Nearly one third of Canadian women don’t get enough physical activity — worse than men

The U Sports women's basketball final in 2018. A new study says that women are less likely to get enough exercise than men. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell

Nearly one third of Canadian women aren’t getting enough physical activity, according to a new report, but Canadian men are faring a little better.

The report, produced by researchers from the World Health Organization and published in the journal Lancet Global Health, looked at physical activity information from 168 countries around the world and found that in most areas, women are more likely than men to not get enough exercise.

Canada fits the trend, with 31.4 per cent of Canadian women having insufficient physical activity, compared with 25.7 per cent of Canadian men. The study defined “insufficient physical activity” as under 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, or any equivalent combination of the two.

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Becky Spencer, an instructor at Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance, said she’s not surprised to hear this.

Worldwide, there was about an eight per cent difference between women and men not getting enough physical activity in 2016. The gap is growing too – in 2001, it was six per cent.

In some countries, like Barbados, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the difference was more than 20 per cent in 2016.

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Spencer believes that the gender gap in Canada has to do with historical attitudes towards women. “Traditionally and historically, particularly in our Western North American culture, we have been as women, not really treated terrifically. There are a lot of pressures that women face.”

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“And as a result of historical objectification, sexualization, being treated as ‘less than,’ those things play out in our everyday actions.”

Women are expected to be thin, but not too thin, and athletic, but not muscular or a tomboy, she said. And while they’re presented with unrealistic body images in the media, they’re also subjected to ads for unhealthy foods. And the professional athletes they see on TV are usually men. “That’s a lot to navigate for women,” Spencer said.

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“So, we’re constantly thinking, should I be active? Should I not be active? Is this a place where it’s safe for me to be active? Will I be objectified if I engage in this activity?”

There are practical reasons, too. The WHO study took into account physical activity in the workplace — where men might have more physically-demanding jobs. However, the report notes, “Previous research indicates that women tend to do less leisure-time activity, and lower-intensity activity than do men.”

“Offering more opportunities for safe and accessible leisure-time activity to women in order to increase their overall levels of activity would therefore help close the gender gap,” the report’s authors wrote.

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“Spaces are not set up for women,” Spencer said. “The places where physical activity is encouraged and supported tend to be spaces that are just intended for men and dominated by men. Some women are just not comfortable in that environment.”

Hockey rinks, for instance, often dedicate more space for male dressing rooms than female, she said.

Women also just might not have enough time to exercise. In a stereotypical family, she said, women are expected to take care of the kids and manage the household. This might not leave much time to hit the gym after work. “I have to go feed children. I have to go pick up people from soccer practice. Those things can get in the way.”

Spencer is hopeful that things can change for women to be more able to engage in physical activity.

“I think what we definitely need to do is stop blaming women for not being active.”

“To stop connecting health and physical activity and nutrition to our morality, to how good a person we are. And instead create systems and environments that support women to do things that are healthy.”

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