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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 09-Aug-19 16:16:16

Guest post: “Six in 10 mothers feel guilty taking time to exercise”

In this guest post, Lisa O’Keefe, Director of Insight at Sport England, talks about how the #ThisGirlCan campaign is encouraging mothers to prioritise getting active

Lisa O’Keefe

Director of Insight at Sport England

Posted on: Fri 09-Aug-19 16:16:16

(51 comments )

Lead photo

“The benefits of taking time for yourself can’t be overestimated”

Since its creation in 2015, Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has been working to address the significant gender gap found in sport and exercise. The campaign was based on the insight that less women than men were getting the recommended amount of exercise, but that 75% said they wished they could be more active. When we began researching what was stopping them, we found that one of the unifying barriers was a fear of judgement, whether that was about worries around appearance or a perceived lack of sporting ability.

One group of women who are particularly prone to this fear of judgement is mothers. As I discussed this topic with friends, colleagues and the wider community, it was clear that many of those with children could relate. I wanted to know what we could do to help, and so started working with my team to build a deeper understanding on what drives mums, their biggest barriers and what (if anything) would encourage them to build a regular sporting habit in their life.

Guilt and motherhood can sometimes be synonymous, so it came as no surprise when our research told us that six in 10 mothers feel guilty taking time to exercise. When asked to name their top priorities outside of work, mums were most likely to favour tasks revolving around family such as doing the housework or cooking, or even just spending time together. Our research showed that 70% of mothers were keen to set a good example for their children in terms of exercise, but that the realities of juggling work and family life meant that this often wasn’t possible.

Simply seeing a mother in her gym kit or being active at home can help children develop healthy attitudes towards physical activity


The interesting thing is that being a healthy and active mother has actually been shown to translate to your children. In fact, research from the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, ‘Taking Part’ survey confirmed that mothers have a greater influence on children’s activity levels compared to fathers. Simply seeing them in gym kit or being active at home can help children develop healthy attitudes towards physical activity, even if they’re not taking part themselves. What’s more, children who have positive experiences of sport and physical activity early on are also more likely to prioritise being active in later life.

I really hope that by discussing the impact of mothers being active, we can help reduce the feelings of guilt. As a mother, the default can be to take care of everyone else’s needs first, but the benefits of taking time for yourself can’t be overestimated. Exercise has been shown to not only improve your physical health, but to be incredibly useful in improving mental health too. If nothing else, taking care of yourself in this way will ensure you have as much energy as possible to look after those you love.

I believe that all of us have a role in making mothers feel okay about prioritising getting active, as they do other things in their life. Whether that’s your partner or friend looking after the children once a week to ensure you can attend a class, or your family offering words of encouragement or a helping hand, giving you the time and space to look after their physical and mental health is beneficial for everyone – including the kids.

This Girl Can is working hard to try and help mothers get active in whatever way works best for them. This includes a free 21-day trial with online home workout platform LES MILLS On Demand, as well as hundreds of free women-only bike rides throughout the country with British Cycling’s HSBC UK Breeze programme.

For home workout tips, and more advice and support, find This Girl Can on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

By Lisa O’Keefe

Twitter: @ThisGirlCanUK

Soola Fri 09-Aug-19 18:44:44

Mine are adults now and I got back into shape each time very quickly doing Mr Motivator’s Bums, Legs and tums on VHS!

Very easy to fit in when first baby was sleeping and when my second was born my first would wAtch me from the sofa!

As they got older we were always active, their grandfather was a keen rambler so we have always gone hiking and ridden bicycles.

It’s great to see exercise being promoted.

I am pleased that you have called the movement ‘This Girl Can’ as the awful feminists on here can’t abide the innocuous use of the word girl when referring to adult women!

AuntieStella Fri 09-Aug-19 18:55:31

And I am particularly glad that MNHQ abandoned its plans to fold its Exercise topic into one of the weight loss ones. Exercise is an important issue,

I don't feel remotely guilty about the time I spend exercising. Then again, my DC are older now. If there was a 'rewind' button in life, I would have started much earlier and somehow found the time even when they were small.

However I am an adult woman, not a girl, and so am excluded from 'This Girl Can' from its very name. The infantilisation of women in society is not a trivial matter, and I doubt there are enough mothers who are themselves still girls to make them a significant component of an exercise programme aimed and named for girls.

