• Brent Deveau

Overcoming barriers for women in sport and physical activity

Edited by: Kristen Mangos


In developed countries, 26% of men and 35% of women are not meeting physical activity (PA) recommendations (17). This is contrasted to 12% of men and 24% of women in lower income countries (17). There is concern that with current trends, global targets aimed at rectifying this situation will not be met (2, 15). This is alarming as individuals who are not sufficiently active have a 20% to 30% higher risk of dying compared to those who meet physical activity guidelines (17). When we look at differences between males and females, research has shown that cancers caused by obesity in men have a prevalence of 25%, but have a prevalence of 55% in women (12). In order to remedy these concerning statistics it is important to ensure all Canadians benefit from sport and physical activity. When it comes to sport, there is some data that may cause trepidation. According to the Canadian Rally Report, 1 in 3 females adolescents drop out of sport vs. 1 in 10 males. Socioeconomic factors are also possible factor as 62% of females with household income above $100,000 participated in sport vs. 44% in households under $50,000. Indigenous females who participated in the survey had the lowest level of participation at 24% (15). English (UK) girls between the ages of 3-11 experience less enjoyment when physically active and less confidence in sports skill compared to boys (2). In Canada, girls’ activity decreases as they enter adolescence, with only 11% physically active by 16-17 (8). Of the 10,000 Canadians surveyed in the Rally Report there were comments that not playing sport will impact both their physical and mental health, highlighting the concern that participation is not adequate even though the benefits are recognized (21). A 2021 study found that women were considerably less physically active than men during COVID and women subsequently faced more barriers and less facilitators towards PA (7). One in 4 Canadian women post-COVID are not committed to returning to playing sports.9

If you are part of Enayble Health’s community we encourage you to further read the benefits of being physically active. If you are new, welcome! Knowing the benefits can harness our appreciation and concern when reading statistics, such as those mentioned above. When we see these participation numbers, it is important to identify, understand and remedy barriers to Canadians being physically active and playing sport.

Barriers to physical activity and sport

The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute identified 15 barriers to physical activity. Women more often reported 10 of 15 barriers compared to men (3). The barriers which are distinguished between magnitude of difference can be seen in Table 3. As you can see the 3 largest barriers for women are lack of energy and motivation, and illness/injury. Men shared the initial 2 barriers, but women disproportionately identified safe spaces and lack of skill as barriers (3). A survey of 890 women who attended a co-ed gym found almost 71% had an interaction that made them uncomfortable. Further 70% of women changed their gym practice because of a negative experience. The top negative gym experiences were being watched and flirtation. Eighty percent did not want to be talked to during physical activity (13).

However, enjoyment and gratification, consideration for other activities (i.e., exergaming), health benefits, and networking opportunities were not associated with leisure-time PA” (12). As seen below in figure 1, several barriers could lead to girls dropping out of sport (15). What is concerning is that 1 in 3 girls reported low confidence, negative body image, and perceived lack of skill as reasons of dropping out of sport (15).

Figure 1

Social networks and PA

In a study of first-year Canadian university students, it was found through questionnaires that male students participated in more vigorous activity, more resistance training, and more organized sports than females. Conversely females engaged more often in fitness activities (fitness classes, dance, yoga) than males (5). Males and females both identified stress as the most significant intrapersonal barrier and lack of friends participating in activity with them as the most significant social barrier (5). However, a group effect for the latter occurred resulting in females rating lack of friend participation as a larger interpersonal barrier (5). In this study, females reported the fear of failure and being shy as greater barriers to PA contrasted to males.5 As a result, the authors of this study believe a focus should not only be placed on improving intrapersonal and interpersonal barriers to PA, but also on organizational barriers by encouraging intramural sport involvement and gym-related activities/programs that students complete on their own schedule and in a less competitive environment (5). Social networks amongst adolescents and sports are an emerging area of research. Studies are demonstrating that physical activity amongst friends is comparable. When contrasting females to males, it was found that males had a considerably larger group of friends they played sports with, and who were perceived as very active. The friendship group is just as significant as close friends at promoting PA. This would insinuate that instead of solely directing attention to close friend behavior modelling, consideration should be given to targeting complete friendship groups as they relate to group physical activity.6 It is important to ensure young female athletes have a strong social connection among teammates, instead of having them compete and compare themselves. When girls feel they have been accepted by their peers, it results in greater individual and team performance. This ultimately results in them being involved in sport longer (14).

Women and sport

The Canadian Rally Report used surveyed data from 10,000 Canadians (75% of whom were girls and women) aged 13–63. The completed survey was conducted by IMI International for Canadian Women & Sport. The target age of this report is participation of girls ages 6–18 in sport (15). The survey found that participation in sport among Canadian female has been decreasing over time with just over 50% participation in 1992 compared to 18% in 2021 (15). In this report, a vast majority of girls found that sport was good PA, is fun and leads to positive social interaction (15). It has been reported that females may not want to participate in intramurals with males due to a lack of confidence.19 In a survey of females from the University of British Columbia (UBC) it was found that 92% of respondents agreed women’s only programs of PA was an important feature of UBC recreation. An equal number of women were neutral or strongly agreed when asked if they felt more comfortable exercising in women’s programs compared to co-ed programs (22). Most women surveyed would like to see more female PA instructors. Many women at UBC were not aware of the women’s only programs being offered that were supported in a local survey. It was recommended to increase social media messaging about this (22).

