GPs are set to prescribe fitness classes for women, but is exercise really the best medicine?

    Women during exercise class yoga on mat
    Published: 30 December 2021. Written by: Lauren Clark.

    A doctor explains the benefits of working out, plus when to hold back if you’re feeling under the weather and not up for exercising.

    While being active can only be seen as a positive and healthy lifestyle choice, women’s relationship with exercise has come under scrutiny recently. While lockdowns have forced us to choose between working out in the living room or becoming a Covid-19 couch potato, it was revealed in early 2021 that the pandemic has widened another gap: that between the genders and their activity levels.

    Indeed, research by non-profit organisation UK Active found that successive lockdowns, which saw the closure of gyms and leisure centres and mums shouldering much of the burden of home-schooling, meant that their ability and time to factor in regular exercise was significantly squeezed. Research backed by both the ONS and Vitality’s Healthy Hybrid Working, A Blueprint for Business report, which states that ​​42.8% of mothers working from home reported losing productivity versus 33.8% of fathers.  

    There has also been a focus on female safety while training outdoors, as epitomised by the recent viral hit, Greater Manchester’s #IsThisOk campaign, which shows a woman being harassed by men while out jogging.

    So what’s the cure for this gender imbalance in fitness? Your GP. While the term ‘prescription’ usually brings to mind medication in the form of drugs, doctors will increasingly start to prescribe classes to female patients, to help with conditions such as diabetes, obesity and depression. 

    What’s more, for those who feel daunted by the prospect of being referred to an intimidating HIIT workout at a fancy studio or male-dominated, strength-based sessions at their local gym, there will be dedicated ‘judgement-free’, female-only classes run by Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign. 

    It’s reported that lower-impact training, such as boxing, dancing and yoga, will be on the cards – and the focus won’t, refreshingly, be on weight loss but building good health. ‘GPs encouraging patients to do this can only be a good thing,’ says Dr Katie Tryon, Director of Clinical Vitality at Vitality. ‘If anyone knows the sensitivities around when people can and cannot exercise, it’s their doctor.’ 

    two women laughing whilst in an exercise class

    Why do women feel intimidated by exercise?

    In the years before the pandemic, increasing numbers of women were being enticed into fitness. Indeed, the This Girl Can campaign, which focuses on quashing body image and competency worries, has drawn millions into regular physical activity since it launched in 2015. However, there’s still much work to be done in ensuring women feel comfortable: research commissioned by Sport England found that more than half experienced worries about what others might think, which sometimes prevented them from exercising. 

    There are many reasons why women’s mental health can leave them feeling discouraged about lacing up their trainers. ‘Some might feel intimidated about joining exercise classes, because they think they aren’t already fit enough, or don’t have the right abilities,’ says Dr Verity Biggs, a GP specialising in women’s health at H3 Health. This is common at any age – few will forget the anxiety-inducing bleep test during PE lessons at school. ‘But it can worsen as we get older, as our confidence and self-esteem tend to decline,’ she explains. 

    There’s also the fact that some women may feel self-conscious about how they look. Indeed, we naturally gain weight with age – approximately one to two pounds every year – which research has found is due to lipid turnover in the fat tissue slowly decreasing. ‘Generally, you exercise in kit that’s more tight fitting than everyday clothes, and a changing body shape can have a negative impact on our confidence,’ explains Dr Nicky Keay, a medical doctor specialising in sport and dance endocrinology. ‘In addition, a fall in hormones around the perimenopause and menopause can affect our workout performance.’ This includes decreasing strength and motivation to move. 

    Young black woman working out at home

    Why is keeping fit so important? 

    Women’s take-up of fitness matters because it’s vital for their physical and mental health, not only improving symptoms of certain conditions, but also warding off future illness. ‘Exercise supports all systems of the body to function well, including the endocrine, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, immune and nervous systems,’ notes Dr Keay. ‘In this way, working out is a form of preventive medicine and improves overall wellbeing.’ More specifically, Dr Biggs notes that it helps lower the risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. ‘It’s also important for bone health in women across all ages,’ she adds. ‘In younger women, it’s about promoting maximum bone strength, while later in life it’s to prevent bone density loss. Then there are the psychological benefits. It’s well-known that exercise triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins and serotonin

    ‘Even if exercise feels like hard work at first, it will get easier and the release of happy chemicals will help you feel better after,’ explains Dr Biggs, who describes a workout as any activity that increases your heart rate. ‘This could be brisk walking or dancing in your kitchen – it doesn’t matter how you do it.’

    But before you head out for a solo run or log in to an online barre class at home, don’t forget the benefits of group exercise, as This Girl Can promotes. ‘It can be fun,’ adds Dr Biggs. ‘You get to socialise with like-minded people and have a laugh, and you’ll quite often realise that everyone makes mistakes.’ As well as being an opportunity to get together with friends, it’s also a brilliant way to meet new people. In fact, it’s apt that ‘health’ is defined by the World Health Organisation as positive wellbeing across physical, mental and social health.

    Older women during an exercise class holding weights

    When should you hold off being active?

    It’s clear that regular exercise is good for you on so many levels. But there are occasions when it may be better to take it easy, not least in winter, when many of us are battling a variety of bugs and viruses. ‘If you’re unwell, it’s important to listen to your body,’ insists Dr Biggs. ‘You can exercise if you feel up to it, but you should rest if you feel you need to. For example, you still might be able to exercise as normal if you have a mild cold. But, with a chest or sinus infection, you might be quite unwell and your breathing can be affected, so it’s advisable to rest until you’re recovered, or your symptoms have eased.’ If you’re unsure, speak to your GP.

    Dr Keay agrees, also noting that exercising when you’re poorly could delay your recovery. ‘It puts extra stress on the body,’ she explains. ‘The same applies if you’re very tired: better to have a rest and exercise the next day.’ Because then you’ll be better able to reap all those aforementioned benefits of getting fit. Remember: you really can do it. 

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