Tie ups of other programmes for adults, to be offered to adults, would however be a good thing. But I wish initiatives for girls well. My DD is sporty, and I hope it becomes a life long set of habits

AuntieStella Fri 09-Aug-19 18:57:32

I do not consider myself an 'awful feminist' btw. And by FWR standards I'm nit really feminist at all!

I am simply an adult who wishes to be treated as an adult, and who finds the infantilisation of adults very depressing and limiting.

Initiatives which wish to include adults should not have names that specify children.

TinyMystery Fri 09-Aug-19 19:14:23

I don’t feel guilty for exercising at all. I think DS is very lucky to have two fit, healthy, active parents! When I was in the depths of postnatal depression, triggered by sleep deprivation (with a baby who would not sleep for more than an hour at a time), exercise was all I had. I did three half marathons before DS was 7 months old. I’ve done three sprint triathlons, and am doing an Olympic distance triathlon this weekend, before he turns one. I’m doing a half Ironman less than three weeks after his first birthday. For me, exercise is an enormous part of my identity and when everything else pretty much fell apart after having a baby, I really needed it.

XingMing Fri 09-Aug-19 20:24:38

I like exercise, and have had dogs since before I was a mum. Dogs need
exercise every day, so DC have been fitted into the routine. First dog was ageing when DS was a pup so he went along in a sling. Then he learned to walk, and the dog was ageing so we walked with a buggy for DS, and it all moved on in fits and starts..
DS is 20 now, and we are two dogs on, but understanding that the critters you share life with need their time is very important, and that you must make time, if you are going to have a pet, is crucial in knowing that you have responsiibilities and factor in the commitment.

MoodLighting Fri 09-Aug-19 22:41:28

Yes I would prefer to be targeted by a campaign that doesn't infantilise me. I bet there's no way a campaign called This Boy Can would ever be aimed at adult men.

ememem84 Fri 09-Aug-19 22:46:54

I’ve been made to feel guilty for exercising and called selfish.

For me I need the headspace. After I had ds I needed a break. So went riding once a week and went to the gym when dh came home from work a couple of times a week.

Dm suggested this was selfish of me. I had to make the point that dh also went to the gym so was he selfish?

When I went back to work I trained immediately after work and then picked Ds up from nursery. Twice a week.

Mentally I needed it. It gave me the me time I needed. It destressed me and makes me better equipped to deal with things.

Ihaventgottimeforthis Sat 10-Aug-19 00:25:44

My sport is absolutely vital for my physical & mental health. I have set crew training slots in the evenings and v early mornings which makes it easier bizarrely as there is no discussion as to when I have exercise time, as I have to be there. And it’s the same every week. Where I do feel guilt is participating in competitions at the weekend, when often there is limited facility or entertainment for non-competitors - a crèche or other activities for families of competitors would turn an event into more of a family occasion & hopefully encourage more mothers to participate.

CountFosco Sat 10-Aug-19 06:15:06

Not quite sure why the first poster thought it was necessary to randomly criticise feminists in their post confused. I don't mind the 'this girl can' name because it is a response to the 'girls can't... run, play football, catch a ball etc etc that females of all ages are exposed to but generally I agree that infantilising women is an issue in our culture that should be avoided.

I have fitted exercise into my life by getting up early and going for a swim before work every day. It does mean I don't see the DC in the morning though, I leave the house before they get up so there is a compromise involved. DH cycles to work so he gets his exercise that way. We both find that many exercise classes are in the early evening so clash with family responsibilities. Our local leisure centre has one class a week at 8pm, most others are at 6-7pm so bedtime for a lot of small children and for those of us with older DC peak sporting activity time for the DC.

FrangipaniBlue Sat 10-Aug-19 07:08:33

Not my own personal experience but just an observation I've seen on MN......

It's not just about the guilt mums feel, it's the guilt they're made to feel by family, a pp has even said it, like it's somehow acceptable for dads to exercise but not mums?

Also, and I'm not sure whether this is a skewed MN thing, but there seems to be an awful lot of couples out there where the woman does the lions share of housework and childcare leaving them no time to exercise. Meanwhile dad pops to the gym in his way home from work, or does his "hobbies" at the weekend (while mum runs round doing kids activities) because dad needs to "unwind" after a full week of providing for his family.

Men have to take some responsibility for this too - it's not all on "mummy feels guilty" angry

megletthesecond Sat 10-Aug-19 07:37:44

I've never felt guilty about exercising. As a working LP I have to grab it where I can. My heath has to come before housework.

Yes, I'm only awake at this time on a Saturday because I'm off to parkrun.

awesmum Sat 10-Aug-19 08:08:05

I feel horrifically guilty about taking time out to exercise, but I know the benefit so have to push past that.

Direwolfwrangler Sat 10-Aug-19 08:15:16

For me it is less guilt and more time that is the issue. I’m already up at 6 and with commuting time and nursery pickups, then dinner, it’s normally 7.30 in the evening before I even sit down. DH does his share of parenting and housework but has a challenging job too.

The trick for me will be securing a job closer to home. I lose almost two hours a day driving to and from work, public transport non-existent.

I fit exercise in if I work from home and I try to be active with my child at the weekend, so long walks etc. I’m slim so don’t need to exercise from that perspective but I would love to have the headspace again that running brings.

Spanneroo Sat 10-Aug-19 08:20:09

It has nothing to do with guilt for me. I feel guilt for not exercising.

But I've had two EBF babies who slept appallingly, and I worked full time. I am busy at either end of the day organising the house, cooking, doing washing etc. In truth, I could probably find half an hour to exercise, but if I do that, I don't have any down time before I crash out with exhaustion at the end of the day. So I prioritise down time so that I don't go insane.

I'm now pregnant with twins and it'll be worse this time. I've basically resigned myself to not really doing much exercise for another 2-3 years, depending in how much sleep I'm getting.

The real barrier to mum's doing exercise is this toss up between down time and exercise time when babies are small, meaning we remain unfit for a fairly long period around having a baby (pregnancy, then babyhood, then often another pregnancy and baby). When you try to get back into exercise, you find you are much less fit than you were, and frankly it can be really demoralising. Dads don't have to worry about this. They don't go through pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. They can keep their fitness up fairly easily, so they don't have this barrier.

I was very athletic before kids, and I've kept as active as I can be, given my personal circumstances, but I really struggle with basic exercise that I would hardly have broken a sweat for before.

leasedaudi Sat 10-Aug-19 09:51:36

I never felt guilty for exercising with a new baby. I used to hand over the baby to my husband at 6am and be back by 7am before he went to work. Or I'd take my baby to buggyfit when on mat leave.

Now I have a toddler and I'm at work again I have less exercise time but still get two weekday mornings to go to the gym or run, and both weekend mornings too.

I wouldn't have survived without exercise!

Herefortheduration Sat 10-Aug-19 10:51:21

I was s professional athlete when I was in my early twenties so the inclination to exercise has always been there, but after having my family the logistics became an issue. I was either at work or I had my babies/toddlers to look after and then later days they would be at their own clubs and activities which I'd have to escort them to and from etc. My husband had a big commute and shifts so wasn't always available. My own exercise became a bit of a chore tbh. However, my youngest is now 13 and although they still have activities things have calmed down enough for me to join a gym. I'm loving it and realise now just how much I missed it. We have always been an active family so exercise has happened but it is not regular enough for total fitness. Guilt played a part in that I'd have had to drop other activities to fit it in, not so much that it would take me away and have time alone.

deplorabelle Sat 10-Aug-19 11:09:46

I've seen "This girl can..." memes on Facebook etc and honestly thought they were aimed at teenage girls! The slogan is problematic.

The point made up above about losing condition during repeated pregnancies is very well made. I had a fairly protracted and traumatic period of pregnancies and was left with a completely different body and no core strength whatsoever.

ememem84 Sat 10-Aug-19 11:44:53

I exercised during pregnancy as I mentioned above. And have found that this has helped me both physically and mentally.

I’m not entirely in agreement with the negatives re the “this girl can...” campaign. I see where you’re coming from but at the same time see that the campaign has brought exercise to the forefront of a lot of women’s minds. That and the sudden influx of women’s sport on tv - football and rugby world cups, netball World Cup, cricket. It’s awesome. If it can inspire people to get moving in all for it.

