21 Jun Tackling the physical activity gender gap
Have you ever considered how gender shapes your health and well-being? Despite there being many factors contributing to this, physical activity is one very large piece of this puzzle.
With that in mind, who do you think is generally more active? Males or females?
You probably answered males, and you’d be right! But have you ever thought about why?
How active are men compared to women?
In a nutshell, only 2 in 5 Australian women are sufficiently active compared to 1 in 2 men. This trend also occurs across most countries and is what is referred to as the ‘physical activity gender gap.
We all know that insufficient levels of physical activity put people at a higher risk of disease; cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. By being physically active, we can improve our mental and musculoskeletal health, as well as reduce risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. So, it’s no surprise that with lower levels of physical activity, women are more likely to experience multiple chronic conditions in their lifetime in comparison to men.
How can we close the gap?
Unfortunately, closing the physical activity gender gap is not easy. This is an issue that extends right back to the beginning of time, entangling the complex concept of gender norms with it.
When a child is exposed to narrow gender norms, values, and expectations, it can result in a lack of enjoyment and confidence in movement and the body. This is reflected in the generally more physically taxing lunch time activities of schoolboys compared to girls.
Sadly, these gender norms extend outside the school grounds and into adulthood. The danger of these gender norms in the context of physical activity is that such restrictive and harmful attitudes create lifelong barriers to movement and exercise.
Perceived barriers for women
Common barriers to physical activity for adolescent females include low confidence, concern with appearance, lack of energy and lack of time. Perceived barriers to physical activity are higher among young females than males. In addition, we know that the number of these barriers can determine compliance to physical activity recommendations.
This plays into why young females are more sedentary than young males and fall below the recommended physical activity guidelines at 13 years old – two years earlier than their male counterparts. It is this vicious cycle of gender norms to barriers that feed the inequalities in health and well-being for women across their lifespan.
Mental health plays a role too
To make matters worse, while battling barriers to physical activity during adolescence, depressive symptoms in girls begin to rise. Since 2012, twice as many females between 15- and 19-years-old have experienced psychological distress such as anxiety, depression, and poor self- esteem, compared to males of the same age. Unfortunately, these numbers continue to rise. If we apply what we know about the mental health benefits of physical activity, adolescence is certainly not a time where girls should be increasing sedentary time. In fact, it’s a vital period for intervention.
So how can we get girls moving more?
The literature identifies those interventions promoting physical activity among young females are effective. This is particularly true of multi-component interventions that also offer a physical education that addresses the unique needs of girls.
So, it is the role of exercise professionals to do just that.
It’s important to implement programs aimed at to educating young females about the importance of physical activity in their physical and psychological health and wellbeing and offer a safe environment to apply these learnings. By providing better access to programs such as this, the course of young females’ lives can truly be changed for the better.
If you need help getting started, talking to an ESSA accredited exercise professional is a great place to start. You can find one near you here.
Written by Gabi Gildea. Gabi is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Science of Fitness.