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A Question of Sport: what’s stopping you getting active?

The Print looks into the ever-popular New Year’s resolution to exercise more, and asks if a healthy mind is being overlooked in favour of a healthy body

As the New Year rolls around, many of us resolve to banish the booze and commit to healthier habits. For most, this means taking up a more frequent exercise regime – but it’s not always easy to stick to this resolution with the pressures of university. The stresses of student life, from a lack of time to divert away from studies to a lack of spare cash to cover the cost,  can play a factor in the breaking of good habits. Worryingly, however, research conducted by Sport England suggests that there is a further reason for lack of student participation in sport: 40% of respondents claimed they did not regularly participate in sport as a result of ‘self-consciousness and embarrassment’ about their bodies. More worrying still, of these students, the vast majority were female. In light of these statistics, it appears that issues of poor self-esteem and body image, particularly among female students, present a barrier to the myriad of health benefits that regular exercise can bring.

Fortunately, several campaigns have recently been launched, targeted at university students and at the wider community, which aim to increase involvement in physical activity. The QMSU Get Active campaign and the government initiative This Girl Can (backed by Sport England) both encourage young people to participate in sport. Get Active is ‘‘the Union’s fun convenient and affordable sport programme’’, which offers a wide range of ‘turn up and play’ activities. The itinerary ranges from traditional sports such as football, cricket, and basketball, to more radical activities including diving, archery, and BMX cycling. With sessions costing an average of £2, this campaign offers students at Queen Mary a cheaper way of trying out new activities and discovering new passions, making regular participation an achievable goal. Finding a sport or activity you are enthusiastic about arguably goes some way to combatting and overcoming feelings of self-consciousness. If you find something you enjoy doing, it doesn’t feel like such a chore.

On a more public stage, the This Girl Can campaign focuses specifically on the issue of female reluctance to participate in sport for reasons of body confidence. Their website addresses many women’s self-consciousness and fear of looking less-than-perfect whilst exercising, and thereby failing to get involved. The campaign aims to assuage their fears, claiming to be ‘‘a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets.’’ Taglines such as ‘’sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’’ cut to the heart of the matter, demonstrating that This Girl Can is about getting active, regardless of your appearance. Though targeted primarily at women, the message that the way you look whilst exercising doesn’t matter and should not prevent you from taking part is undoubtedly positive for students, irrespective of gender.

However, getting students involved in regular exercise is arguably only half of the battle against poor body image. Though campaigns such as QMSU’s Get Active and This Girl Can demonstrate that the health benefits of participating in sport are undeniable, being active does not necessarily address the root cause of self-esteem issues. The same survey conducted by Sport England also interviewed those who did take part in regular sporting activity: of the respondents, 39% admitted that they exercised in order to ‘feel more confident about their body image’. Such statistics raise the other side of this debate: though poor body-confidence can present a barrier to exercising, an unhealthy use of exercise can simply paper over underlying issues of body-confidence, or even aggravate them. In order to address issues of self-esteem, both physical and mental aspects have to be covered.

Fortunately, services which target this aspect of body-confidence can be found just around the corner from Queen Mary. Based in The Canvas Café and Creative Venue in Shoreditch, the BodyGossip campaign promotes the need to cultivate a healthy attitude to one’s own appearance. It aims to ‘’empower everybody to be the best version of themselves’’. Focusing their efforts on teenagers and young people, BodyGossip uses a combination of Arts (short films and live theatre) and Education Programmes to deal with the challenges the modern world presents against feeling confident and secure in oneself, regardless of physicality. Ruth Rogers, from BodyGossip, said: ‘‘Every day, we are being told we’re ugly by industries who are making money by preying on our insecurities.  The first step towards feeling better about your own, individual beauty is to see it as just that – you are unique…so before you try and change yourself to emulate the billboards and magazine ads, remember that the best person to look like is yourself.” In this way, well-being is addressed from a perspective of inner confidence, not outer modification.

Going to the gym regularly should not be the only reason you feel happy and secure within yourself. Missing exercise sessions should not inspire guilt and self-loathing.  If this is the case, Queen Mary Advice and Counselling can offer support to students struggling with issues of self-esteem and body-image, and help to work through the root causes of these issues. Having the courage to overcome insecurity in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle is an admirable thing, but so is remembering that you are not defined by your last gym session: remembering to work on the health of both mind and body this year could be the best resolution you make.

More about QMSU Get Active:

More about This Girl Can:

More about BodyGossip:

Image: Flickr/Thebiglunch

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