I just asked dh whether he felt guilty exercising now we have kids. He said no. Why would he? They’re not being neglected so he can go to the gym (or when I go for that matter) they’re not missing out on time with us and they’re getting better parents because we’re happy.

He feels guilty because he heads to the gym 5 days a week (in his lunch hour x 4 days and one early weekend morning) and knows I’d love to do the same right now (but on mat leave and would need to find someone to look after dd more frequently - dparents will sit with her but as said above the guilt trip I get from Dm is ridiculous!)

AGnu Sat 10-Aug-19 11:46:55

I've never related to any of the "this girl can" things I've seen - I'm in my 30s so not a "girl". I'm also a very literal thinker so really didn't think they were aimed at me at all - I assumed they were encouraging teens into sports. I'd love to see the "this _______ can" thing expanded though - maybe a "this mum can" or "this woman can" campaign would help draw more people in.

My mental health has been dreadful recently & I knew I needed to make a change before it got worse. I overheard an acquaintance mentioning an exercise class she goes to & very uncharacteristically inserted myself into their conversation & invited myself along. Still not sure what came over me - desperation to find something outside of being a SAHM, I think! I joined the gym straight after going to my first exercise class because I knew if I didn't make a financial commitment I'd not go back. I'm now going to 2 classes a week & looking to up that to 3. They're mostly early morning classes which means I can be home & showered in time for DH to leave for work at 8. It really sets me up for the day & makes me feel sore mentally good. I'm looking forward to being fit enough that I can do classes every morning. It's still taking me a couple of days to recover atm... I'm told that mostly eases after a month or so... [hopeful emoji]grin

AGnu Sat 10-Aug-19 11:56:52

Oh, & DH has been completely supportive. He's told me not to be "silly" when I was concerned about the expense & is regularly checking whether I'm booked in for a class tomorrow so he knows if he needs to factor in dealing with the DC in the morning or coming home a bit more promptly if it's an evening class. I think he might start objecting if I was out every night though... It's definitely a combination of internalised guilt over both time & money, laziness & feeling like I'm not really the sort of person who does that sort of thing... A combination of DH acting like it's a perfectly normal/reasonable thing for me to do & no-one at the gym making me feel embarrassed for being slower than everyone else has really helped.

DH, OTOH, has never been in a gym in his life... Maybe you could do a "this man can" to get him exercising! I'm glad to hear mums have more influence over their DC's attitudes to exercise. I'm genuinely concerned for DH's health & what his round belly is teaching our DC.

Splodgetastic Sat 10-Aug-19 12:46:41

I just think people don’t realise how important physical activity is for health. The amount of times you read someone on here complaining about their DH going on a Sunday club ride, for example! Okay, so being in a club or team is somewhat of a bigger commitment and means that maybe one parent gets left holding the baby, but you just need to make a compromise and be firm with your other half that you need to go to the gym or netball practice or whatever as well. The trouble I find with ladies’ sports teams though is that they are at bad times as men and kids take the best slots. I want to join a local ladies’ walking football team (as I am now too old for normal football) but they meet at 4.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon!

AGnu Sat 10-Aug-19 12:55:23

Yy about the times of things. I have my DC around all the time so I can't do daytime classes. Until I found my gym all the classes I looked at were either in the middle of the day or at dinner time which is the only time we get to have the whole family together.

randomsabreuse Sat 10-Aug-19 13:21:55

Time is very much the biggest barrier. But at least part of that is guilt - choosing to spend time on you rather than on the family...

The exercise that actually happens is things that happen at a fixed time, especially if booked and paid for - so 10k runs (not fit enough for further at the moment) have all happened. I usually manage to go to parkrun too - because if I don't go at 9am on Saturday I can't just "do it later".

Club runs also happen if planned, because I need DH to be available for childcare purposes so again it is "booked".

What tends to get pushed aside is things I can do "later" or "when I've finished x" - so buggy runs with baby with DC1 is at nursery or exercise videos - because I tend to prioritise cleaning, cooking and sleep.

Siameasy Sat 10-Aug-19 18:58:40

No guilt here. I’m a much better person if I exercise. I’m extremely moody if i don’t!

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