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Breaking the mental stigma over women’s exercise choices

women-on-mountain

Recently, it’s been announced that GPs in England are looking to prescribe “non-judgemental” exercise classes to women both as a mental and physical salve for a multitude of issues. Now, we all know that exercise is something that we could all be doing more of. 

 

Especially for women, the stigma that comes around playing sports, often built during teenage years, extends out into the rest of our adult lives. If girls are put off exercising or sport in general, the chances of them picking it back up later in life is seemingly slim at best. This often leads to increased health problems in the future, both physical and mental, and a further gulf in the sporting gap between genders.

The interesting part of this new report is the phrase “non-judgemental” exercise classes.

 

Exercise classes themselves are normally group workouts like barbell classes, yoga, zumba, pilates, spin, ab-specific sessions – individual’s working out separately in a non-competitive environment with a load of supposedly like-minded people.

 

The existence of “non-judgemental” exercise classes suggests that there are some “judgemental” exercise classes that women might decide to take. This is the problem here. The stigma around women working out runs so deep that it’s necessary to make this distinction. What they mean when they say “non-judgemental” normally means either low-impact that doesn’t cause excess jiggling, or a non-competitive atmosphere wherein women don’t feel like they should be better than they are – that turning up and working out and having fun is enough. 

 

That’s fine. Really if you’re going to make a habit out of consistent exercise, you want to enjoy it and have fun doing it. It doesn’t have to be intense and make you feel uncomfortable, it can be stretching or going to a spin class with a very upbeat, friendly instructor. However, the issue comes from the belief and perceptions that we as women have about sports and what others think about us if we participate in certain types of movement.

 

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There’s a list as long as my arm of the women I know who have had bad experiences in gym environments.

 

From sly looks to snide comments to being outright filmed doing squats. No wonder women don’t want to work out when the most socially acceptable places to work out feel like a breeding ground for misogyny and judgement on our physical appearance.

 

Again, the amount of times women I know, including myself, have spoken to people – men and women alike – about the supposedly “masculine” sports teams we used to be in when we were younger to shocked, borderline comical reactions. These instances aren’t isolated, it’s ingrained into a collective societal belief of what we think it is to be inherently feminine or masculine and when we subvert these beliefs the reactions from our peers aren’t always the kindest.

 

And the thing is, that over time and with reinforcement, those sporty girls start to doubt what they’re doing. They question these beliefs about games and exercise styles that they actively love doing due to peer pressure. Especially when this is done through formative years when we’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing with our lives and who we want to be, this can have a huge impact on our core belief systems and consequently, our mental health.

 

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Our beliefs are a fundamental part of who we are.

In some instances we’d use our core beliefs to describe our entire identity – think about people’s Twitter and Instagram bios for instance. These core beliefs once built and ingrained in our brain are very difficult to unpick – the two main ways of doing so being either something massively shocking that turns everything you believe to be true upside down, or repeated action or experiences that prove your belief to be wrong. This process of understanding and altering your negative beliefs is a fundamental part of mental health solutions like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and web-apps like behavioural-science informed, Leafyard, and are used throughout the world with relatively high success. 

 

If at a young age we’re told for instance that rugby is for boys by a teacher – an authority figure – we’d probably take that at face value and believe it. As we grow up seeing only men play rugby on TV, that belief gets a bit stronger. If in high school, girls aren’t even taught the fundamentals of the sport based on their gender, then the belief would strengthen even further. At this point you believe that women don’t really play rugby and even if they did, you couldn’t because no one has ever shown you how to play safely.

 

As teenagers the beliefs and experiences surrounding them might look a little different. My friends now want to hang out at the shops rather than play football at the park. The boys I like only seem to go for pretty girls, not girls with scraped knees from playing hockey. The girls don’t want to go swimming every week anymore because they don’t want other people to know when they’re on their period. 

 

As we get older, our beliefs start to solidify, after all the more experiences we have the more intel our brain has to either substantiate the claim or disprove it. Unfortunately, if it’s a negative or limiting belief to start with like “women shouldn’t play competitive sports, it’s not feminine or attractive” or “women shouldn’t lift weights, it’ll make them bulky”, this reinforcement just stops people from engaging in healthy behaviours and actions. 

 

This in turn then creates a damaging society-wide stigma about gender roles and behaviours, that although affect women disproportionately, is also to the detriment of men and boys. If a boy wants to be a dancer or a gymnast or even try netball, there is still a large stigma that exists around following those pursuits. The fact that dancers and gymnasts are often as strong, athletic and as fast as boxers doesn’t quite fit into the narrative.

 

When we allow these limiting beliefs around exercise and sport to exist, we’re setting ourselves up to fail as adults.

 

Many adult females do not continue sports after leaving school. This combined with stigmas around appearance, sexualisation and social media pressures leads to an unbalanced, unhealthy lifestyle, which often manifests with a poor relationship with nutrition, exercise, self-worth and mental health concerns.

What the GPs are trying to do with the prescribing of “non-judgemental” exercise classes is not a bad thing by any stretch, and their hearts are in the right places. We all need to do more exercise. We need safe spaces where women feel comfortable to exercise. We need to give women the opportunity to unpick those negative beliefs that they have with exercise and sport through positive experiences. If we can do that we’ll not only have a healthier population with less strain on the NHS, we’ll have a mentally happier one too.