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The real reason women aren’t exercising

Gender inequality is a major public health issue.

By Zoë Grünewald

This week it was reported by healthcare charity Nuffield Health that 47 per cent of women have done no vigorous exercise in the past 12 months, compared to just over a third of men.

Judy Murray, mother of tennis player Andy Murray and ambassador for the Nuffield Healthier Nation Index survey, responded by imploring women to focus on their well-being: “I hope everyone can spare a few minutes to find something active they enjoy doing, as well as finding someone that they can do it with.” She went on to suggest that women try to exercise in groups to help find both “motivation and routine”, and encouraged “everyone to gather friends and get moving together”.

The fact that women aren’t finding time for physical activity is no trivial matter; it’s a public health issue. Regular exercise is proven to reduce rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several cancers, as well as improve mental health. Its role in preventing disease and reducing pressure on the health service is vital.

But the framing of this issue as a matter of just finding time puts the onus on women merely putting in the effort. According to the Nuffield study, the main reasons that women report for not being able to exercise is lack of motivation (67 per cent) and lack of time (55 per cent). The fact that women don’t have the time and can’t muster the motivation shows that the problem runs deeper than taking five minutes for yourself a day.

Women disproportionately bear the burden of unpaid domestic care. Back in 2016, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that women “carry out an average of 60 per cent more unpaid work than men. ONS analysis of time use data shows that women put in more than double the proportion of unpaid work when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework. On average men do 16 hours a week of such unpaid work, which includes adult care and child care, laundry and cleaning, [compared] to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women a week.” Data available since the pandemic shows that the Covid-19 outbreak only exacerbated the problem.

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In heterosexual couples, even for those women who have more of an equal domestic split with their partner, there remain structural and economic reasons for why exercise remains at the bottom of the priority list. For women who have children, childcare in the UK is expensive. With only Slovakia and Switzerland ahead for the most expensive childcare system in the developed world, here in the UK, one-third of families pay more on childcare services than on their rent or mortgage, with the cost of a full-time nursery place in the UK averaging £263 per week.

Given the expense of childcare, many parents are either forced to work more, or one parent (usually mothers, who tend to earn less than male partners) is forced to give up work completely or reduce their hours. A poll of 20,000 women run by the Mumsnet parental website in 2021 showed that two-thirds of parents reduced their working hours once they had a child. In a poll by the New Statesman this year, 70 per cent of respondents said that the high cost of childcare is a significant reason why mothers choose to be stay-at-home parents. The Mumsnet survey also found that 66 per cent of women reduced their working hours when they had children, compared to just 26 per cent of men.

Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of the lobbying group Pregnant Then Screwed, pointed to the Nuffield study as “yet another example of how the unequal distribution of unpaid labour and care work is damaging to women’s health, their earnings and their freedom”.

She told Spotlight: “The majority of women have paid jobs and they do almost three times the unpaid care work, leaving very little time for anything else. If we want to improve women’s lives, then we need a good quality, affordable childcare system; flexible working to be the default; and ring-fenced, properly paid paternity leave. In countries that have this, the unpaid labour is shared more equally.’’

If policymakers don’t address these structural issues, the effects will go beyond the individual woman who can’t find those five minutes in their day.

[ See also: NHS workforce shortages may be even worse than official data suggests ]

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