There is a link between sport and leadership, 94% of female executives have played sport (15). However, fewer women in sport leads to less mentors and leaders for future female involvement (10,15). A World Health Organization article stated girls generally name parents as role models, where boys generally name popular individuals such as sports celebrities (10). This means parents have an important responsibility to be role models for their daughters and encourage sport. This role model theme may occur in part because of a lack of female sport celebrity role models for females (10). When it comes to coaching, there are fewer female coaches than males. Sixty-six percent of those identified as taking a certified Canadian coach’s course were men, compared to 34% being women. Women are greater than 4 times more likely to stay in coaching if they themselves had a female head coach (23). Female sport in the UK for the most part receives less funding at the grassroots level, which includes money for equipment and coaching (2). Only 51% of organizational respondents felt more was needed to make sport inclusive and 69% felt more was needed to make sport safe for females (15). Forty-five percent of adult males believed that there should be more female sports content on TV or online (15). This was compared to 51% of adult females, yet 61% of girls aged 13-18 believed so (15). A theme from a British study to help overcome barriers is to have the media be more inclusive of female sports (19). In 2014 only 4% of media coverage consisted of women’s sport, something that has been in decline (15).

Recommendations to overcome barriers

  • Encourage intramural sport participation. In a university setting, this should include increased advertisement targeting women via social media. If possible, it may be beneficial to have a men’s, women’s, and co-ed league.

  • Encourage a sense of comradery and social connection in sport. Sport should be a means to increase confidence. When girls feel accepted by their teammates and have a stronger social connection, they may stay in sport longer (14). It is critical that sport opportunities for girls be: enjoyable in a socially inclusive environment, build confidence and skills, while maintaining the physical benefits of sport.15 This can be highlighted to future coaches of female sport.

  • Advocate for fitness activities that can be completed on their own schedule and in a less competitive setting (5). This could include home workouts. Benefits from this could include practicing functional exercises, reduce travel time, as well as no risk of confrontation, or negative experience from others. The digital fitness surge has claimed to be closing the gender gap. COVID-19 has resulted in decreased gym attendance (24). An article from Healthline claimed, “According to fitness app Strava’s Year in Sport report, between April and September 2020, women ages 18–29 tracked 45.2% more fitness activities than they did during the same period last year, compared with a 27.3% increase among their male counterparts" (24). Home workouts can also mitigate concerns of being judged. There is also less pressure to look a certain way. Many respondents in a survey of women’s physical activity at UBC were interested in live guided women’s only workouts (2

  • A 2007 study from Brazil found that woman took the advice of a physician when advised to do physical activity more so than men. It must be considered that women often visit a physician more often.18 Nonetheless, this proves important as health care providers can be a possible source of motivation in increase physical activity.

  • Increase and support women’s only gyms. Women who train in coed gyms will often modify the exercises they complete and change the physical location they perform them based on the proximity of the male-dominated areas of the gym. Women have found that women’s only gyms can be a safe place where they can avoid evaluation by both males and women who they perceive as being in better physical shape (20).

  • Increase orientations and supportive services at gyms. In an article on women’s experiences in a co-ed gym, women did not feel knowledgeable in utilizing the gym equipment and there was a lack of support to learn. A corporate focus could be oriented towards more supportive services as opposed optimizing traditional infrastructure, such as gym equipment (20). Gyms can show that all body sizes are welcome (20). According to a BC article titled Girls, Physical Activity and Culture, “many females feel uncomfortable or are restricted from participating in front of males for cultural or religious reasons (8). Females from ethnic Canadian communities are the least represented group in Canadian sport and recreation system" (8).

  • Parents are positive role models for their daughters, and they can help their daughters identify positive female sport role models. In Canada, international hockey star, resident physician, and head of player development of the Toronto Maple Leaf’s Hayley Wickenheiser is an example.

  • More women coaches coaching female sport

  • Address funding discrepancies in youth sport

  • Adult men and women did not seem overly concerned about increasing female sport coverage on television in a survey. However, younger girls may be more involved in sport if they have a positive female role model. A majority of younger females surveyed would like to see an increase in media coverage of female sport (15).

  • At the urban planning level, cities that were more walker friendly had lower gender gaps in physical activity (2). Urban Canadians were also more likely to meet physical activity guidelines compared to rural Canadians.

  • Increase education for pregnant women and PA. In a survey of obese pregnant women knowledge has been a commonly reported obstacle. Women feel they lack appropriate information regarding safe activities during pregnancy (1)

  • Canadians who face challenges with child care and balancing family and leisure time could be offered activities for children and adults at the same time (3).This could be via community programs or local gyms.

  • Physical activity does not just have to be sport or going to the gym, it could include walking or biking. It may be just important to keep things simple and inexpensive. Going to a gym is not a “gold standard.”

  • With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, there is an opportunity to change the minds of girls who are not committed to return to sport. Teachers, coaches, community leaders, and parents have an opportunity to influence girls to return to sport who may be hesitant. From Canadian Women and Sport, “We must pay attention to what girls want and design programs with their needs at the centre" (9)

Girls, Physical Activty and Culture.

Girls, Physical Activty and Culture.


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