Fitness apps like Sweat and FiiT are proving to be unlikely solutions to the disproportionate burden women felt through the pandemic, as well as the gaps in gender equity that have always plagued fitness.
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The gender gap in physical activity is something researchers have studied for years. Women are often less likely to be physically active due to gender roles and responsibilities that command how they spend their free time (1).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, that gender gap in physical activity only intensified (2, 3).
As the pandemic wore on and digital fitness options became more readily available, both men and women began to participate more in physical activities. Yet, the rate at which women participate in these activities still lags far behind that of men (3).
According to a recent poll, more than half of women (55%) reported that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected their mental health, compared with about 4 in 10 men (38%) (4).
We know that physical activity improves mental health and cognitive function among adults and reduces the risk of depression among children (5).
As such, addressing the gender gap in fitness is key to recovering from the stress of living through a pandemic. Doing so ultimately gives us reason to be optimistic about how we might push forward toward an even greater collective well-being.
A new fitness frontier
As gym doors closed and fitness companies began moving their classes and coaching to online platforms, digital fitness took off.
Soon it was clear: The digital fitness boom can not only empower women to close the gender gap in physical activity but also ease the pandemic’s disproportionate mental and physical burden on them.
According to fitness app Strava’s Year in Sport report, between April and September 2020, women ages 18–29 tracked 45.2% more fitness activities than they did during the same period last year, compared with a 27.3% increase among their male counterparts (6).
Women are exercising more overall, but still not as much as men. Nevertheless, there are signs that the recent boom in digital fitness could close the gaps in accessibility and inclusivity for many people who, before now, either couldn’t work out at a gym or didn’t feel welcome, including women.
Breaking through historic barriers
If we embrace and support digital fitness communities, we’ll continue to break through obstacles to women’s accessibility to physical activity. The barriers we’ll power through are reflective of long-standing challenges.
Costs associated with physical activity, such as purchasing equipment and gym membership fees, are notable barriers to physical activity.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the costs are a more substantial barrier for women because their income is often lower than that of men (7).
Such costs are especially high expenditures for single mothers, which is one reason single mothers often report substantial barriers to physical activity (8).
While digital fitness can also be quite costly (for example, at the time of publication, the Mirror costs $1,495 plus a $39 per month access subscription), numerous affordable and even free exercise classes and apps only require participants to bring their bodies.
A 2019 Report from the Global Wellness Institute attributes a significant portion of the worldwide growth in the practice of yoga to its online availability, which lowers cost barriers to participation (9).
With 77% of US women having a broadband connection at home and an additional 15% having access to the internet through their smartphones, the pandemic-induced increase in the availability of low cost or free digital fitness programs provides hope for addressing economic barriers to physical activity (10).
Reports frequently point out women’s domestic workloads and roles as caregivers as factors that limit their time to participate in physical activity or get to the gym.
The pandemic reinforced this barrier, with a 2020 Deloitte study observing that the number of women reporting responsibility for 75% or more of caregiving duties has nearly tripled to 48% during the pandemic (11).
Digital fitness communities provide a practical outlet for women to engage in physical activity on their own terms and in their own space, both physically and emotionally (12).
The ease of connecting to a livestream class from home with their dependents close by, or of streaming an on-demand video of a convenient duration any time of the day or night, makes fitting in time to exercise easier than ever for many women.
When it comes to sports participation, cultural norms, aesthetic pressure, and expectations around gender create a fear of being judged among women (12).
In one study on gender differences in strength training, women cite the presence and behaviors of men, feeling like they don’t know how to properly use the equipment, and feeling self-consciousness as common reasons for avoiding weight rooms and equipment (13).
Digital fitness communities provide a safe, private space with social support — something typically lacking for women in many male-dominated sport environments. The social encouragement, inspiration, and accountability inherent in women-focused digital fitness communities are promising steps forward in addressing cultural barriers to physical activity.
The bottom line
The global fitness industry is experiencing a digital revolution. As a result, a growing number of options are available for those who want to try various types of exercise — whether it’s a live-streamed yoga class with a $20 mat or an indoor mountain climb on a $2,495 Peloton bike.
Digital fitness is here to stay, even after the pandemic, and it can only help tackle the gender gap that has kept women from fully experiencing the benefits of physical activity. The digital fitness boom is empowering women both physically and mentally — and this year, we’ve more than earned the right to invest in ourselves.
This piece was crafted in partnership with The Collective Think Tank, a global consortium of academic minds and industry leaders focused on gender parity and improving diversity. The collaboration is led by The Collective, the international marketing agency Wasserman’s women-focused division.
Mujde Yuksel, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. She is a consumer behavior researcher with special interests in digital consumption and sports and entertainment marketing. Prior to academia, she had a 10-year background in professional sports as a basketball player for the Turkish National Team and prominent sports organizations in Turkey.