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A new study by Nuffield Health has found that a third of women believe their health is worse now than it was a year ago, because they’ve done no exercise. 

We’re in the middle of the biggest summer of sport since 2012. The Lionesses are smashing their way through the Euros on home turf, the Commonwealth Games are about to start in Birmingham and we’ve just seen Dina Asher-Smith take bronze at the World Championships in Ohio. But for many women in the UK, fitness and sport just aren’t a part of everyday life.

At least, that’s the conclusion of an 8,000-person strong study led by Nuffield Health into the fitness habits of British adults. The Healthier Nation Index has found that almost half of women don’t do regular exercise anymore, with 47% saying that they’ve done no vigorous weekly exercise, such as jogging or gym classes, in the past year. Many cite lockdown as being the catalyst for giving up sports and physical hobbies, with a third of women believing that their physical health has deteriorated as a result.

Even more worryingly, one in seven women say that they’ve “stopped exercising completely”; just 15% of British adults meet the recommended 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week. 

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All this is sobering stuff. At a time when chaos seems to rule our political, environmental and economic lives, the mental health benefits that exercise provides are needed now more than ever. And that’s before you consider all the cardio and strength-based reasons to move.

Lockdowns changed the way we work, socialise and live; we were all forced to stop playing netball or going to certain gym classes in 2020. And it’s no surprise that many never picked them up again. If you look at your friendship groups, you’ll see that over the past two years, many women’s lives have changed unrecognisably. Since the first lockdown, I’ve had friends move into the countryside (where they now use cars rather than the Tube), have kids or work exclusively from home (away from their old gyms). They’re undeniably less active than they used to be.

Time and money are more precious now than ever before

Let’s be clear: women aren’t exercising less because they want to. Time and money are precious commodities – especially right now. We work long hours – often longer if we’re working from home. Exercising at lunchtime is a total nightmare unless you’re able to have a slightly extended break (an hour simply isn’t long enough to get to a class and back). Evenings are filled with childcare commitments (who can afford after-school clubs or after-hours nannies?) or social plans (understandable after two years of enforced isolation).

The cost of living crisis has made personal care much less of a priority. Would you really spend a tenner on a gym class if your electricity bill was doubling? Fitness isn’t cheap; sports bras need to be regularly replaced, running trainers can be expensive and the cost of food is going up week-on-week.

Back when Boris Johnson was recovering from his Covid scare, we heard a lot about how this country needed to be more proactive rather than reactive about health. Last year, when Sajid Javid was the health and social care secretary, he set up the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) to put prevention at the heart of healthcare. Its aim, apparently, was to coordinate a programme across the NHS, local and central government and within communities to improve the public’s health.

In a statement, the then health secretary said: “This body marks a new era of preventative healthcare to help people live healthier, happier and longer lives… and will reduce pressure on our NHS and care services.” There was no mention of access to fitness in that particular press release. 

Women still face significant barriers to fitness

The fact that so many women aren’t exercising should be a cause for concern, particularly given how under pressure the NHS is. And yet, how many significant gym subsidies are offered to working people in this country? What help is there for women who have to look after children but who might want to go to the gym or spend time tending to their own fitness? For us to be proactive, we have to have the time and the tools to invest in ourselves.

According to Olivia Tyler from Nuffield Health: “Just five extra minutes of exercise a day can significantly boost mental and physical wellbeing.” Now, for a lot of people, five minutes might be the only window of time in their day to take a mental health break (be that staring out of the window or having a cup of tea outside). 

And while five minutes of pacing around might get our hearts racing, it doing the odd pocket of exercise here and there isn’t going to get us anywhere near the 75 minutes of vigorous exercise we all need to be doing every week. Until someone actively looks at why women aren’t able to commit to getting a sweat on a couple of times a week, that’s not going to change.

How to get more exercise into your week

In the meantime, there are ways of getting more micro-movement into your day.

Why not try a 5-minutes-a-day pilates challenge? There are plenty of quick-fire workouts on YouTube that are short (obviously), fairly manageable and offer plenty of health benefits compared to a sedentary lifestyle. They also come in handy on busy days. Maybe you want a quick pick-me-up before an important meeting, or you’ve got a 10-minute break between tasks. You don’t need any equipment either, so it’s really just a case of dropping down for a super-speedy core session. 

How about a wall-sit challenge, which also takes minutes, requires no equipment (bar a wall) and boasts serious core, glute and core activation? All you need is the will to stick with it for 30 days.

And if you want to get your heart-rate up to count towards those important 75 minutes, try this 10-minute full body workout. According to Adidas, while shorter sessions may not help you achieve your longer term fitness goals, they can still improve everything from your cardiometabolic health to your mental focus, and control your blood sugar levels.

Images: Getty

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