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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

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.


Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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