Almost three quarters of British women don't feel safe exercising outdoors in the dark

A new survey has found that half of British women are doing less exercise as the mornings and evenings get darker, with the UK’s largest healthcare charity and double Olympic Gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes warning of a lockdown health inequality.

We commissioned a YouGov poll of 2,110 GB adults ahead of a parliamentary debate on gym closures on Monday 23 November and follows data showing extremely low levels of COVID spread at gyms. It found that 50% of women do less exercise as the mornings and evenings get darker. 42% of men also said they will exercise less as it gets darker while nearly a third of men (29%) feel unsafe, which is particularly prevalent among younger age groups (61% among 18-24s). 

The issue has been compounded by a second national lockdown, which saw gyms and leisure facilities close across the country just as the UK switched from daylight saving time. 

The research also showed that over half of those surveyed (52%) feel that lockdown restrictions have had a negative impact on their mental health and 41% felt restrictions have negatively impacted their physical health, at a time when the Government is focused on tackling obesity levels. The mental health effect was particularly felt by women (59%) and younger people aged between 25 and 34 (66%).

A third of people surveyed (33%) said they had exercised less than usual during the Government lockdowns, and 57% of parents (with children 18 years or under) – saying it was hard to find the time during daylight hours. This could be because they have caring responsibilities. 

Given that the NHS identifies obesity as a risk factor in developing COVID-19, these figures are particularly concerning as we head into the winter months. Being active and healthy is the best way to support the NHS during this time but this new research highlights that many people may find it difficult to do so in coming months without access to a safe indoor space.  

ukactive statistics this year have demonstrated that gyms are very safe and COVID-secure. There have been 45 million visits since gyms reopened in July, and only 0.99 cases of COVID-19 in gyms per 100,000 visits. Public Health England data has shown that gyms are one of the least common places visited before receiving a positive COVID test, accounting for only 1.1% of visits. 

Gyms are currently closed under lockdown in England and it is unclear what restrictions will be in place when lockdown ends on 2nd December. A lack of access to gyms could also negatively impact using exercise to manage long-term conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as those recovering from recent surgeries. 

Parliament will debate a petition to prevent gyms from closing as a lockdown measure, which has 609,979 signatures, on Monday 23rd November. 

YouGov’s research also shows that 73% of gym users feel the gym helps them manage their physical health, and this figure was higher among older respondents aged 55+ (81%).  50% of people said they use the gym to lose weight, in the context of the Prime Minister’s recent drive to tackle obesity in order to reduce COVID deaths. 

Dame Kelly Homes, double Olympic Gold medallist, said: “These new figures demonstrate that many people’s mental and physical health is being impacted negatively by lockdown restrictions but the opportunities to exercise, which would have a beneficial impact are reduced during this lockdown, compared to in the Spring. 

"As we head into the Winter months and days get even shorter, people are finding it hard to find time to exercise outside. This will have a huge impact on everyone, but particularly disadvantages women, who most report feeling unsafe exercising outside, with fear of harassment likely playing a big part in this. It’s clear that this is a further example of a health inequality being caused by the lockdown. We’d urge the Government to reconsider reopening gyms as soon as possible to provide a safe space to exercise.”

Our Medical Director, Dr Davina Deniszczyc added: “There has been no evidence found that gyms pose an increased risk to transmitting COVID. Gyms must be prioritised as a sector to reopen following the lockdown and left out of future tiered restrictions. Not doing so presents a significant risk to people’s mental and physical health this winter and will lead to greater problems for the NHS in the long term. Gyms are an essential service, providing a safe indoor place for people of all ages to exercise, improve their health and take the burden off our NHS. This is particularly important given the links between obesity and COVID-19.“ 

Last updated Monday 23 November 2020

First published on Monday 23 November 2020