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We all know that body image is still a huge issue for many people, but new research has revealed just how much of a barrier it is for women when it comes to exercise and sport.

Although exercise is something that can be a huge source of joy and positivity, for many people – women in particular – starting out can seem daunting and scary. From knowing what to do at the gym to training on your own and trying to meet difficult goals, there are many things that can put you off when getting started. While many of these things are easy enough to overcome and your nerves will almost certainly subside within the first few weeks of training, one thing that is stopping women from exercising is more difficult to solve: body image.

A new study of 2,000 women aged 18-45 in the UK conducted by Venus has proven that this is more prevalent than ever, finding that more than a third of women don’t want to participate in sport because they worry about the way their skin looks.

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Why women don’t want to exercise because of the appearance of their skin

On top of concerns about weight and adhering to traditional beauty standards, the survey found that one of the things holding women back from exercising is the appearance of their skin. This includes stretch marks, cellulite and skin conditions such as eczema.

Research has found that it’s likely around 90% of people have stretch marks, with cellulite affecting a similar amount of women and, according to the NHS, 1.3 million people in the UK have eczema. So why is the way our skin looks stopping us from exercising?

In part, it might be down to the often exposing nature of activewear and sportswear, with many people feeling like they have to choose between being physically comfortable and confident, particularly during sweaty workouts or on hot days when wearing long trousers or leggings feels unbearable. According to the research, one in 10 women feel very uncomfortable exposing their skin while playing sport.

“When I first started [going to the gym], I wore clothes that were oversized to hide my body, I was self-conscious in the gym and anxious people would look at my body,” says 30-year-old Jo. She explains that this was something she was eventually able to overcome as she became more confident in the gym.

However, this isn’t the case for everyone, as the Venus survey also found that 26% of women have stopped playing sport altogether due to a lack of confidence in their own skin.

How our formative years shape our attitudes towards body image and sport

“I stopped gymnastics when I was 11 because I was already too self-conscious about my legs to want to continue in a leotard,” says Sophie. “Still now, at the age of 28, if I don’t have the option to wear leggings for something, I won’t do it.”

The experiences we have with sport growing up are fundamental to the way we perceive it in adulthood, with many people believing that they don’t enjoy exercise or aren’t good at it purely because they didn’t like PE lessons when they were 13. Venus’s research found that a fifth (21%) of women have received negative comments on the appearance of their skin or bodies while playing sport and this is an issue right across the board, from misguided comments at school to toxic coaches at Olympic level, particularly in sports such as gymnastics, where the way you look is part of how you’re scored and judged. 

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How the media has warped our attitudes to sport and body image

It’s not surprising then that almost 1 in 5 women (18%) surveyed said they would feel more encouraged to play or take part in sport if there was less commentary on women’s bodies and skin in the media. This week alone, the press has focused more on British tennis player Emma Raducanu’s appearance and her clothing than her performance and we have a long way to go until women in sport are given the same treatment as men by the media. Inevitably, then, it will be even longer until this change trickles down to women in sport at a beginner level and attitudes towards body image are transformed.

How to let go of skin-consciousness when exercising

So what can we do to change the way we feel about body image and sport right now?

  • Talk about it: not only does it feel good to get worries and concerns off your chest but by doing so, you’ll probably find that many women around you feel the same way and you can help each other overcome the barriers to sport you feel are in your way together.
  • Exercise in places that you feel are inclusive: whether that’s beginners’ classes, women-only gyms or with a personal trainer who can help you get to grips with exercising even if you’re really inexperienced. 
  • Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable: you might think that you need to wear a pastel matching set to the gym because that’s what you’ve seen on Instagram, but there’s nothing stopping you from wearing tracksuit bottoms and an oversized T-shirt if that’s what you’d prefer.
  • Try not to worry about what other people think: it’s easier said than done, but the chances are, everyone exercising around you is too busy worrying about what they look like to worry about you.

Find more health, fitness and nutrition content over on the Strong Women Instagram page.

Images: Getty

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