5 barriers for women in sport

Whether it's been a physical or emotional barrier, women can face many reasons that mean it just isn't comfortable to take up a sport. But what if you can overcome these barriers?

Whether a physical or emotional barrier, women can face many barriers in sports. But what if you can break these barriers and experience the benefits of exercise for women?

We look at five common barriers for women taking up sports, to help them to become fitter, stronger and healthier.

Five barriers for women in sports

1. Poor breast support

A well-fitted and supportive bra is an essential piece of sports equipment. 44 -72% of active women report exercise-induced breast pain as well as injuries caused by their sports bras [1]. Poor breast support is a barrier that can prevent some women from participating in sports altogether.  

These barriers are even greater for women who are aiming to lose weight (and have larger breasts) or have faced/are living with breast cancer [1]. Regular movement has huge benefits to mental health, weight management, and cancer reoccurrence, so it is easy to see how unhelpful this barrier can be.  

How to buy a well-fitting sports bra:  

  • The band underneath your breasts should be made of strong, wide, elastic material so it fits firmly but comfortably around your chest and does not ride up when you raise your arms. 
  • The upper boundary of your neckline should be mildly elastic to fit and stabilise your upper breast boundary. 
  • Your breast should not bulge over the top of the cup or neckline and there should be no wrinkles or gaps in the cup.  

 We know that women are naturally different shapes and sizes, and no one sports bra will suit us all. Find out more about how better-fitting sports bras can help women exercise.

2. Period-related hormone dips 

The day your period starts is day one of your cycle. At this point, your hormone levels are at their lowest. You can feel groggy, bloated and lethargic, so it is understandable why many women do not think it is the best time to hit the gym. 

But, experts have found that regular exercise could improve symptoms, such as painful cramping [9]. Others have shown that regular stretching throughout your cycle can be as beneficial as a prescribed painkiller! [10]. 

These benefits could be due to the release of feel-good endorphins or the anti-inflammatory effects of regular exercise. Whatever the reasons, the findings are clear: a little movement could be good.

However, when it comes to the menstrual cycle, all women are different, so a personalised approach is recommended – it is best to find what works best for you. If you suffer from heavy or painful periods, such as with endometriosis, taking a few days off from your exercise is fine, and it is important not to be hard on yourself for doing so.

3. The gender gap

Many women are turned off by sports because of beliefs that exercise is a male-dominated area: some argue that sport has traditionally been organised and promoted as a male activity [2].  Compared to 35% of men, 40% of women aged 16 and over are not active enough to get the full health benefits of sport and physical activity [4]. 

Likewise, much of the advice and guidelines in sports are based on research using male subjects. Female subjects can be excluded from research due to reasons such as fluctuating hormones [3]. This means that when females compare their performance to averages, results do not always measure up, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. 

In other words, as Dr Stacey Simms (leading global expert on female physiology and endurance training) explains, 'Women are not small men'. Women have unique physical needs and unique exercise needs. You can watch Stacey's TED talk.

  • Her Spirit is a female-orientated movement that aims to make exercise enjoyable and accessible for every woman. Her Spirit provides an app with daily classes, a supportive community, and expert coaches to train with. You can even listen to their brilliant podcast and hear from champion female athletes themselves: Her Spirit Podcast.
  • This Girl Can is a nationwide campaign launched by Sport England which aims to get women moving - ‘in any way they damn please!’ 
  • You can also read Dr. Stacy Simms' book ROAR to find the strategy that works best for you.

4. Low body confidence

Physical appearance, such as ‘how my body looks during exercise’ and ‘not appearing feminine’ were factors stopping women from exercising [4].  A whopping 75% of women who want to do more sports say fear of judgement is holding them back [6]. 

Some factors found to build confidence included looking the part (such as buying new workout clothes), giving yourself a pep talk and perhaps re-framing the exercising – are you doing this exercise to compete against others, or for your own personal benefit? The atmosphere around the activity was also found to be important (will it be friendly?), along with buddying up with a friend or family member for support [4]. 

Taking part in physical activity is an excellent way to improve your self-esteem [5] - sometimes, it is just about getting over that first hurdle. 

The more you exercise the more your body-confidence (and fitness) will grow. What is more, exercising is now the perfect excuse for a social occasion… and a splurge on some new kit, but we won’t tell.   

5. Pregnancy

It is reassuring to know that if you are already exercising, staying active is not necessarily dangerous for your baby, and can help your body adapt to your changing shape [7]. It is currently recommended that you keep up your normal physical activity for as long as you feel comfortable.

What to consider before exercising during pregnancy: 

  • Choose a safe sport - Some sports are safer than others: contact sports (such as kickboxing) could put you and your baby at risk. Other sports, such as swimming, are safer, and will also help to support your increased weight. Look out for local aquanatal classes with qualified instructors. 
  • Don't overdo it - Rest and nutrition are both extremely important during pregnancy. That said, exercising and keeping moving also has benefits. Take it steady and if you are new to exercise, it is important to increase the amount and intensity gradually.  
  • Avoid lying on your back - Lying on your back for a long period after 16 weeks could place pressure on your blood vessels and make you feel faint. 
  • Talk to a pregnancy-trained instructor - 

You should also be mindful that you do not exhaust yourself (you are growing a whole human after all!) and you may need to slow down as your pregnancy progresses. Follow the advice of your maternity team, and always inform any fitness instructors of your pregnancy.  

Throughout pregnancy, your body becomes flooded with hormones. As pregnancy progresses, you can experience emotional and physical changes. Learn more in our doctor's guide to pregnancy hormones

We recommend that you read some more tips for exercising in pregnancy, along with some recommended exercises for a fitter pregnancy.


If you are interested in tracking the benefits of your exercise on your body, you could try a Mind Body Fuel Blood Test. This test has been specially designed in conjunction with Her Spirit to optimise your energy, mood and long-term health. You can take this simple finger-prick test at home. With your results and comments from our team of doctors, you can start making changes towards a happier and healthier you. 


References

  1. McGhee, D.E. and Steele, J.R., 2020. Biomechanics of Breast Support for Active Women. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 48(3), pp.99-109. 
  2. https://www.funding4sport.co.uk/downloads/women_barriers_participation.pdf 
  3. https://www.outsideonline.com/2357391/where-are-women-sports-science-research#close 
  4. https://sportengland-production-files.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2020-01/Campaign-Summary.pdf?Yu_jmNiqPxjL8IlJC0EqvKXjJ_GOFpfx 
  5. https://doi.org/10.4278/0890-1171-22.2.83 
  6. https://www.sportengland.org/news/this-girl-can-returns-with-new-tv-advert 
  7. https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/exercise/ 
  8. Farage, M.A., Osborn, T.W. and MacLean, A.B., 2008. Cognitive, sensory, and emotional changes associated with the menstrual cycle: a review. Archives of gynecology and obstetrics, 278(4), pp.299-307. 
  9. https://academic.oup.com/ptj/article/99/10/1371/5608544?login=true 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5187401/ 
  11. VEDES, A., HILPERT, P., NUSSBECK, F. W., RANDALL, A. K., BODENMANN, G., & LIND, W. R. (2016). Love styles, coping, and relationship satisfaction: A dyadic approach. Personal Relationships, 23(1), 84–97. doi:10.1111/pere.12112 

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