Exercise has been crucial for maintaining mental and physical health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not everyone can be so active. The women are generally less active than men and this gender disparity in exercise participation exacerbates gender inequality in health.
Since March 2020, when countries and cities around the world began their lockdowns, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the #HealthyAtHome Campaign to encourage people to stay active while social distancing or isolating at home.
The campaign recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for adults and a minimum of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity for children and adolescents (5-17 years).
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have observed that people’s exercise routines can be disrupted. Places where people are regularly active, such as fitness centers and parks, may have been temporarily closed. On the other hand, working from home and online teaching have allowed greater flexibility in the timing of exercise.
People’s ability to stay physically active over the past 12 months may depend on their background and situation – some may have had to continue working during the pandemic (e.g. frontline and essential workers) and are exhausted by the demands of their work.
Our recent research shows that while people have become more active overall since the start of the pandemic, exercise gaps widened between gender, income, race and education.
Exercise is essential for health during COVID-19
Physical exercise is crucial for maintaining physical and mental health. Research suggests that exercise can prevent chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, respiratory disease, and hypertension. Exercise can also improve cardiovascular health, increase energy levels, control weight and improve sleep quality.
Staying physically active during the pandemic can prepare and strengthen people’s immune system against COVID-19reducing the likelihood of serious symptoms caused by the infection.
Due to the pandemic, people and communities around the world have experienced higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. They may worry about the well-being of loved ones, fear of getting sick, stress of losing income and feel emotionally isolated, insecure, bored and confused.
Those who exercise more frequently during the pandemic are found to report more favorable mental health. Research reveals that regular exercise can help reduce the risk of depression and helps maintain calm.
Gender inequality in exercise during COVID-19
Inequality in exercise participation was prevalent before the pandemic.
Our analysis of data from the Understanding the Coronavirus in America The project shows that during the pandemic, both men and women have become more physically active. However, the gap between men and women in exercise participation has also widened significantly.
From March 2020 to March 2021, a new wave of the survey was conducted every two weeks, with a total of 24 waves of data, exercise participation among men and women increased at the start of the pandemic (waves 2-6, April to June 2020). Since then, however, exercise participation has begun to decline.
One year after the onset of the pandemic (wave 24), exercise participation among men has returned to near its original level. For women however, exercise participation has dropped significantly to an even lower level than a year ago.
There can be many reasons for this. Women are often the primary caregivers and may have more responsibilities during the pandemic, such as caring for children and caring for elderly family members who are self-isolating. Many women are also essential workers (including nurses and personal service workers in long-term care homes and hospitals) who may not have time to exercise.
Gender, mental health and exercise
Because women tend to report poorer mental health than men in general, women’s participation in exercise would help reduce gender inequality in health.
We analyzed data from the Canadian Perspectives Survey Series (CSSP). This is a set of online surveys that have been collecting information from residents across Canada since March 2020. The first three waves of CPSS data (April, June and October) were combined to examine the behavior of people about mental health and physical activity.
Our analysis shows that during the pandemic, women report poorer mental health than men. Higher percentages of men report their mental health as “excellent” (26%) and “very good” (34%) compared to women (19% and 33%, respectively).
Canadian men and women increased their outdoor physical activity for health reasons between April and October 2020. In particular, exercise played an important role in women’s ability to cope with poor mental health. The percentages of women exercising outdoors for health reasons are higher among Canadian women than among men between April and June 2020.
Not evenly positioned
All women and all men, as we have noted, do not have the same position in society.
While research shows that the gaps in physical activity have widened dramatically between men and women, widened between whites and non-whites, rich and poor and educated and less educatedespecially during the pandemic.
There are many reasons for these disparities, including systemic racism, lack of opportunity and access. For example, many low-income and racialized neighborhoods lack investment in health care infrastructure, nor do they have parks or outdoor exercise areas.
Residents of these neighborhoods may also lack time to exercise because they are the ones who have served the most privileged populations during the pandemic.
In Canada and the United States, it is imperative that policy makers develop and implement measures to ensure equality in exercise participation.