Ladies, Get Your Sticks Out!

Article by Lydia Underwood:

Ladies, we need a pep talk. When it comes to exercise we are being beaten, hands down, by our not so better halves. I know we have all read the headlines and watched the programmes where assorted middle aged, middle-class men tell us we are a bit chubby and bone idle in grave tones but for some reason (go figure) the message isn’t sinking in. OK I may be hitting middle age and yes I do take organic milk in my Earl Grey but if I may, let this tummy mummy throw a few depressing stats at you.

Firstly, we are becoming the most obese nation in Western Europe. Two-thirds of us are overweight which makes us more at risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. The NHS reports that the cost of type 2 diabetes alone was £8.8 billion in 2012 and some newspapers are predicting that by 2035 one-sixth of NHS funding will be spent on diabetes treatment, based on current data. In more general terms the Obesity Alliance (wouldn’t that be a great name for a tearoom?) says obesity costs the NHS at least £5.1 billion per year which equates to 959 air ambulances, 163000 nurses or 85000 doctors, and costs society and the economy tens of billions through obesity-related illness and its impact on work. One study suggested only smoking and armed conflict are worse social burdens globally than obesity. In a very fattening nutshell if we lose weight we are doing our patriotic duty, building helicopters, employing nurses and saving the economy. Whoop whoop for sounds simple.

Obviously, we all care about these things (with the possible exception of the patriotic bits) but sometimes when the picture is too big you can’t see it very well so let’s drop the grandstanding and break it down a little by taking a look at exercise and a rather alarming pattern. Clearly exercise, as well as diet, reduces obesity rates yet as a society we’re not as active as we should be. According to a Guardian article from 30th March 2017, 1 in 4 adults are doing less than 30 minutes of exercise a week as opposed to the NHS recommended minimum of 150 minutes. 26% of all adults are classed as inactive and women more likely to be inactive than men (27%/24%). Morbid obesity has more than tripled since 1993 affecting 2% of men and 4% of women in 2015 and between 2015-16 525,000 hospital admissions included obesity as a factor with 2/3 of those being women, 67%.

Oh yes, you spotted it-ladies we are not doing so well here. In fact, this gender gap (one which men will most likely admit does exist as it shows them in a better light!) begins at age 5, yes 5! By the time our kids are 5 years old girls are already lagging behind boys in terms of activity levels. In fact, neither gender is doing that well as, according to Statistica, in 5-7-year-olds only 24% of boys are doing the recommended activity level compared to 23% of girls. From here it’s downhill all the way: for 8-10 yr olds 26% of boys vs just 16% of girls. It seems that this is a trend that continues through to adulthood as Sport England statistics show 40.5% of men vs 31.9% of women play sport with the gender gap being widest for team sports, water sports and racquet sport. 9% more men take part in team sports than women. Men are also more likely to do intensive exercise like rugby and the gym, whereas women take less intensive exercise such as swimming and walking.

There are always going to be a million and one reasons why people don’t ‘do’ sport-goodness knows I run through approximately 500,000 of them when I’m about to go out for a rare jog, but there are gender-specific ones. Pregnancy reduces exercise rates as women feel too tired or unsure of the safety aspect, and the gender gap is wider among adults with young kids too, but remember that exercise is recommended to aid your mental health and anyone with small kids is going to need that! But here’s the killer for you-despite the dads being more active and more likely to be playing sport, it is the activity levels of mums which has a bigger impact on their kid’s activity levels than dads. Have another dose of mum guilt to go!

What got me thinking about all this and doing the research was seeing an advert on a local Facebook group for a back to hockey club for ladies. To be honest, if I were to travel back to when I played hockey I’d need a Delorean and the assistance of Doc and Marty McFly and even then you would find me shivering chubbily at one end of the school field while the popular girls ran about after the ball at the other end. I never even liked hockey, but the advert professed it was to be a group for ladies who hadn’t picked up a stick for years or maybe never had, and the emphasis would be on fitness and fun.

