Nine in ten women over 30 scared to take part in outdoor exercise, says mental health charity Mind

Low self-esteem among barriers to getting active as charity highlights benefits of walking, cycling and other pursuits

by Simon_MacMichael   April 24, 2012  

Dog in bike basket (copyright Simon MacMichael)

The charity Mind says that lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem causes nine in ten women aged over 30 to avoid taking part in outdoor physical exercise such as cycling, and has launched a campaign to encourage females to overcome barriers that are potentially harmful to both their spiritual and mental wellbeing.

The study, based on a survey of 1,450 women, was carried out as part of the 'Feel better outside, feel better inside' campaign from the £7.5 million Ecomind initiative, run by the mental health charity on behalf of the Big Lottery Fund.

While initiatives such as the Cycletta series of sportives, endorsed by Victoria Pendleton, and British Cycling’s £1 million National Women’s Cycling Network, launched last year, both aim to get more females on two wheels, the findings of Mind’s research suggest that for the vast majority of women there are huge barriers to doing any kind of outdoor physical activity, let alone cycling.

According to the survey, nearly all respondents – 98 per cent – were aware of messages telling them that getting involved in exercise would help their mental and physical health, however Mind said that low confidence in their bodies, low self-esteem and other barriers to exercise prevented many from getting active.

Its research found that eating comfort food or finding a way to be alone, both at 71 per cent, going to bed, at 66 per cent, or spending time social networking with a response level of 57 per cent, all ranked higher than taking part in physical exercise.

The charity highlighted some of the specific barriers that prevented women from taking part in exercise:

  • 2 out of 3 feel conscious about their body shape when they exercise in public
  • Many doubt their own ability compared to others; 65% think it’s unlikely they’ll be able to keep up in an exercise group and almost a half feel they will look silly in front of others as a result of being uncoordinated
  • 60% are nervous about how their body reacts to exercise – their wobbly bits, sweating, passing wind or going red
  • 2/3 feel that if they joined an exercise group, other women would be unwelcoming and cliquey, with only 6% feeling they would be very likely to make new friends.

It also highlighted some of the ways in which women who did participate in exercise sought to overcome what it described as “the risk of embarrassment”:

  • Over 50% said they exercised very early in the morning or late at night solely to avoid being seen by others
  • Almost 2/3 of women choose to exercise in a location where they’re unlikely to bump into anyone they know
  • Over 50% don’t leave the home when exercising, so as not to be seen in public - even though exercising outside is more effective for lifting mood then inside
  • 67% wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure.

Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, commented: “We all know that walking, cycling, even gardening are good for our mental health, however for many of us exercising in the great outdoors can be incredibly daunting, especially if already feeling low and self-confidence is at rock bottom.

“At these times you can feel like the only person in the world experiencing this, but Mind’s research highlights that far from being alone, 90% of women are in exactly the same boat,” she continued.

“It’s time we start talking about how exercise makes us feel. We urge women to take the first step, invite a friend on a nature date and begin to support each other in taking care of our mental wellbeing.”

Mind cited the positive impact that taking up outdoor exercise had brought to the life of one 37-year-old woman, who said: “I have been taking anti-depressants since last February, but honestly feel that exercise has a more noticeable effect than the drugs.  

“I can’t believe I am saying this, but discovering outdoor exercise changed everything. I was petrified, I knew I would sweat, go red, have trouble keeping up and that everyone else in the group would be super fit. I was so incredibly scared and thought I’d be humiliated.      

“However – the other people in the group were all normal – all different shapes and sizes – and no one cared what you looked like or did. 

It was the most liberating experience ever. My initial reason for exercising was to lose some weight, but from that first session I realised just how good it cold be for my state of mind. From there my confidence grew,” she concluded.

The Ecominds section of the Mind website contains a variety of hints, tips and online tools aimed at encouraging women to become active by helping the overcome some of the issues discouraging them from taking part in outdoor exercise.

 

16 user comments

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Surprised at how many of these reasons I've heard at home.

