herald

Friday 15 December 2017

Sarah Carey: Women don't exercise to be healthy, they do it because being thin is religion to them

A few months ago I took up pilates. When I head up to the local hotel and health club on a Monday night for the class, it's hard to get a spot in the ample car park because the place is packed.

There's a big step class on. The pool is jammed. The gym is full.

My pilates class is one of two that evening and other classes include yoga, circuits, kettle bells and something called TRX. Meanwhile, the bypass near the hotel is busy with walkers and runners.

Each time I see the army of toned bodies, I think: "Aren't people great?"

I don't remember this being a thing when we were growing up. There were people who were into competitive sports, like GAA or cross-country running. But there were no gyms. No one ever heard of pilates. Yoga was something monks in India did.

Were there hordes of middle-aged men wearing lycra cycling around on Sunday mornings? I don't recall the mothers toning their abs because they were panic stricken that their post-pregnancy tummies didn't look like Cindy Crawford's. Because that's the only reason I'm groaning my way through the plank on a Monday night.

So when I saw the Central Statistics Office survey that said that one fifth of people "admitted" or "confessed" that they did no exercise, I thought; "Well, that's not too bad!"

The language intrigued me. The modern sinners: couch potatoes. But if four fifths are running around "keeping fit", that's pretty good.

However, a member of Hierarchy of Health was called forth to pass moral judgement on the lazy minority.

Dr Donal O'Shea, the obesity expert based in St Vincent's Hospital said he was sceptical. He wondered if people were "over-reporting".

concerned

A weekly walk around the bypass during the summer might be passed off as "regular" walking. Uh-oh. Lazy and liars! It gets worse! Still, I was a bit concerned when I saw that of the 27.5pc of people who said they do no exercise, that included one third of all women. That's seems a lot.

On reflection, I had to admit that exercise wasn't something people did formally years ago, because physical activity was a regular part of their daily routine. Cycling was a means of transport - not a hobby.

Perhaps O'Shea is right to be concerned. If more people should be exercising, why aren't they?

Many said they did no exercise because they had no time and O'Shea was critical of that excuse.

I'd be less judgemental. Women are worn out. Housework is never finished. Children are insatiable in their demands. Holding down a job gets harder and harder. So running three times a week is a big ask. Yet, most of the women I know are breaking themselves to do something to keep fit.

What motivates them? Here's my theory: It's not to be healthy. Many get into the groove of exercise because it's good for the head. But the number one driving force is that being thin is a religion.

My women friends talk about weight and their figures all the time. It's neurotic actually. They dread putting on weight and they judge people who are over-weight, especially themselves. It's the culture. It's a middle-class culture.

What neither the CSO nor O'Shea said is that exercise is a class issue. There are many overweight middle class people, but on a population level and across western countries, the chronically overweight and unfit are poor.

There are plenty of economic reasons for that, but at heart, it's a different culture. My peers might worry about being judged for not having a flat stomach. But that's not as bad as thinking that there's no point getting fit or being healthy because you'll still have a crap life afterwards.

I have no idea how you change that, but giving people something to live for seems like a good place to start.

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