobics, but that’s no good, for example, to a mum who’s got a baby in a pram and a four-year-old,” she says. “Childcare facilities enabling women to exercise would certainly help.”

Move celebrates exercise in all its forms, with accessible features encouraging you to add movement into your day – because it’s not just good for the body, but the mind, too. We get it: workouts can be a bit of a slog, but there are ways you can move more without dreading it. Whether you love hikes, bike rides, YouTube workouts or hula hoop routines, exercise should be something to enjoy.

HuffPost UK / Rebecca Zisser

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