Change your mind to get fit


Over half of women are too embarrassed about their bodies to exercise outside, research shows

LOTS OF people find it difficult to summon up the willpower to exercise. But for many women, it’s not laziness but crippling self-consciousness that is holding them back. The mental health charity, Mind, recently released the results of a new survey which found that more than half of women feel too embarrassed about their bodies to exercise outside.

The charity claims that an extraordinary nine out of 10 women aged over 30 struggle with body confidence and poor self-esteem, leading many to take evasive measures, such as exercising in the dark, choosing locations where they aren’t likely to bump into someone they know, and hiding their bodies in loose, baggy clothes.

And the picture only gets more negative: 65 per cent of women think it’s unlikely they will be able to keep up in an exercise class, while more than half worry they will look silly in front of others, fretting about appearing unco-ordinated, sweaty or wobbly. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising then that so many women are more likely to opt out entirely, choosing to eat comfort food (71 per cent) or even simply go to bed (66 per cent), rather than exercise.

Such niggling fears and uncertainties are all too familiar to Mary Jennings, who runs the popular female-only outdoor exercise programme, Forget the Gym. “I often get inquiries from women asking if they are too overweight to start an exercise programme,” says Jennings. “Many women associate ‘slimness’ with ‘fitness’, and feel that by being overweight they cannot possibly keep up with the ‘slim girls’. Slimness does not necessarily equate to fitness. But adverts for fitness shoes and clothing all use slim, toned models, which in turn feeds this paranoia.”

Jennings also recognises the impulse to hide away. “Many great campaigns over recent years have encouraged people to become active, and women recognise the health benefits, but often they are worried about what friends and neighbours might think if they see them out running. They are afraid they run ‘funny’ or that they will get red-faced and out of breath. They feel that they don’t look like a ‘runner’.”

So where does this lack of belief in our own fitness ability come from? Many people were put off sport for life by unpleasant school physical education (PE) lessons. Some of us are still haunted by humiliating memories of trying to vault the horse in a pair of skimpy pants, the games mistress’s foghorn voice ringing in our ears.

Again, Jennings has heard it all before: “Many women, including myself, were not ‘sporty’ in school and this belief that they are no good at sport has stayed with them into adulthood.”

And it’s not just a historical problem: a new report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in the UK found that 51 per cent of girls are put off physical activity by their experiences of PE; 45 per cent think sport is too competitive, while over a third say their PE teacher only pays attention to pupils who are good at the activities. When it comes to school sport, it seems it’s a case of plus ça change.

Many female friends and acquaintances nodded with recognition when I showed them the results of the Mind survey; most of us can identify with at least some of the findings.

Arts community worker Ruth Graham says: “I’ve always been an erratic exerciser and this means that my feelings about exercise change all the time. I don’t really like running unless it’s for a bus or something – probably because of my wobbly bits and tendency to get very red and flustered. I prefer running on the spot in the house hoisting my bra straps up to keep myself intact.” Graham has an aversion to gym-based activities: “Apart from daily stretches and sit ups I’d rather do ‘purposeful’ exercise – walking, cycling, dancing, vigorous housework and so on.”

Yoga teacher Elizabeth Welty believes that the key to changing perceptions of exercise is to shift the emphasis from how it makes you look to how it makes you feel. “Being in your body and feeling it really changes the orientation towards beauty, and pulls us out of the head and into the enjoyable experience of movement and feeling healthy.”

Welty says that, like most women, she started exercising to be thin, with long punishing runs and gruelling gym sessions. After she discovered yoga, however, she found she preferred the classes with an emphasis on nurturing and fun.

“Here is the real beauty, whether I was a few pounds heavier or lighter. This form of exercise just made me feel so happy and good about myself, that people noticed the glow, the smile and the ease I felt in my own skin more than anything else. And actually I don’t care as much what people notice anyway, because I am more at peace with my body and myself.”

For more women to start enjoying exercise, whether outdoors or in, it seems it’s as much about overcoming hurdles in the mind – those deeply engrained feelings of shame, fear and disgust at not being perfect, at not being part of the idealised fitness aesthetic – as it is about physical fitness.