Whilst the medical impacts of coronavirus have disproportionately affected men, the impact on women in many areas of life has been greater. Overall anxiety levels have increased more significantly amongst women and six in ten women reported finding it harder to stay positive on a day to day basis compared to less than half of men. The biggest impact observed by Women in Sport was amongst mothers and women over 70.
Impact on Mothers
Mothers were 50% more likely to be interrupted than fathers even when the mother earned more, the starkest divide, however, was amongst women who earned less than £20,000. Furthermore, childcare was known to be a barrier to engagement in sport and physical activity under normal circumstances and this has been exacerbated through lockdown. During the pandemic, the loss of support from wider family members (due to social distancing and older relatives and those with certain health conditions having to shield themselves) as well as the uncertainty around the return to school has left mums with even less time to prioritise themselves and activities such as exercise. It is unsurprising therefore to see that anxiety levels have risen amongst mothers as a consequence of the additional responsibilities that many have taken on.
Impact on Women in Later Life
Meanwhile, older women (70+ year olds) highlighted the impact that lack of activity during lockdown would have on their long term health. Considering women have a shorter ‘healthy’ life expectancy this is particularly concerning. Moreover, the media has played a powerful role in the narrative around the risk to older adults which has resulted in many older adults being hesitant to go outside. For many older women exercise is driven by the social element and with the restrictions, this is further limiting their desire to engage with physical activity.
Impact on Physical Activity
In light of the government naming physical activity as one of the five legitimate reasons people could go out in the height of lockdown its importance was emphasised. The elevation of sport and physical activity as an essential part of daily life particularly resonated with women with 46% saying that it has become more of a priority in their life whilst 61% said they will put more effort into being fit and active after lockdown.
The shift to homeworking and the ability to work in sportswear has enabled women to shift easily from work to activity which, coupled with the accessibility and lack of timetabling for activities such as walking, cycling and online classes, has worked well. Moreover, the reduction in commuting and greater flexibility within the day has enabled physical activity to be integrated into daily lives with greater ease. Furthermore, for those who have been furloughed, the slower pace of life has enabled them to focus more on themselves and their family. It is however important to note that for women with childcare responsibilities, the lack of a separate workspace has meant that it has been harder to find child-free time.
Challenges and Opportunities
Whilst the gender inactivity gap has been in decline, in Greater Manchester it has fallen from a 3.1% gap to a 2.5% gap, in lockdown the gap appears to be widening once more. There is now a 10% gap in men and women achieving the recommended 150 minutes a week of activity (38% v. 28%). This research has highlighted that nearly four in ten women are concerned that they would find it hard to get back into the habit of being physically active. This was of particular concern to mothers due to limited free time as a result of limited alternative childcare provision during lockdown. There has also been an amplification of gender stereotypical behaviour, thus women have disproportionately taken on childcare and familial responsibilities during this time. In fact 32% of women couldn’t prioritise exercise as they had too much to do for others, consequently, the time available for women to prioritise themselves and their wellbeing is minimal. Meanwhile, for older women the challenge appears to lie with the difficulty in regaining fitness, this, coupled with the increased isolation and the media, is liable to have lowered moods and consequently reduced positive energy.
A key challenge as we begin to emerge from lockdown is the activities women can partake in. Prior to lockdown the most popular activities for women were exercise and fitness classes, swimming, and gym-based classes. One in five women attended exercise classes and they accounted for eight in ten participants for these classes. They also benefited from being affordable and available in urban areas, however, as they are typically indoor activities they are the slowest to reopen and with heightened anxiety amongst women this is liable to act as an additional barrier.
The stress in lockdown has led to 58% of women eating more than usual and 30% increasing their alcohol consumption. When coupled with lower activity levels it is likely that weight gain and reduced fitness will occur, both of which are linked to declining self-confidence, body image perceptions and self-esteem. These all act as barriers to women taking part in physical activity thus perpetuating issues with obesity and poor health, both of which are related to increased risks of contracting the virus. This emphasises the need to support women to become active once more.
Reshaping Physical Activity
Lockdown has resulted in the loss of a number of important influences on women’s participation, in particular a sense of belonging, togetherness and the ability to reflect on achievements. Women who were active before lockdown and took part in organised activities were less satisfied with their options in lockdown as they could not replace what they previously had.
Women highlighted that they also struggled to achieve the same intensity of activity as they did prior to lockdown. With the restrictions on activity choice, taking part has been less enjoyable and the motivation has been harder to maintain. Whilst many online classes have been available, they haven’t held the same benefits due the lack of feedback or connection to other participants.
Togetherness was highlighted as one of the challenges of being active at this time so it is important that this is leveraged post lockdown as a motivating factor for getting women of all ages active. This is of particular importance for older women who are often more vulnerable and for whom the social aspect of physical activity is often a key driver in their participation. Also, the opportunity to be physically active as part of a group often opens up more spaces for these women due to the sense of safety they find from being part of a group.
Embedding progression and realistic goals was highlighted as a key tool in sustaining motivation and, therefore, ensuring regular participation. This was particularly true for those starting a new activity due to the effort and commitment required in the early stages. In addition to this, less active women have seen and felt the benefits of regular activity as such capitalising on the ‘feel good’ factor this has created as well as nurturing the good habits that have developed can help sustain activity.
The situation has also resulted in a shift in values and a new appreciation for health, freedoms and social connection. Seven key factors have been highlighted in this shift: