Digital fitness platforms are proving to be unlikely solutions to the disproportionate burden on women from the pandemic, as well as to the gender equality gaps that have plagued fitness forever.
The gender gap in physical activity is something that researchers have studied for years. Women are often less physically active because of gender roles and responsibilities that determine how they spend their free time (1).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this gender difference in physical activity only increased (2, 3).
As the pandemic continued and digital fitness options became more readily available, both men and women began to participate more in physical activity. However, the participation of women in these activities still lags far behind that of men (3).
According to a recent survey, more than half of women (55%) said the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, compared with around 4 in 10 men (38%) (4).
We know that physical activity improves mental health and cognitive function in adults and reduces the risk of depression in children (5).
Hence, eliminating the gender gap in fitness is key to recovering from the stresses of life caused by a pandemic. Ultimately, this gives us reason to be optimistic about how we can move forward to even greater collective wellbeing.
As the doors to gyms closed and fitness companies started moving their classes and coaching to online platforms, digital fitness began.
It quickly became clear that the digital fitness boom can not only enable women to close the gender gap in physical activity, but also to relieve them of the disproportionate psychological and physical stress caused by the pandemic.
According to the Strava fitness app’s Year in Sports report, between April and September 2020, women ages 18-29 did 45.2% more fitness activities than in the same period last year, compared with a 27.3% increase in theirs male colleagues (6).
Women exercise more overall, but still not as much as men. Still, there are indications that the recent boom in digital fitness could fill the accessibility and inclusivity gaps for many people who previously either couldn’t work out in a gym or didn’t feel welcome, including women.
If we embrace and support digital fitness communities, we will continue to break down barriers to women’s access to physical activity. The barriers that we will overcome reflect longstanding challenges.
Physical activity-related costs, such as purchasing equipment and gym membership fees, are notable barriers to physical activity.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the cost is a bigger hurdle for women, as their income is often below that of men (7).
Such costs are particularly high expenses for single mothers, which is one reason that single mothers often report significant barriers to physical activity (8).
While digital fitness can also be quite expensive (for example, the Mirror is $ 1,495 at the time of publication plus a $ 39 monthly access subscription), numerous affordable and even free exercise classes and apps just require attendees to bring their bodies .
A 2019 report by the Global Wellness Institute attributes a significant portion of the global growth in yoga practice to online availability, which lowers the cost barriers to participation (9).
With 77% of US women having broadband at home and another 15% accessing the Internet via their smartphones, the pandemic-induced increase in the availability of inexpensive or free digital fitness programs gives hope to overcome economic barriers to physical activity (10).
Reports often suggest that domestic workloads and the role of women as caregivers are factors that limit their time participating in physical activities or going to the gym.
The pandemic reinforced this barrier, with a 2020 Deloitte study finding that the number of women responsible for 75% or more of care responsibilities nearly tripled to 48% during the pandemic (11).
Digital fitness communities offer women a practical way to exercise physically and emotionally on their own terms and in their own space (12).
Simply connecting to a livestream class from home with their loved ones nearby, or streaming an on-demand video of an appropriate duration at any time of the day or night, makes it easier than ever for many women to find the time to workout to find.
Cultural norms, aesthetic pressure and gender-specific expectations arouse fear of the judgment of women when participating in sport (12).
In a study of gender differences in strength training, women cite men’s presence and behavior, feelings of not knowing how to use equipment properly, and feelings of self-consciousness as common reasons for avoiding weight rooms and equipment (13) .
Digital fitness communities provide a safe, private space with social support – something women typically lack in many male-dominated sports settings. The social encouragement, inspiration, and accountability inherent in women-centric digital fitness communities are promising advances in overcoming cultural barriers to physical activity.
The global fitness industry is experiencing a digital revolution. As a result, there are a growing number of options available for those looking to try different types of exercise – be it a live streaming yoga class with a $ 20 mat or indoor mountaineering on a peloton bike for $ 2,495 .
Digital fitness will remain after the pandemic and can only help bridge the gender gap that is keeping women from reaping the full benefits of physical activity. The digital fitness boom is empowering women both physically and mentally – and this year we’ve earned the right to invest in ourselves.
This piece was created in collaboration with The Collective Think Tank, a global consortium of academic minds and industry leaders focused on gender equality and improving diversity. The collaboration is led by The Collective, the women-oriented division of the international marketing agency Wasserman.
Mujde Yuksel, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Suffolk. She is a consumer behavior researcher with a particular interest in digital consumption and sports and entertainment marketing. Prior to her academic career, she had a 10 year background in professional sports as a basketball player for the Turkish national team and well-known sports organizations in Turkey.