Rochelle Grayson makes a point of getting out for long walks as often as possible. It’s her way of taking care of herself and literally walking the walk.

“I see that there are a lot of women my age who have dropped sports or were never physically active and I just thought it’s important to show them that you can pick up athletic activities at any point in your life,” said Grayson, an advocate for women in sport.

 

She was well into her 30s and almost 300 pounds before she took charge and got fit.

 

But that’s something eight out of 10 women in Canada aren’t doing.

A new study makes it clear that there are many reasons for the fact that only 16 per cent of women participate in any physical activity, besides a lack of motivation. The Women in Sports report, subtitled “Fueling a Lifetime of Participation,” says women have too few role models, they don’t get financial support to do professional sports and there is little media coverage of female sports. Those gaps affect all women, even the many who don’t participate in professional sports.

 

Grayson experienced all of these barriers. She was never encouraged to do sports, she didn’t see any female role models and “as a businesswoman, I was really pissed off that there is not more money going into women in sports.”

 What it took to make change

“Mentally, I’ve found a lot of creativity coming from my walks. Professionally, I’ve been more focused. I feel much more confident in who I am. It’s not about looking better, it’s about being healthy,” said Grayson.

 

The report goes into great detail to describe the systemic barriers to women. Grayson can relate to the study’s findings.

 

When she was younger she didn’t think she had time for it. She was never really encouraged to do sports. It was never a priority in her life, even though she’d always paid attention to her weight. She was only nine when she first went to Weightwatchers.

 

It wasn’t until she was 37 and completely out of shape that she decided it was time for a change. This time, it wasn’t about a diet.

 

“I didn’t set a goal around weight. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t aim for a certain number or dress size, it was just about being healthy. And I knew to be healthy I had to be more active than I was,” she said.

 

Grayson started going for long daily walks as well as doing exercises with free weights at home. She feels better than ever. And now, she wants to spread the word because she knows the trend is getting worse.

 

In 1992, more than one third of adult women participated in sports. Today, the number is less than half that. The report found that about 50 per cent of all girls do physical activities and participate in organized sport. That number drops as the girls become adults.

 

“Girls still believe sports are for boys”

The biggest problem overall: “Girls still believe sports are for boys.”

 

That’s what many of the 657 female leaders interviewed for the report emphasized repeatedly.

 

When people talk to women about sports, they make it sound as though mental toughness or competitiveness is an exclusively male trait and that the only way to succeed in sports is, therefore, to be like a man. Then there are male athletes who sometimes dismiss female competitors, when, for example, they claim that women are riding coat tails of men.

 

Leah Goldstein is an example — the kind that many women don’t get to see — of how women can be tough and competitive. Goldstein is a world-champion kickboxer and an ultra-endurance cyclist.

 

She believes the more women excel in sport the more girls will see sport as an option.

 

“We grow up being told we should be dainty and we have to be looked after. That’s the impact we have on young girls. But you can’t use that as an excuse not to do something. You have to use that as fuel. The best revenge is showing someone what you’re made out of and succeeding at what you set out to do. Listening to these type of stereotypes is weak, and I think girls are a lot stronger than that.”

 

Girls also need to see women at every level in sport, said the report. Yet, 68 per cent of Canadian Inter University Sport head coaches for female teams are male and 82 per cent of head coaches for mixed teams are men.

 

Added to that to a lack of coverage even when women are participating in professional sports  – out of all the sports programming on Canadian national networks in 2014, only four per cent featured women’s games or competitions – and it’s no surprise that many girls and women don’t consider physical activity vital.

 

Sue Bird recently wrote an article for The Player’s Tribune in which she discussed the systemic inequality.

 

“On my 2010 Seattle Storm team, we had this player who only played for one year — Jana Vesela, a six-foot-five-inch guard from the Czech Republic. When she would come into the game, everything would change in these subtle ways. We could switch off screens. She could hit outside shots. She could post up. She could do all of these ‘little’ things that gave other teams problems. She made teams adjust. That was Vesela. And yet it seemed like no one knew her value. Where’s her story?”

 

Sports are also missing from women’s everyday lives.

 

The report noted that most adult women not only don’t participate in amateur leagues or
organized activities, like hiking, but they just don’t do anything at all.

 

That’s even though health experts are constantly reminding anyone who will listen that any kind of physical activity is better than none. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, benefits range from reducing risks for future diseases to improving moods and  extending life expectancy.

 

When Grayson decided to get active, she didn’t aim for the Olympics or even a weekend sports league. She just tried to incorporate a level of basic physical activity that most women are missing.

 

“What was most important to me was, really, what did I think I could maintain? If you think you can do 10 minutes of activity every day and commit to that, I would say do that. Consistency is way more important than metrics.”