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Getting women more active

The stats show women are less active than men and more likely to drop out of sport. Kath Hudson asks industry leaders what the sports sector could do to encourage women to become more active

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 2

If we do Parkrun as a family, my husband shoots off into the distance as soon as the whistle sounds, leaving me to coax the children round. While my exercise is limited to blocks of 20-30 minutes, between work and childcare, he exercises instead of doing childcare.

I’m one of the lucky ones: there are many women living in the UK whose husbands, or cultures, stop them from exercising altogether. I also know he’d swap if I asked – he just doesn’t think of it first. This is very important because, according to the team behind I Will if You Will – the Bury Council-led initiative aimed at women – I’m not alone in this. In fact, this is one of the common barriers to many women being active: mothers are conditioned to put their children first. If childcare options or family activities aren’t available, they don’t exercise.

There was a general consensus among the women I spoke to that there needs to be a cultural shift, whereby husbands and partners are supportive of women exercising.

Equally however, the industry can also help make it easier for women. Allowing mothers to bring babies into studio classes or poolside would be helpful, as would running sessions the whole family can join; offering childcare; or putting on an adult class or swimming session that coincides with a kids’ activity.

There’s a refreshing level of energy around the bid to get women active. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign looks set to be a gamechanger, partnering with a range of women’s brands from outside the industry. I Will if You Will – the inspiration behind This Girl Can – is a project which encourages women to support each other to become active and helped 7,500 women to become active. Now in phase two, it wants to take this further, working with more clubs.

Is your sports club welcoming to women? Do you provide women-only teams or activity sessions? Are your sessions at convenient times? What else could you be doing?

Tanni Grey-Thompson,

Former Paralympian, parliamentarian,

TV presenter & ukactive chair

Tanni Grey-Thompson
Tanni Grey-Thompson

We need a cultural shift in how both sexes view women’s exercise. Time is a major barrier to many women being active: they can feel too caught up juggling work, family and other responsibilities. We need a public messaging campaign about the importance of women finding time for themselves, and men also need to support women in this. Anything sport and health clubs can do to facilitate this would help – for example, providing childcare so that mums with young children can exercise, running gym sessions and classes where they can bring their children, and organising activities that are suitable for all the family.

Many girls drop out of physical activity during their teenage years, but sports clubs and other operators could reach out to them with teenage sessions, classes and outreach programmes. I’d like to see more innovation from the industry.

Marketing is crucial. I’m a big fan of This Girl Can, because it reflects what people really look like when they exercise. I’d like to see more of this sort of imagery, not the size zero model in lycra doing yoga. Finally, I’d like to see clothing companies making more flattering sports clothes in larger sizes.

Jennie Price,


Sport England

Jennie Price
Jennie Price

From our insight work, we’ve learned that many women feel judged at sports clubs. They feel they don’t belong because they’re the wrong size or not wearing the right clothes. We want to make sure clubs place this insight at the heart of their offering.

The easiest and most powerful thing any club can do to become more female-friendly is to ask women who aren’t currently using their facilities what they want. Reach out to former members, the local WI, NCT or colleges and find out why women aren’t coming to your club.

There’s a sharp drop-off in activity during teenage years, which is partly due to interests changing during puberty, but also because at this age sports clubs start focusing on talent; the average ones get left behind. Health clubs and sports clubs need to think about what they’re offering these girls and give the opportunity for teenagers to dip in and out of a range of activities. Unless they’re especially talented, teenagers don’t want to do a single sport. The activities that are growing are those where the user is in control, such as running and cycling. People also want to be casual, so all clubs need to react to that, offering the opportunity to be spontaneous.

Jackie Veal,

Operational lead,

I Will if You Will

Jackie Veal
Jackie Veal

Talking to women through social media has enabled us to understand what women want and helped us reach out and understand the barriers they face.

In terms of what operators can do to appeal to women, programming is very important. Women are time-poor, so they want things like a 20-minute class at lunchtime, or just before or after work. Timetabling is crucial: classes must be run at a convenient time. A more relaxed and supportive approach to bringing children along is also needed. Many women are intimidated by gyms because they think they’ll be full of people who look like the women in the adverts. We didn’t use any stock images for I Will if You Will: using local women in our publicity encouraged more people to give it a go.

There are also a lot of important considerations when it comes to facility design and changing room provision. We’ve worked hard with our studio team and deliverers to ensure we offer an encouraging environment at all times, reinforcing the positive messages of I Will if You Will. Providing screens for women-only sessions gives some females more confidence, and offering female-only sessions – such as swimming lessons – gives them confidence to start swimming on their own.

Jim Graham,


The Gym Group

Jim Graham
Jim Graham

It’s to the benefit of our industry to have more women as members. An even gender mix creates a better vibe and the sexes use gyms differently, driving better use of space and equipment.

Our research shows females can struggle with the idea of a gym membership. They often perceive gyms to be intimidating places that are not for them, or that sport generally isn’t their thing. Our member base is currently 40 per cent female and we’re working hard to increase this through our environment – a gender-neutral, light, airy and non-threatening space – and by offering more of what our female members want, such as functional training and group exercise.

We partnered Sport England for an open weekend aimed at women in May, showing prospects that our gyms are places they can see themselves spending time in. Working out with friends is a great way of motivating repeat exercise behaviour, so we’re encouraging people to come with a friend. Role models are also key to getting people active, and we think female sporting role models are not yet celebrated to the extent of males. To this end, we’re sponsoring the Sporting Role Model award at the Women’s Sports Trust’s inaugural Be A Game Changer Awards.”

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