Opinion: there are many reasons why women participate less than men in sport and physical activity, but campaigns, initiatives and policies can change this situation

Despite the well-known benefits of physical activity, the majority of the population fail to meet current physical activity guidelines. Underlying this statistic is an even more worrying one: women in Ireland are less physically active and report lower levels of participation in both sport and physical activity than men.

The gender gap in physical activity and sports participation starts early. Researchers in the Millenium Cohort Study showed stark differences in the proportion of 7 to 8 year old boys (63 percent) and girls (38 percent) in Northern Ireland meeting recommended levels of physical activity. This gender difference in participation persists at every life stage right through to old age.

Why are girls and women less likely than their male counterparts to participate in sport and physical activity? Research has tried to address this question for more than two decades. Correlates of physical activity include individual, social and environmental - and possibly even genetic and evolutionary - factors that predispose people to be active or inactive.

On an individual level, the most frequently reported motives for participation by women include enjoyment, feeling "in good shape", health, weight control, appearance and social factors. Conversely, the main barriers to being active include a perception of "not being the sporty type" or low self-efficacy for being active (often as a result of past experiences), lack of time and cost.  An awareness of the motives and barriers for women’s participation has been the starting point for policies to increase participation.

Competitive and recreational sport is one source of physical activity. Only 25 percent of women participate in sport compared to 43 percent of men.  Although it is increasingly recognised that Interventions to increase physical activity are more likely to be successful if they target individual, social and environmental factors, many interventions have focused on the individual. This is done by providing information through mass media campaigns and messages targeting key groups.

The recent This Girl Can campaign by Sport England is one such example and was based upon research on why women don’t take part. The results suggested one main reason for women’s lack of participation in recreational and competitive sport: fear. Fear of being judged by others based on their appearance, fear about their ability to take part and fear of judgement for choosing to spend time on themselves rather than on their families.

Tackling this fear became the focus of the campaign. They used an innovative advertisement and a social media campaign showcasing real women of all ages, races, shapes and sizes enjoying a wide range of activities traditionally, and not traditionally associated with women.The campaign used slogans such as "I’m slow but I’m lapping everyone on the couch",  "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox",  "I kick balls, deal with it",  "I jiggle, therefore I am", "Hot and not bothered" and "I can give mud mask a new meaning" with the aim of empowering women, increasing their self-confidence and redressing gender stereotypes. Early evidence suggests the campaign is paying dividends with a modest narrowing of the gender gap in sports participation.

At a community level, initiatives such as Couch to 5K, Jog Belfast and Parkrun aim to develop self-efficacy for running by starting at a low-level progressing over time to regular jogging with local clubs and offering weekly opportunities to take part in timed five kilometre runs These initiatives address social support motives, build self-efficacy by starting at manageable volumes and intensities of exercise and provide low cost, time-efficient and safe opportunities to participate. These initiatives have shown some initial success with the proportion of women participating above 50 percent

In addition to sport, physical activity can be accumulated from work, home-based activity and through walking and cycling. Walking is a popular form of activity among women, with over 65 percent reporting walking for 10 minutes or more during the previous week. Given that adherence to new exercise regimes is poor, it may be more effective to increase the volume of existing activities than try to encourage the addition of new activities.

Walking has fewer of the physical, social and psychological barriers associated with more traditional forms of exercise. It is socially acceptable, accessible to the majority, low cost, low risk and has limited skill or equipment requirements. For inactive adults and most middle aged and older women, we have shown that walking for recreational purposes is also likely to be moderate intensity and so could contribute to meeting physical activity recommendations. 

For the long-term inactive, walking may also provide a stepping-stone into more vigorous exercise. Research by our group has demonstrated that by walking at a speed of just three miles per hour (20 minutes per mile), many women would achieve an exercise intensity that would not just meet the current guidelines but also improve physical fitness. A focus on such lifestyle physical activities may also be more cost-effective compared to more formal supervised gym based exercise. A review of what interventions work best concluded that pedometer based walking interventions - where individuals are given a step counter and set progressive goals to increase daily step - is one of the most effective ways of increasing activity.

Sport and physical activity do not take place in a vacuum and the gap in participation between men and women maybe a reflection in part of gender equality in our society. Sweden, Finland and Denmark are often cited as examples of countries with progressive approaches to gender equality in society and they report the highest levels of participation and smallest gender gap. The most recent Norsk Monitor revealed that the proportions of adult women participating in sport had almost doubled. Norway introduced gender quota regulations in 1987 that were enforced in boardroom roles in national sports federations.

This piece is part of a week-long series on Brainstorm on equality as part of RTÉ's Big Picture - A Woman's Place initiative which culminates in a documentary examining what it is to be a woman in Ireland in 2018 (RTÉ One, Thursday 9.35pm)

As Ken Green and fellow researchers explain in their paper on this, "the female parental role-model for children (and girls especially) in Norway is increasingly likely to be a (paid) working, sporty mother". Interventions to target individuals may be more successful when they are accompanied by policy and societal level approaches to sport and physical activity that result in more egalitarian gender and socio-economic related conditions

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