Could women's only gym nights be the key to getting women to move more?
From “just not feeling it” to "too busy, too tired", we all have our own excuses for not working out when we know we probably should. But while we may laugh off our own lack of motivation while reaching for another biscuit and resigning ourselves to a night in with Netflix, the truth is that our inactivity has far more long-lasting implications than simply being unable to squeeze into that party dress. In fact, it's thought to contribute to one in 10 deaths across the world annually.
And despite men having a lower life expectancy than women in almost every country, it's women's participation in sport and exercise that is consistently falling short. In the US, just 20 per cent of adults get their recommended weekly quota of exercise, with women falling far behind men in this respect. Across the pond, it's a similar story. Sport England, a public body sponsored by the British government and dedicated to increasing access to sport for all, estimates that two million fewer women regularly play sport or participate in exercise compared to men.
Behind this disparity is predominantly the “fear of judgement”, either because of “appearance, ability or how they chose to spend time on themselves.” Despite this, 75 per cent of women say they would like to be more active. So is there a solution? Some say there is, but not everyone's going to like it. The answer is women’s only gym sessions.
These sessions are part of a broader range of suggestions made by the team behind #ThisGirlCan, an initiative to get more women participating in sport on a regular basis in the UK. They stress that it's not women that need to change, but the attitudes of leisure providers towards the provisions available to women, telling them: “Change the offer to suit the women you are targeting - don’t expect women to change to fit sport and exercise.” This also extends to facilities, such as installing hairdryers or adding crèches for mothers.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that until recently, I thought the idea of women’s only gym nights was unnecessary and, if anything, slightly patronising. But as someone that already works out regularly, it didn’t occur to me that women might still feel uncomfortable, or even limited, in the gym environment. But then I joined a new gym, one that already has the scheme, and all of a sudden Tuesday became my favourite gym day of the week. Forget leg day, girl day is where it’s at.
That said, it’s the weights area where the difference is most immediately visible; throughout the rest of the week, the area is dominated by men while women stick to the cardio machines, but on girls’ night, the running machines empty out as women feel encouraged and capable of owning this ‘male zone.’ This shift isn’t insignificant either, with resistance training being hugely effective in promoting fat loss and particularly important in maintaining bone density.
But on an even more important level, it’s the sense of inclusion that prevails. The people in there are different, with women that you don’t see for the rest of the week coming in and to get their sweat on. Women come in with their friends and catch up while using the exercise bikes and it becomes as much as a social thing as a health thing, something that #ThisGirlCan have posited as especially important in encouraging women to be consistent when it comes to exercise. Given that "mom guilt" - the belief that they will be judged as neglecting maternal responsibilities - has been cited by women as one of the main reasons they do not make the time to engage in sport, to see and interact with other women doing this is both supportive and empowering.
And while I would never condone the idea that women should feel uncomfortable in front of men, if I'm honest, it's a lot easier not to feel self-conscious squatting low in front of another woman than a bloke you don't know. Because fact is, that women in gyms do face sexual harassment; as The Guardian pointed out: "In three years the Everyday Sexism Project has received a whopping 984 testimonies from women writing about their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault at the gym; 541 related to swimming pools." And that's only the ones that have taken the time to write in.
And this one, because it's just too bloody annoying:
It is also true that there is a disparity in the levels of participation in sport among communities and these nights can be even more important in counteracting the cultural challenges that traditional gyms can sometimes create. “Women-only sessions are particularly important to some communities and need to be delivered appropriately,” advises Sport England, citing the installation of shields to protect the pool and gym from view, and the presence of female staff to assist and fix machinery.
It’s not a coincidence that, for the most part, the majority of individuals who seem to take exception to the idea of women’s-only nights are men. One guy even got so incensed over the issue he tried to take his local council to court, describing the idea as being driven by a group of “male-averse feminists” and giving women their own space to work out as “like trying to clean a dirty face by rubbing a mirror”, whatever that even means.
But this is nothing to do with excluding men, and certainly nothing to do with being embarrassed to work out in front of men. Instead, it’s to do with creating safe spaces where women feel comfortable and confident, where they can put the emotional hangovers of school locker room jibes behind them and be free of their kids, and, even for just one hour a week, support and encourage each other, as mums and as women; saggy bits, flabby bits and all.