The latest research from Women in Sport explores the impact of midlife and menopause on women’s activity habits. During this time of life women have numerous pressures: employment, caring responsibilities for children and ageing relatives, and their own health issues. These pressures are exacerbated by the symptoms of menopause which many women are ill-prepared for and last longer and are more debilitating than expected.
Sport and physical activity can play a key role in alleviating some of the negative aspects relating to midlife and menopause, this can ultimately allow women to feel more in control of their health, thus enhancing wellbeing and happiness well into later life.
Being active holds numerous physical, social and emotional benefits which can offset some of the negative effects of midlife and menopause:
With experiences and attitudes to physical activity, and life situation varying considerably amongst women in midlife this research has focused upon those who were previously active but lapsed into inactivity years ago, and women who have never enjoyed activity and are “reluctant” exercisers.
Midlife and menopause can lead to women perceiving multiple barriers relating to their capability to be active. These range from a lack of energy to health issues and not viewing themselves as ‘sporty’.
Many women were found to have limited views of what exercise could be and that their opportunities were limited to the gym, exercise classes, swimming and walking. Few women perceived racket sports, team sports or less common activities as opportunities they could take up and this limited view of activities means there are many activities they are missing out on. This perception of what activity could be also comes with associations of significant time and financial requirements which are particular concerns for those in lower socioeconomic groups as they are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts or working erratic shifts.
For women who do not identify themselves as sporty many had negative experiences of physical activity dating back to when they were in school. These negative experiences, and accompanying embarrassment, and their labelling of ‘not sporty’ has followed these women and become part of their identity and as they age it feels too late to start and they lack confidence. It is key to change their perceptions of what sporty is and what they are capable of doing.
During this life phase some women experience declining health and fitness levels and injuries and illness can prevent previously active women from engaging. As such these women need alternative activities and coaches/instructors who understand their needs and can help them stay safe.
Midlife and menopause can lead to women perceiving multiple barriers relating to their opportunities to be active. These range from embarrassment about weight, to exercise spaces feeling like they are not ‘for them', to access constraints.
Many women reported that one of their reasons for not engaging in physical activity is due to fear that they would stand out or be ridiculed. This was particularly common amongst South Asian women who feared standing out due to looking physically different to most people in their community.
The fear of failure and not being as good as others also came out as a motivation barrier. This issue was most common in those who had been inactive for most of their life, because they were not comfortable in sport and exercise settings, and for those whose behaviours had lapsed due to fears around discovering how difficult activities have become. Ultimately the first hurdle of trying an activity is a difficult step to take.
Due to narrow perceptions of what exercise could be, gym focussed, many women felt they would stand out in a negative way and that the space isn’t for them. This is exacerbated by communications and advertising using pictures of young, slim and toned women. This ties into embarrassment about being overweight with women feeling the need to lose weight before they can even join the gym.
Midlife and menopause can lead to women perceiving multiple barriers relating to their motivation to be active. These range from prioritising others to fear of judgement to concerns about going out alone.
Having to go to an activity alone is a key barrier as women reported that they would feel out of place if they went alone. A friend accompanying them to activities can help overcome fears of ridicule and not keeping up. There is also the assumption that they will not enjoy the activity, particularly amongst those who have never enjoyed being active.
Whilst being active holds many benefits, as discussed earlier, women in this study did not necessarily recognise these benefits and were concerned that being active would worsen some of their symptoms, like hot flushes. However, some women did see the benefits of being outside for a walk; the pandemic and restrictions have likely underscored the value of being outside.
1. Endless Possibilities: Expand perceptions and opportunities for being active.
2. Judgement-Free Zone: Welcoming and supportive environment.
3. Support Network: Offer built-in social support.
4. Expand the Image of What Sporty Means: Inspiring, relatable role models.
5. Make It Relevant: Reference specific, relevant benefits.
Published June 2021