British women see sport as ‘unfeminine’

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More than 80% of UK women do not exercise enough to improve their health, found a study commissioned by a British charity for women’s sport. The crisis in women’s fitness levels will only get worse unless specific solutions are developed, it argues.

“There has been almost no change in the level of women’s physical activity in the UK for the past 20 years and the forecasts show that the situation is getting worse. We are facing a real crisis in women’s sport and fitness which will result in increasing obesity levels, physical and mental health issues and crime and social problems,” said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), as a study on women’s participation in sport was published on 15 November 2007.

The study, entitled ‘It’s time: Future forecasts for women’s participation in sport and exercise’, shows that only 19% of women are getting enough exercise to be healthy. This figure is even lower among 16-24 year olds as in this age group women are half as active as men. Social inequalities are also shown to be present as “the situation is worst for low income and black and ethnic minority women”.

The study argues that the most significant barriers to women being active are “concerns about body image and negative experiences of sport in schools”. More women are said to be under greater pressure to be thin than healthy, 25% of women said they “hate the way they look” when they play sport and 40% of girls do not want to be seen as “sporty”. 

“Sport is still seen by some women as unfeminine, and girls’ earliest experiences of sport are often off-putting,” said Tibballs. The key to increased participation, according to the research, is “to recognise that women take part in sport and exercise differently to men and consequently to develop solutions specifically for women.” 

The study was released at the Raising the Game: The Future for Women’s Sport conference on the same day. The conference brought together experts from both the commercial sports world and sports administration to consider why women’s sport in Britain remains under-represented. Topics discussed ranged from participation to sponsorship, athlete earnings and media coverage. 

Opening the conference, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the UK government was committed “to achieving a step change in how women and girls experience and participate in sport and exercise”. A UK government foresight report on obesity, published in October, warned that half of UK women could be obese by 2050.

The debate on how to get people to exercise and do more sports is gaining momentum elsewhere in the EU as well – together with the growing debate on obesity and the health risks linked to the condition later in life.

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