For women, finding time to exercise is just the first hurdle | Life and style

I started running to impress my neurologist. I downloaded the little app, where Jo Whiley would cheer me on across the weeks, and I put on a T-shirt and some homely trainers, and chucked myself out of the door. And adorably, I continued to do so every other day, even after I’d told my neurologist, twice, even after I’d completed the app – instead, I listened to podcasts about for example, “What this smalltown US police department did wrong,” and “Hey, did you know some people can smell dementia?” and, while I sweated my way past the allotments and up to the lake, “Let me tell you about this lady from the olden days – boy did she have chutzpah!”

I have never been a PE type. I detest yoga, I find it very horrible. I lack the competitiveness necessary to play a team sport and the idea of going to “the gym”, a place so aesthetically moribund, so heavy with the weight of other peoples’ vanity and regrets, repels me. Yet earlier this year, when the neurologist suggested I make some “lifestyle changes” before she started me on the big drugs for my migraines, I decided to give running a go – the least bad option from a badly stained menu.

But – it wasn’t as simple as that. Last week it was reported that almost half of British women have done “no vigorous exercise” in the past year. The headline bothered me. I kept reaching for it again, like a sock that would not stay up. It was the same feeling of discomfort I remembered when, in those twilight months of early parenthood, I read in the papers about a study on breastfeeding that had suggested the longer a baby is breastfed, the more successful and intelligent they become. The headlines dropped and shattered on the tiles in that way they often do, into a selection of shards sharp with judgment. Though the study was important, the way it was reported left many of my motherly peers, each one trying desperately to keep their newborn babies alive through the spring, feeling shamed and guilty. It was not that they hadn’t tried breastfeeding their child, it was that no milk had come, or that they had to go back to work after six weeks, or that the world outside was inhospitable for a woman, on a bench, with her left nipple leaking.

This exercise study landed in a similar way, inspiring a familiar guilt. Everyone knows the reasons why women exercise – health, fitness, lose a stone before Alison’s wedding. But the reasons why women don’t exercise are rarely discussed. To do so requires a sullen breaking down of factors, the telling of which becomes quieter and sadder as the list goes on. Why do half of women do no exercise? Because it takes time, time alone, time which, if they have children, many must pay for. The NCT reports that the average cost for a part-time nursery place today is over £7,000 a year, or more in areas like London. Two-thirds of parents spend more on their childcare bills than they do on their mortgage or rent. Out of office hours women carry out an overall average of 60% more “unpaid work” than men, such as caring for children or elderly parents, and cleaning the house, and preparing a meal for five people that takes less than 30 minutes and costs less than £6. Their time is not their own – the clock has melted.

And of those who are able to carve out the NHS’s recommended 150 minutes a week from their schedules, some continue to battle with poor body image , which means they feel anxious and vulnerable about presenting their Lycra-ed body to the world. A recent survey by Women in Sport found a significant number of girls disengage from sport in their late teens due to “self-belief, capability and body-image concerns”. Others feel “unsafe exercising outdoors” – Runners World found 60% of women said they had been harassed when running; 11% told them because of the harassment they had stopped running altogether. And that’s before we even start talking about gyms – their cost, the intimidation found there, the way they smell like somebody has spritzed dewberry body spray over a terrible crime. After a minute, it seems the original headline was the wrong way round: isn’t it more notable that half of British women have exercised in the past year?

After seven months of running regularly, I still don’t love it. People tell me about the rush, the calmness, the way it makes them feel elated, high. For me, it’s still largely a slog, with moments of grand, toothy pride. But apart from the impact it’s had on my migraines, the main benefit of regular exercise has been the freedom I feel. Every time I tighten my trainers and leave my house, I marvel at the fact that I have created this time alone, that this sliver of world – of path, of stream, of park and woods – is mine and for now, for me. The dream is to run fast enough that you run away from all that – your work, your responsibilities, your anxieties, your body, the news and its headlines, yourself. For half an hour at least, or until the next study drops. Whichever comes first.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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