Despite the well-known benefits of physical activity, the majority of the population fail to meet current physical activity guidelines. Underlying this statistic is an even more worrying one: women in Ireland are less physically active and report lower levels of participation in both sport and physical activity than men. The gender gap in physical activity and sports participation starts early. Researchers in the Millenium Cohort Study showed stark differences in the proportion of 7 to 8 year old boys (63 percent) and girls (38 percent) in Northern Ireland meeting recommended levels of physical activity. This gender difference in participation persists at every life stage right through to old age. Why are girls and women less likely than their male counterparts to participate in sport and physical activity? Research has tried to address this question for more than two decades. Correlates of physical activity include individual, social and environmental – and possibly even genetic and evolutionary – factors that predispose people to be active or inactive.
On an individual level, the most frequently reported motives for participation by women include enjoyment, feeling “in good shape”, health, weight control, appearance and social factors. Conversely, the main barriers to being active include a perception of “not being the sporty type” or low self-efficacy for being active (often as a result of past experiences), lack of time and cost. An awareness of the motives and barriers for women’s participation has been the starting point for policies to increase participation.
Competitive and recreational sport is one source of physical activity. Only 25 percent of women participate in sport compared to 43 percent of men. Although it is increasingly recognised that Interventions to increase physical activity are more likely to be successful if they target individual, social and environmental factors, many interventions have focused on the individual. This is done by providing information through mass media campaigns and messages targeting key groups.
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