How women can boost motivation – and hold onto it

    Published: 02 November 2021. Written in by Louise Zecevic.

    Not meeting your exercise goals and motivation flagging? These common barriers can get in the way – here’s how to overcome them.

     The benefits of regular exercise are well-documented. Being inactive puts women at greater risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, mental health problems and some types of cancer. 

    That’s why the NHS recommends that every week, adults do at least 150 minutes of activity that raises your heart rate, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity that makes you breathe hard and fast.

     But research from the World Health Organization has found that almost half of British women are not doing enough exercise to reap the health rewards.

     So, what’s holding us back? Here, we look at the obstacles to exercise that can come into play throughout your lifetime, and the tools you can use to overcome them. 

    Periods

     Recent research from Manchester Metropolitan University found that while many UK women adapt their workouts during their period, 34% avoid exercise altogether. Bleeding, period pains and headaches were the biggest barriers, but women who avoided exercise altogether actually reported longer and heavier periods, and more fatigue and pain. 

    Listening to your body is key, says Dr Bella Smith, an NHS GP Partner from The Well HQ.

    ‘Track your cycle to predict how you’re going to feel on certain days,’ she advises. ‘That will empower you. Immediately after your period, your oestrogen starts to rise, and you may feel more confident and stronger. 

     ‘But in the days leading up to your period, if you feel sluggish, it might be better to do yoga instead of high-impact exercise.’

     Managing any cramps or headaches will also help. ‘You could take anti-inflammatories beforehand, so you’re on top of it,’ says Dr Smith. 

     Research also suggests that many women are held back from exercising during their period because they feel self-conscious. However, a new wave of period-friendly active clothing might help. For example, Modibodi leggings are absorbent, reusable, sustainable and leak-proof and could give your confidence a boost.

    Work

     A study by ukactive found that work was the biggest obstacle to being more active, with 20% of British adults citing this as a reason. 

     However, there are ways to build exercise into your working day. ‘Cycling, walking or running to work makes exercise feel less like yet another thing on your “to-do” list,’ says Dr Smith.

     ‘Find out if your workplace offers lunchtime yoga, a netball team, or a walking group. High-intensity exercise is just as good as a long run. And a six-minute power walk will give you endorphins naturally.’

    You could also ask your employer to help adapt your working environment. ‘Try “walking meetings”, or ask for a standing desk,’ says Dr Smith. ‘Seemingly small changes can set you up to do more and more.’

     In general, if you’re trying to be more active, you need to set up your environment for success. ‘If something isn’t easy, you’ll find an excuse not to do it,’ says Cleo Oldham, a health coach with a background in exercise science. 

     ‘Lay your workout clothes out the night before and stick a note on your bedroom door reminding yourself why this is important to you,’ she suggests.

     Keeping your goals achievable will also help you stay focused. ‘Think of the smallest possible step you can take – for example, taking a power walk up the stairs – and stick to it,’ says Oldham. ‘You can build up from there.’

    Family

     Lack of time and the demands of looking after children can mean that exercise drops down your list of priorities.

     ‘As women, we’re often our own worst enemy,’ says Dr Bella. ‘We need to fight back a bit. The care has to be shared with your partner. It’s important that there are strategies for sharing the load, whether that’s with a partner or arranging more flexible hours at work. Guilt is such a massive issue, and a huge barrier to being active.’

    ‘Women tend to put themselves last,’ agrees Odham. ‘But if you are healthy and enjoying the emotional benefits of activity, that’s going to have a positive effect on your family.’

     However, be kind to yourself when you do start exercising, and don’t be over-ambitious – embarking on an overly structured, demanding exercise regime will likely set you up for failure. ‘Heavily regimented programmes don’t work for busy women with jobs or kids,’ says Oldham. ‘Try to move away from an all-or-nothing mindset. It doesn’t have to take the form of a structured regime. Just moving your body for 10 minutes can be life-changing.’

     A study by the University of Cambridge found that women who did fun exercise with their children meant they were more likely to keep it up. Another big motivator was the opportunity to get outside and get some fresh air.

     ‘Playing chases in the park is great exercise, as short bursts of sprinting can be really beneficial,’ says Cleo. ‘There’s also Park Run for kids. It’s free, and you can do it together. If your kids do the “Daily Mile” at school, also do that together at the weekend. Teaching your kids by example is going to set them up for life and that can be hugely motivating.’

     ‘There’s a thing called the “mind-muscle connection”, where you visualise the muscle you’re working. That neurological connection between the brain and muscle enhances the movement. Try doing 10 squats and really focus on them. That can be very powerful. Use those moments in the day to increase your motivation,’ says Oldham.

    Menopause

     A report from Women in Sport found that just under a third of women do less physical activity during menopause, even though their desire to be active can be high.

     It’s not surprising that motivation takes a dip during this phase of life – 70% of women feel that their symptoms have a moderate-to-severe impact on their quality of life.

     ‘Exercise can be crucial to easing your symptoms,’ says  Dr Verity Biggs, an NHS and Private GP specialising in Women’s Health at H3 Health. ‘It’s important to do weight-bearing exercise to protect against bone thinning. That could be anything from running up and down the stairs to hoovering and dancing at the same time.’

     Exercise can also be a form of therapy, as it can help you meet other people in the same boat.

     ‘Lots of gyms offer classes tailored to menopausal women. Pilates and yoga are good for building strength,’ says Dr Verity.

    You can seek support to begin or adapt an exercise routine to your current needs and ability. Ninety percent of women say they’d consider physical activity if it was recommended by a healthcare professional.

    ‘Every group of NHS GP practices now has a health and wellbeing coach,’ says Dr Verity. ‘They’ll let you know what’s available locally and it’s free to access.’

     Another barrier to exercise at this stage of life can be leaking urine, due to a dip in oestrogen levels – which can feel embarrassing when you’re exercising. But there are ways to feel more confident again. ‘Your GP can prescribe vaginal oestrogen to help manage that symptom,’ says Dr Smith, while pelvic floor exercises may also help. 

    The main thing to remember is that exercise is important for women at every stage of life – and there’s nearly always a way to fit it in.

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