‘Off on another run?’ a school mum asked breezily, her passive aggression barely masked behind her forced smile.
As usual, I was wearing my gym leggings on the school run. Partly because they’re so easy to throw on in the morning, but also because most weekdays, I work out.
Let me be clear: I exercise because I love it. Whether it’s a run, a strength session or an online class, mentally and physically, it fuels, calms and centres me. But lately I’ve found myself playing down my daily routine for fear of coming across as entitled and selfish.
I’ve lost count of the number of other women who tell me they ‘don’t have the time’ to exercise and how I’m ‘so lucky’ to be able to prioritise myself in this way.
They’ll often follow this with a complaint about how their partners spend their weekends playing golf, cycling with mates or training for a triathlon/iron man/ultra-marathon (delete as appropriate) while they are left resentfully drowning in chores and childcare like it’s the 1950s.
With new research from Nuffield Health showing that almost half of British women have done no ‘vigorous’ exercise in the last year, the gender exercise gap is real.
Many women cite a lack of motivation as a reason for not working out, and I accept that getting a sweat on isn’t for everyone.
What troubles me is the stark difference in activity levels between men and women. The percentages are much lower for men, with just over a third reporting they hadn’t exercised in the last year.
Across the board, the research shows that women are finding it harder to get started and maintain a fitness regime, whether this is due to lack of time (55% of women, compared to only 46% of men) or lack of motivation (66% of women, and 51% of men.)
These statistics make for depressing reading. I’ve always been an advocate of exercise as therapy for body and mind, and we’re aware of the many benefits of an active lifestyle. I don’t view physical exercise as a luxury.
So why is it that women seem to be less able to prioritise their physical health than men?
Of course, there can be financial barriers. Gym membership and childcare are ridiculously expensive, but fortunately all my children are now in full-time (free) education, and I haven’t been a member of a gym since 2005.
But it feels like there’s more to it than this. Us women are notoriously bad at putting ourselves first. Last week, I was chatting with one of my oldest friends over dinner.
As she bemoaned her husband’s latest fishing trip, she was close to tears. She told me how awful she’d been feeling lately, while her husband takes off with his mates for a golfing weekend at the drop of a hat.
I gently asked if she’s told her husband how she feels and was relieved to hear that they have spoken about it, but I have plenty of friends who seethe silently each time their partner merrily slams the front door on his way out, blissfully ignorant.
Luckily, my husband and I have a very different set-up. Despite having three children, a career and a dog, I’ve always carved out time for exercise. When my youngest child was two, I trained for the Brighton marathon along with two fellow NCT dads.
However, there was one crucial difference between us: I’d asked my husband’s permission before I entered.
I’d had a frank conversation with him before I signed up to the event, setting out exactly what it would mean for our family life for the five months I trained for. It amounted to around five hours each Sunday, for six weeks. That was enough for me to feel I had to consult him, something that never crossed the minds of the dads I was training with.
I wouldn’t expect my husband to ask permission to go out golfing or running, but I certainly feel it’s courteous to check in with your spouse before disappearing for eight hours – and I know my husband feels the same. For me, this has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with being considerate of each other’s needs.
My husband and I have always been upfront and honest with each other. As we’ve got older, I’m even more inclined to speak my mind, as I’ve learned that it’s far better to talk things through in the moment, than wait until one of you is at boiling point – this will always end in an argument.
I wonder if ‘I don’t have time’ is an easy excuse to trot out, because it’s so much more socially acceptable than saying, ‘Actually, I’d rather sit on my bum and eat cake, I hate exercise’?
If that’s the case, then great! You do you. But let’s not place the blame elsewhere. Let’s start taking responsibility for how our own lives are panning out.
Perhaps it’s just going to require some give and take, but to get the ball rolling, we need to step away from martyring ourselves and be clear and open about our feelings.
It’s boring and predictable to attribute gender for feeling bad about ourselves and not taking the time to do something we all need and (some of us) enjoy.
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