Comment and opinion
Exercise - what the government needs to do next
(6 August 2020)
Daily exercise rules got many people moving during lockdown. Dr Sarah Metcalfe is calling on the government to ensure this positive change continues.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has been difficult for people in different ways. But for a lot of people what has kept them going has been their daily exercise.
Whether it’s a bike ride, a run around the park or a daily walk, many have seen lockdown as an opportunity to get active. And the explosion of TikTok, Zoom, Houseparty and other online platforms has also meant many of us have had easy access to a wide variety of exercise classes.
In a sense this is something that has also been encouraged by the government. Indeed, at the start of lockdown restrictions in the UK, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government constantly emphasised the importance of “daily exercise” – described as “one journey outside for up to one hour”.
Given that research has shown that men and boys are more likely, across all age groups, to participate in physical activity, our recent online survey aimed to discover how girls and young women, aged between ten and 20 years of age, have been keeping active during this time. We discovered that 40% of the 509 girls surveyed had increased their levels of physical activity during lockdown.
‘It keeps me sane’
Many girls in our survey said they have taken up new activities – such as walking, running, cycling and online social media workouts – since the start of lockdown. And we found that the 40% of girls who had increased their physical activity tended to be the least active before the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed.
Engaging with physical activity during lockdown was commonly associated with positive mental health benefits, as the girls in the survey highlighted. One 16 year-old told us how:
The results of my daily exercise are becoming apparent now, which is positive for me… I feel better about my body.
Meanwhile an 18 year-old said:
Being active gives me a chance to clear my head and relieves some of my anxiety.
The girls shared the sentiment that exercise was helping them through this difficult time, as one 15 year-old explained:
My daily exercise is an opportunity to leave my house for an hour … forget the harsh reality of the world. It definitely makes me happy and is keeping me sane.
These girls have experienced, some for the first time, the benefits of being active. And this experience has the potential to be transformative in terms of how these girls relate to their bodies’.
Less active girls will have previously received health messages from school, parents and social media about the importance of staying active, but it’s only now they have lived a more active life, that the benefits of exercise is understood.
As the experiences of the girls in our study show, lockdown has offered positive benefits for many in terms of being outdoors, active, and healthy. Indeed, a recent survey by the charity Women in Sport, has also shown that government messaging was a key factor for adult women becoming more active during lockdown.
This is why we’ve written an open letter to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, calling on the government to reintroduce coherent messaging about the importance of daily exercise.
This is important, because for the girls that took part in our survey, the government’s messaging about daily exercise was explicitly listed as a motivational reason for their increased physical activity, as this 18 year-old explained:
The government’s rules encourage me to complete an hour of exercise each day. I love being active as it makes lockdown a bit easier.
This was echoed by many of the girls in our survey, including this 16 year-old:
The fact that the government said we could exercise once a day actually encouraged me to exercise… [the government] made me feel that I should exercise because they restricted so much activity but left [exercise] available which made me realise how important it was.
The health benefits of being active are, of course, well known. It can lead to weight loss, lower blood pressure, improved metabolism and better heart health. Physical activity can also reduce anxiety and depression, increase endorphin release – the happy hormones – and reduce overall stress.
Yet, in the UK, the most recent Sport England Active Lives Survey shows that, despite increasing numbers of people being active, only 63% of adults do 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. For children, only 47% are meeting the recommended level of physical activity and 29% are failing to achieve 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
Despite successful initiatives such as This Girl Can, it seems women are more difficult to convince of the importance of being active than men.
But as the result of our survey show, lockdown has, for many girls and women, been an opportunity to take up daily exercise. And this is something that must be encouraged long after lockdown restrictions are lifted.
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