Dodging the saccadic masking

posted by notfastenough [2604 posts]
24th April 2012 - 16:05

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This is so sad, but not exactly a surprise. I think the root cause possibly lies in how young girls are taught to exercise. Outdoor exercise is something that needs to be commonplace from youth, rather than something daunting to be taken up in later life. It's a lot less intimidating when you've always done it- those "worries" aren't nearly so worrying.
Traditional sport for girls at schools is quite limited and many young women probably see the gym as being their best option for regular exercise, rather than getting out in the fresh air. I know I'm making sweeping statements, but I'd be delighted to see a school that got young girls out climbing, trail running, outdoor swimming, or of course cycling.
Start 'em young and keep 'em enjoying it and then get them teaching their own kids in turn.

posted by Leonie Jennings [298 posts]
24th April 2012 - 16:14

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Absolutely in agreement with Leonie, I would want my kids all out enjoying the outdoors, especially young girls. Active habits (from what I have seen) give you an appetite for life, and for food, and a sense of proportion, which is much needed with some of the messages we absorb through the media.

When you are out doing something you really enjoy, you realise what is important in life, and you downgrade things like how many pairs of shoes you own or if your size 8 skinny jeans are a bit tight or how someone you see on the street thinks you look. People who are enjoying themselves always look nice to me anyway Smile

I do wonder about the sample of women, I am lucky that my circle of female friends and I are generally pretty active and not constrained by a lack of self esteem, but I suppose that it is all about what is normal in your group of friends/what you have grown up with.

And I know this is a cycling blog but on the subject of inclusive social sport, anyone in south-west London who is keen to try out touch rugby is always welcome to come down for a runaround on Saturday mornings 11-1 at the triangle on tooting common (NW corner of tooting common between the two railway lines, nearest tube/rail balham). There are about 30-40 of us, we are there every Saturday and we all put in £2 towards pitch hire, otherwise there is no cost and no commitment, boys and girls all welcome, most of us are in our 20s and 30s but there are some in their 40s & 50s and we will be delighted to play with anyone who shows up.

We have a good mix of gender and fitness and experience, lots of beginners, if you're shy just come say hi to one of the other girls and tell us you're new and we will look after you. It is touch so there is no tackling, kind of like tag for grownups. Anyone interested can look up south london touch rugby on facebook or just turn up and play or watch.

But yes. Riding/running around in the fresh air is way more fun than gymming indoors, esp this time of year.

Sorry for the long post...

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posted by sparrow_h [35 posts]
24th April 2012 - 17:01

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Even highly active girls can have some of these things happen when they hit puberty. My own daughter, who is a very active sportswoman, (football, rowing, javelin/sprinter), hates to be seen sweaty and sometimes will go for a run late in the evening in a local college ground, I suspect for that reason. Although she is still active and I'm sure will remain so (she wants to do sports science at uni in a couple of years) a few of those things are true of her now but weren't when she was 9 or 10. It's part of the whole self-conscious puberty thing, which affects girls more than boys.

Also, female sport is more or less ignored in this country (including on roadcc) so there aren't many role models. In Germany or Scandanavia I expect the results would be different. Nearly as many women are registered football players in Germany as men are here, (about 80%).

Agree about girls' sports at school as well and another bad thing is the separation of the sexes, which doesn't happen in most Eurpean countries.

Rant over!!

posted by Alan Tullett [1293 posts]
24th April 2012 - 22:58

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Do you think girls are subjected to more image-type trash in the media than boys? I'm not sure if they are, or if its more acceptable for the male 'ideal' to be sweaty etc.

I saw an interview with Paula Radcliffe, and she was asked why she looked so glamorous compared to her usual appearance. She looked rather bemused at having to point out that her 'race face' didn't include makeup or fancy hair.

A couple of weeks ago, several people (myself included) chipped in on the forum to help a female novice cyclist pick out a bike. I must confess to a certain level of respect at the time, but I couldn't have told you why - she was only taking the same steps we all have at some point. However, I now realize that it was because she was doing something proactive and quite dynamic (hope this doesnt sound sexist, please dont take it that way) to improve her health/wellbeing etc, which unfortunately puts her in a minority within her gender. By the end of the thread, the helpful comments had boosted her confidence sufficiently that she was joining the local club - this would appear to place her in an even smaller minority, which is such a shame.

