We all know we should eat healthy and get regular exercise. We know this because governments and the community sector spend a lot of time and money telling us this. We know they care about our community’s average waistline and fitness because of the relationship between BMI and preventable disease. But putting it all into practice as individuals is not that easy. Especially at this time of year.
Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) recently published Physical activity and healthy eating promotion to ACT women: A guide to getting it right. The research behind the report included interviews and focus groups with 52 ACT women aged 18 to 64 years old, talking about what works and what doesn’t in health promotion. On Wednesday 12 December, WCHM will host a MapJam event to map services in the ACT that can help women eat healthy and be active, with a focus on free or low-cost services.
A key finding is that the majority of women know that they should eat healthy and be active, they want to be healthy, and they are trying to do the right things. But it’s not always easy, and they would appreciate some constructive advice on how to achieve their goals rather than just messaging that reinforces the importance of healthy behaviours. In the words of women who participated in the WCHM research:
“We all know we need to eat healthy and exercise. Okay. We’re not dumb. We know this.”
“The formula is simple, but the activation of it is hard.”
Women told WCHM that they value healthy behaviours because of the impact it has on their ability to live a full and happy life, doing all the things they need to do:
“… for me, it’s about endurance. It’s about being physically and mentally healthy because I can’t afford to break.”
It will come as no surprise that one of the biggest barriers to women eating healthy and being physically active is time. When women spend all their time juggling paid work, caring responsibilities, and domestic tasks, there just isn’t enough time left for them to meal plan or prepare healthy food, or to get the exercise they want and need. Other barriers include affordability, safety in public spaces or in carparks outside gyms and sports centres, and the fear of judgement or feelings of shame around their body and knowing how to do the activities.
“I guess from a women’s perspective, I don’t feel safe on my own at night-time running through the suburbs or walking even…”
Making exercise a social activity helps women to continue the habit.
“There’s a real community with whatever sport you do. Even running, which you think of as a solitary sport, there’s still a running community. Being able to do something with friends.”
Healthy eating is also easier when it’s shared with family and friends.
“… my partner and I enjoy eating healthy. We have set cooking nights and we plan and go to the markets, it’s social as well, we get coffee and walk around. It’s nice …”
These healthy habits become a part of some women’s identity, something that they want to do for intrinsic reasons because it’s part of who they are.
“For me, it’s like a basis of who I am. When I am unable to be physically active because (of) illness or injury or constraints on my time at work or obligations, it feels like a part of my life is being sacrificed and it’s degrading and it’s the foundation of who I am. It’s part of my identity. That’s what it means to me, it’s part of how I engage with the world.”
Women who had healthy eating habits growing up also found it easier to maintain or return to healthy eating habits as adults. Other women found innovative ways to develop new skills:
“Two years ago I had a mum friend who just couldn’t get organised. And so I’d go in … and just help her declutter. And she would help me with recipes … ‘Look I’m crap in the kitchen. Show me some skills, man’ … Bounce off a buddy.”