Mackenzie Self, Center for Women's Health Research at UNC
January 30, 2017
As the end of January nears, many find themselves losing steam on the resolutions they set for the new year. Perhaps the most common of New Year’s resolutions is physical activity, something many women choose to dedicate their time and effort to in order look and feel better.
What many women tend to overlook, however, is the number of health benefits physical activity provides aside from reaching a coveted number on the scale. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) released the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These recommendations detail the amount of physical activity Americans should be getting, what types of physical activity and the many benefits that come from being active and leading a healthy lifestyle.
According to the USDHHS, North Carolina women should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, or a combination of both. Thirty percent of North Carolina women, however, self-reported that they get 0 minutes of physical activity per week, and only 46.8 percent get the recommended amount of at least 150 minutes per week.
The USDHHS also recommends that adults do some type of muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week that works all major muscle groups. In North Carolina, only 24.2 percent of women self-report that they meet this recommendation.
Dr. Kelly Evenson, research professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, specializes in physical activity epidemiology.
“Certainly as you get older, muscle strengthening becomes more and more important,” she said. “It’s a matter of maintaining and slowing down that process of muscle atrophy to be able to do the things you need to do.”
For many women, there are barriers that prevent getting the adequate amount of physical activity one needs. According to Evenson, barriers to physical activity are grouped into categories.
Intrapersonal barriers are within oneself, such as lack of time, and/or lack of motivation. Interpersonal barriers could be things like the lack of social support or families refusing to support a woman taking the time needed to do something physically active. There are also policy and environmental barriers, such as lack of ability to get physical activity while at the workplace or lack of sidewalks or parks. Only 67 percent of North Carolina women report having access to trails, greenways, sidewalks and other areas in the environment to use for physical activity.
Cultural barriers also exist, in which the perception of physical activity as a priority within a certain culture affects one’s decision to exercise, and commuting to work is also a very common barrier. Ninety-one percent of North Carolina women take a car, truck or van to work and the mean commute length for women in North Carolina is 22.7 minutes, one way. The most common commute length is 10 to 20 minutes, and 28.6 percent of women have a commute to work that is 30 minutes or greater. Walking or biking to work could be a solution for the amount of physical activity in women’s lives, but only 1.6 percent of North Carolina women bike or walk to work, making it tough to integrate physical activity into women’s work lives.
According to the NC Center for Health Statistics, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) 2015, there are many disparities that exist among women and physical activity. Non-Hispanic Black women are significantly more likely to get 0 minutes of physical activity per week, and rural women are more likely to get 0 minutes of physical activity per week than urban women are.
“For the rural-urban disparity, you can think about the environment,” Evenson said. “If you don’t have access to places to walk, and that’s the most common physical activity people choose to do as adults, then that becomes a barrier.”
Strides can be made to improve these disparities by encouraging physical activity in workplaces and while traveling to work. People who take the bus tend to get more physical activity from walking to and from bus stops, and people with high-labor occupations get their physical activity in while working. Perhaps the most common barrier among women, however, is time.
“I think it’s realizing that the investment of time pays dividends,” Evenson said. “You might not think you have time but yet, if you’re not healthy or feeling energized to do everything else you need to do, physical activity can help that. It can also help emotionally.”
Dr. Dianne Stanton Ward, professor in the department of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, says that there are many solutions to the barriers and excuses women use for the lack of physical activity in their lives. Research has found that things like monitoring devices such as Fitbits or prompts on one’s phone via text message can help. Social support, workout partners and taking lessons also motivate people to get regular physical activity.
Solutions to Barriers
“There are real barriers, but there are also good solutions,” Ward said. “There are a lot of things that can be done even within the constraints of time and safety.”
What many fail to realize is that physical activity does not have to involve taking an hour out of one’s day to put on all of the proper clothes and shoes and driving to a gym or fitness center.
“It doesn’t have to be sweat-producing, red face-making. Something is better than nothing,” Ward said. “Just go up and down the steps, walk from here to there. We know that sitting is better than standing.”
Contrary to popular belief, one does not have to be an athlete to get the adequate amount of physical activity her body needs.
Evenson suggests that women consider milestones in their lives as a time to reframe their health. When a woman has a baby, gets married or has a child who starts kindergarten, she can use those milestones as a time to look at her health and see how it can be improved.
“Women often think about others before themselves, so then prioritizing time for their health will actually make them be able to help others even better. So to me, that’s an important message,” Evenson said.
Ward, who is currently working in childcare intervention, argues that something can be done in order to provide social support or health-promoting activities to women working in childcare centers who don’t have any benefits and work low-paying, difficult jobs. While the physical activity requirement for children is one hour each day, many kids are born into families where physical activity is not a priority. Encouraging exercise in places like childcare centers will not only promote physical activity in women, but also children.
While women have the ability to influence their children when it comes to healthy habits, getting into a routine of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities while young will help girls when they are older and already have physical activity as a priority in their lives.
“I think women are so important in our society because they really lead families,” Ward said. “The woman’s mission has been so much in making sure that the family thrives…I think the woman’s a very important part of a solution for healthy America.”
The mission of Center for Women’s Health Research (CWHR) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is to improve women’s health through research by focusing on diseases, disorders and conditions that affect women only, women predominately, and/or women differently than men. Research efforts that require the most attention are identified through the collection and analysis of data for CWHR’s biennial North Carolina Women’s Health Report Card. Current areas of research targeted by the Center include perinatal health, cancers affecting women, obesity, diabetes, women’s cardiovascular health, women’s mental health and substance abuse.
Data collection and analysis for this article courtesy of Elizabeth Chase, a biostatistics and history major at UNC.