Dodging the saccadic masking

posted by notfastenough [2604 posts]
24th April 2012 - 23:49

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As Alan said above

"Also, female sport is more or less ignored in this country (including on roadcc) so there aren't many role models. In Germany or Scandanavia I expect the results would be different. Nearly as many women are registered football players in Germany as men are here, (about 80%)."

In the UK I believe that female sport is certainly sidelined or, on the flip side, made so much of that it appears almost freakish. Why shouldn't women seek out sporting achievement, or just enjoy non-competitive outdoor activity? I think this general environment then continues down the generations. I do also agree with Alan that girls are just more sensitive feeling un-girly anyway, and that doesn't stop when you hit your thirties and beyond! You just stop caring quite so much what other people think, and enjoy the feeling of being out doing something energetic. But this is a HARD message to bring to teenage girls and therefore to future generations of female exercisers.

Mags don't help in my opinion. Most women's fitness magazines still insist on being first and foremost fashion catalogues visually. They are advertising driven, so this is not a surprise, but even with the most inspiring editorial in the world, the visual message that these mags project is still very much about looking perfectly groomed and made up while you exercise, which just isn't possible!!!

posted by Leonie Jennings [298 posts]
25th April 2012 - 9:15

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all good points, coverage and representation of women is very different compared to men, e.g. the recent adidas advert in which men play and women are cast to look pretty and not play any sport is shocking in 2012. I was also very pleased to see triuk's ads banned (http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/triuk-ad-banned-by-asa/012894), I have called them myself to complain, should have thought to call the ASA.

I think that initiatives like parkrun.com are fantastic, 60 odd people come to my wife's local parkrun and at least a third are women.

Cannondale CAAD10, Condor Terra-X and an orange Brompton.
Ride for East London Velo

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posted by zzgavin [195 posts]
25th April 2012 - 9:42

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I've asked them for a copy of the report, plus methodology. Nerd

They've arrived at the headline '9 out of 10' stat by conflating a whole load of seperate measures (which sets alarm bells ringing) there's no link to the full report on the website and no information on how the sample was derived. This might be a case for Dr Goldacre... Thinking

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posted by Rob Simmonds [248 posts]
25th April 2012 - 22:49

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My wife cycled to her tap dancing class one evening two years ago, and hasn't cycled since that evening when a group of youths started circling her as she rode home. She rode last year on the Sky Ride, and that has been it. We don't have access to a car at the moment which as you can imagine makes the logistics of three young girls very difficult. Our three girls each have their own bike, but she still will not use her bike.

tommy2p

posted by tommy2p [84 posts]
26th April 2012 - 0:49

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Looking at the comments above I am remembering the first time I got lycra'd up I felt a right fool; felt like I was some sort of target for people to try their ability. I also remember going to a club for the first time thinking that I would be out of place or left behind. I have also had incidents with drunk people (cars/pedestrians) whilst riding at night. Maybe it is worse for women but their fears are not unique to them. I think women feel more pressure to do stuff like housework. Remember there are 160 hours in a week; if you cannot say 'sod the lot of you, I am going out' for a few of these then ask yourself why not? I have seen all shapes and sizes competing in running races, not so much in cycling. I remember one woman finishing 'very' last and looking completely knackered who received a huge round of applause. Possibly patronising but she seemed to appreciate it! Come on, no excuses, get out there!

posted by SideBurn [729 posts]
26th April 2012 - 9:13

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Just a quick thought here, somebody mentioned the davina women only rides they are either 100 miles or Kms both distances would put me off when I first started cycling (to this day I still haven't done the ton). Perhaps a way to encourage all newcomers (not just women) to the sport/hobby would be to promote the fact that a lot of sportives have shorter runs and for sportives to stop refering to them as family runs which in some ways seems slightly derogatory for a beginner.

