A few days ago, a new survey published by Nuffield Health, the “Healthier Nation Index” made headlines in several UK papers: “Half of British women do no regular exercise”, and several permutations of this. Apparently, according to The Guardian, the study finds that “many lack motivation or got out of the habit during lockdown”. Unsurprisingly, the Internet has thoughts on this.
Tweets range from “no shit, Sherlock” responses like this one
to “there’s something seriously wrong with the way this is being reported” like this one:
and everything in between. Not to speak of the fact that if 47% of women don’t work out regularly, 53% actually do, so there’s a bit of the good old “only bad news is good news” thrown into the mix as well.
There are several themes to the rightful complaints about how this data is being reported and picked up by the media:
- Exercise is a privilege many, and especially many women don’t have. There’s a difference between exercise and movement, and many women move even though they don’t “exercise”, so the data is actually wrong. There’s also the other side of the coin: the kind of movement you do while caring for young children is often not actually healthy movement and can’t be compared to exercising.
- One of the reasons this result is no surprise is that for men, taking half a day on the weekend to go on a long bike ride or golfing, or whatever, is much more normalised than for women. And you bet someone is doing the laundry at home while they’re out. Guess who?
- Women are still overwhelmingly responsible for childcare, housework and other care duties. Plus, the extortionate cost of childcare especially in the UK (but also other places). This has several effects: one, women have no time. Two, see above, they are actually doing other forms of movement (with the caveats mentioned above).
- It’s a body image issue for many.
- And then there are some who actually disagree about how the pandemic plays into this – those who started an exercise habit when things were closed and now can’t work out any more because things have returned to normal – no more lunchtime workouts while working from home, no time due to commuting, more social obligations, etc.
In addition to all these, one thing that bothers me about the reporting on these is how it individualises the problem by claiming that “women lack motivation” when really, to a large degree its societal constraints that cause the gender gap here. Well-meaning initiatives like the UK-based “This Girl Can” campaign reinforce the notion that all women need to do is “get out there” and “make the time”, “start small”, etc. But what if you really don’t have the time? This is the case for so many people, especially women. What if by the time you get home from your full-time job, have maybe cooked dinner, done some cleaning, put the kids to bed if you have them and so on, you’re dead tired and all you want is your bed or the sofa? What if you have health conditions that diminish your energy levels? Especially for single parents or people who can’t afford to outsource their housework, this is reality.
For me personally, especially since having a child, yes, it is to some degree a motivational issue. But I, too, despite my enormous privilege – an incredibly supportive partner, childcare, household help, etc. – I often find myself too tired at the end of the day. You can’t just rustle up some motivation if you’re running on empty. (And no, I won’t “just get up earlier”. This woman needs her sleep.) I do feel like even for me, some of this is due to societal gender roles. My husband, for example, finds switching off and taking time for himself much easier than me. I always feel like I need to double-check that it’s really ok to go for a run, or feel a bit guilty for working out instead of doing chores. Part of this is personality-based, but it’s also education and socialisation.
The way these survey results have been reported is beyond unhelpful. It’s not fair to put the responsibility for not working out fully back on women and make sound like it’s their own fault. That’s victim blaming. Ugh.