Somewhat excited by the idea of taking up a new sport at my grand old age I tried and failed to recruit any friends to come along and had a moment of f**k it, what’s the worst that could happen? So off I toddled and much to my relief found I was in the company of a wonderful group of ladies of all shapes and sizes, some of whom were almost as incompetent as myself. After a lot of laughs and quite a bit of puffing and sweating we all went our separate ways and for the most part, have returned every week with some newcomers too. I haven’t had someone sit on my head whilst trying to leapfrog me since university and someone asking me to open my legs because they couldn’t fit through took me right back to the maternity unit at Barnstaple. It may have been the Prosecco stretch to finish the warm down after the first session that sealed it for most of us but I have discovered a love for team sports; one that makes me sad to have left it this late.

Why is that? Why do so few of us women play team sports? Apart from the lack of TV coverage of women playing sport which would be nice and inspirational and could help lay to rest the idea that sport is a man thing, I’m blaming firstly PE teachers in the 1980s in alarmingly tight shorts barking directions from the sidelines interspersed with such gems as “Come on, life is a competition”. Actually as a working mum of two life is more of a compromise than a competition, or even a coincidence when everyone gets to school and back on time and in one piece, is fed, and back to sleep with limbs intact and no misplaced socks or regurgitated vegetables. This back to hockey club is about comradeship, camaraderie and cooperation much more than competition thank goodness.

Secondly, it’s opportunity; move somewhere new and as a bloke, you’ll easily find a football, cricket or rugby club at the very least, but sadly so few of these offers either a ladies group or heaven forbid a group for the less than fit and match ready. To these clubs, I say you are missing a trick. We ladies can do so much more than hand out the tea and biscuits or taxi our kids backward and forwards; we can double your membership for starters. Add to that the thought that those sixteen-year-olds for whom you cater, coach and hope to see become town, county or even country representatives are not going to stay in your town forever, nor are they going to be sitting on your committee and organising the Christmas party. Get us involved too and you are recruiting fundraisers, caterers, web designers, physiotherapists and publicists. You will also be inspiring the next generation to take an interest in your sport as they see their mums enjoy it.

Another reason I hear from women avoiding exercise in public, or at all, is that they feel self-conscious. Either that they aren’t good enough or about their appearance. Firstly at back to hockey, most of us are pretty much total beginners so none of us are remotely good enough but we don’t care! However, in terms of sartorial elegance, the sports clothing companies have a bit of work to do. Sports skirts are short, short enough that were I to don one I may well be flashing my fanjo at passing startled dog walkers. Even the ‘long’ versions may well give a glimpse of the lady garden. Oddly this is not a look I wish to try out so it would be great if you could make us something that might appeal to those of us who don’t have the flawless thighs of teenagers and may wish to still be active. So I understand if you want to exercise under cover of darkness like a furtive Ninja, and it fits around your busy life better and doesn’t frighten the dog walkers. When your kids are doing their post-gold medal winning interview with Clare Balding they are still going to say that you inspired them to be where they are and they may well mention that at least no strangers sat on your head in the process.

So for those clubs such as Bude Hockey Club who have got on board and loaned us their coach and support after the club was set up by human dynamo Kirsty Newts with some funding from Active Cornwall, Bude Rugby Club who have a ladies side and welcome all levels, and Bude Netball Club who are having an open evening on 23rd August to get ladies who haven’t played since school to have a go; we salute you. Bude Cricket Club are aware of a growing interest and have said that they will raise the possibility of a ladies’ softball group at the AGM (please do email or message them to show we are keen!). I’m sure that there are other clubs running similar back to sport groups, and if not badger them-show them that there is a demand out there and turn the trend around. Without getting competitive about it let’s show them what we are made of and demand more from them.
If you are one of those clubs there is loads of help and advice out there-Sport England, #thisgirlcan and Active Women Project offer lots of pointers and some of the regional groups and national sport clubs also offer funding. There is no excuse to not at least give it a try and you may be surprised.

Back To Hockey welcomes all abilities from beginner to refresher and you needn’t commit to coming every week. We meet on Tuesdays on the AstroTurf at Budehaven near the tennis dome from 7-8.30pm. You are welcome to join us anytime with no idea or gear!

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