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posted by FATBEGGARONABIKE [479 posts]
26th April 2012 - 9:30

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Much of what's stated here is supported by my own (purely anecdotal) experience. Cycling is a great activity for women - it's cheap, easy, social or solitary, fits flexibly into your home and work schedules, and is best of all hugely enjoyable at any level. In mags etc there's often a real machismo about the sport though, which is frustrating. You only have to look at some of the ads for women's bib shorts. I haven't ever bought any - I don't think I can ride with my hands on my boobs. This might seem a bit flippant as an example, but if we are talking about body consciousness those semi-naked glamorous and definitely unperspirational female images contrast starkly with the typical advertising images of male cyclists whose winning ways seem to derive from fitness, technique and determination. And this discrepancy can be traced through plenty of other examples.
What surprises me about the report is the age category. Not sure if this is the only age range that the study investigated or if the findings are specific to this age range. I am well beyond 30, and consider myself beyond caring much about looks, but then I am in the minority identified by this report.
It's good to see the gender issues being aired in this forum.

Always good on the flat.

posted by Dramaqueen [21 posts]
26th April 2012 - 11:44

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To clarify, I did contact Mind's press office while I was working on the story to see if we could get a copy of the report, but was told that all that was being made available was what was in the press release.

I worked in consumer research for a number of years and always prefer to go back to the original research whenever possible, and which in this case could well have clarified some of the issues raised in the comments above.

Unfortunately that wasn't possible on this occasion, although it is good to see the issues being discussed.

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7458 posts]
26th April 2012 - 12:45

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Dramaqueen wrote:
Much of what's stated here is supported by my own (purely anecdotal) experience. Cycling is a great activity for women - it's cheap, easy, social or solitary, fits flexibly into your home and work schedules, and is best of all hugely enjoyable at any level. In mags etc there's often a real machismo about the sport though, which is frustrating. You only have to look at some of the ads for women's bib shorts. I haven't ever bought any - I don't think I can ride with my hands on my boobs. This might seem a bit flippant as an example, but if we are talking about body consciousness those semi-naked glamorous and definitely unperspirational female images contrast starkly with the typical advertising images of male cyclists whose winning ways seem to derive from fitness, technique and determination. And this discrepancy can be traced through plenty of other examples.
What surprises me about the report is the age category. Not sure if this is the only age range that the study investigated or if the findings are specific to this age range. I am well beyond 30, and consider myself beyond caring much about looks, but then I am in the minority identified by this report.
It's good to see the gender issues being aired in this forum.

Fair point about the bibshorts ad, although on the flip side, the male version (with the specs) looks like an audition reject from a remake of 'The Fly' - not really a look I aspire to either... seriously though, this does imply a less than stellar thought process in their marketing department.

Dodging the saccadic masking

posted by notfastenough [2604 posts]
26th April 2012 - 13:17

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Simon_MacMichael wrote:
To clarify, I did contact Mind's press office while I was working on the story to see if we could get a copy of the report, but was told that all that was being made available was what was in the press release.

I worked in consumer research for a number of years and always prefer to go back to the original research whenever possible, and which in this case could well have clarified some of the issues raised in the comments above.

Unfortunately that wasn't possible on this occasion, although it is good to see the issues being discussed.


That's good to hear Simon. I also contacted them and have had a referral to the original press release and a rather pointed 'why do you want to know?' reply. Not terribly helpful.

Yes, in one sense it's good to see the issue being discussed, but on the other if the basis for the discussion is 'research' that's as flaky as a week old sausage roll then perhaps we're being misled.

I also work in the research/survey field and refusing to share your methodology, report, results and even the base questionnaire is very poor practice.

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posted by Rob Simmonds [248 posts]
26th April 2012 - 15:46

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You forgot to mention this years Sortsperson(man) of the year award, where not one lady even made it into the final 10 nominees...Grrrrr. What a fix!
I don't even want to start saying who could have been nominated, but there were such a lot of world champions that were "over-looked", that it did look like a bit of a stitch up! At Wits End

rog

posted by rogie40 [26 posts]
26th April 2012 - 20:49

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