On Saturday, I did my local parkrun. For the unfamiliar, that means I walked to my local park and ran around it for 5km with about 100 other people, cheered on by volunteers who were cheering for nothing and who had set it up for nothing.
I should have been delighted: this was my first run since I got Covid two weeks ago. The sun was shining, the park at Potternewton in Leeds is beautiful. Instead, I watched a lithe and fit-looking woman running in front of me and thought: “I’d like to run like her.” And then corrected myself. No, I’d like to run like me. The fitter, faster version of me from 2019, when I got personal bests in every race I did and was at peak health.
Throughout lockdowns I did not waver: living room HIIT workouts, regular running and yoga. Then this year I got four months of long Covid, a month of health and another bout of Covid. My metrics on Strava are going down, not up.
Mentioning races and personal bests are two clues that I am not the majority. Half of women in the UK have done no vigorous exercise in the past 12 months, according to a survey of 8,000 people by the Healthier Nation Index. That is no vigorous exercise, no half-hearted moving: just nothing.
One in three women said their fitness had declined over the past 12 months; that when the gyms shut, so did their motivation, and it hasn’t come back. The NHS would like adults to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (that includes walking, cycling, inline skating and pushing a lawnmower) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (where you can’t say a few words without pausing for breath). It also wants us to do two weight-bearing sessions a week. Add this to all the endless head-scratching and hectoring about food and drink (butter good; butter bad. Red wine healthy; red wine lethal), and I can sympathise with the 47% of women surveyed who found it easier to give up exercising altogether.
That may not be the true picture. Sport England’s annual Active Lives Survey, last released in November 2021, surveyed nearly 100,000 women and found that 59% did 150 minutes of exercise a week. Only 27.9% were inactive. It’s likely that many women exercise informally – running around after children, doing the lion’s share of housework and care work, as was definitely the case during the pandemic. But current rates of obesity – which have risen from 6% of men and 9% of women in 1980 to 27%-29% now – suggest otherwise.
What is the answer? There isn’t a single solution. Here are the usual: join a club or organise to exercise with a friend or two. I would not get half the enjoyment I do out of fell running without my fell running clubmates and friends. Find a sport you enjoy and you will make time for it. Busy people will balk at making time, so the answer is to use the time you’re already using. Even five minutes a day of exercise that raises the heart rate is good for you: those hackneyed messages about getting off a bus stop earlier, or taking the stairs, are old but good.
Cycling to work instead of sitting in a car or a bus, of course, is a great idea, and you need to get there anyway. But that only works if cyclists feel safe. In Leeds, where I live, my regular cycle route involves at least two near-misses with idiot drivers who cut me up, though I wear so much hi-vis and have so many lights a woman once wound down her window at me on a dark winter’s night and said: “What are you, a Christmas tree?” I look wistfully at cycle lanes in the Netherlands that are extensive and separate from the road. But investment in cycling is still pitiful (Leeds’ network of dedicated cycle paths has improved, but it was a low bar).
What else? Inspiration. But how are women meant to get inspiration when newspaper sports pages still, largely, think they are invisible? Men have had a Tour de France for 119 years. Women were allowed one for five years in the 1980s, and only allowed one again this year (it started on Sunday). At the opening game of Women’s Euro 2022 at Old Trafford, the sight of thousands of young girls in the stands was far more invigorating than the match.
Finally, trickery. I know what it feels like to lose your fitness and feel out of shape, and how that can seem like an obstacle rather than a challenge. So trick your brain in small ways: I have trained mine to think it’s weird not to do single leg squats when I clean my teeth. I get up from my desk at 45-minute intervals to do squats. Sports strategists talk of marginal gains, which could be anything from changing mealtimes to an afternoon nap. A toothbrushing squat may not seem like much, but marginal gains add up to major ones. You may be starting small but small is better than the sofa.
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