Physical Activity

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Physical Activity
by Karla/ on 12 Jan 2018

Physical Activity

Sex and Gender-based Analysis of this topic


Physical activity can be defined as any bodily movement that is produced by skeletal muscles and results in an increase in heart rate and breathing [1]. Physical activity has been shown to have positive health benefits across a broad spectrum, including preventing disease, improving health, promoting independence and quality of life in old age [2], as well as being essential for children and youth’s healthy growth and development [3]. Regular physical activity is also associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, cancer, coronary heart disease, dementia, depression, stress, and anxiety [4]. For women, it is particularly important to engage in physical activity as it represents one of few modifiable factors that can reduce breast cancer risk, as well as other health problems. [5].

Statistics Canada classifies Canadians as physically active, moderately physically active, or physically inactive based on self-reported levels of physical activity, using an index of average daily physical activity over the past 3 months [6]. In 2011, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) developed Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines that “describe the amount and types of physical activity that offer substantial health benefits for Canadians” [7]. Adults (18-64 years) and older adults (65 years and older) are recommended to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous intensity physical activity/week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Children and youth should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity/day. Although rates of physical activity have been increasing since 1981, it is estimated that only 14% of Canadian women and 17% of men aged 20-79 years met the physical activity recommendations in 2007-2009 [8] and just over 53% of Canadian adults reported being either active or moderately active in 2010 [9]. Canadian women remain consistently behind men in physical activity rates, regardless of age group [8].

Sedentary behaviour and lack of physical activity have been associated with several health concerns, including weight gain, type 2 diabetes mellitus, some cancers, abnormal glucose metabolism, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease [10], psychological problems, lower self-esteem, decreased academic performance [11], and reduced bone mineral density [12].

Sex Issues

Men are more physically active than women. In 2010, 50% of women and 56% of men reported being moderately active or active in their leisure-time [13]. This difference in activity levels is noted across all age ranges in Canada but the gap is most pronounced for younger women (under 35) and older women (65 and older). Although there is a gap in physical activity in boys and girls under age 12, girls become increasingly less active than boys after age 12 [14]. According to the 2007/08 Canadian Community Health Survey, women and men also engage in different types of physical activities; the most common activities among women include walking, gardening, home exercises, swimming, and dancing [15].

Gender Issues

Physical activity is a gendered experience and the differences in physical activity rates for men and women are at least partially caused by the role of gender in the social, economic, and health realities of women’s lives. The most commonly reported barrier to physical activity is lack of time due to family responsibilities [16, 17], indicating a clear health impact of traditional caregiving responsibilities. Some women may also experience barriers based on cultural beliefs that are not supportive of their involvement in physical activity [18]. Additionally, a woman’s physical environment and socioeconomic status may create barriers to physical activity, such as a lack of safe spaces to exercise, limited access to affordable facilities and equipment, or lack of childcare resources [18].

There are specific gender-related concerns for adolescent girls, for whom the gender gap between physical activity rates is the most pronounced. While the reasons for this gap are not completely understood, it is most likely a combination of factors including attitudes towards physical activity that are rooted in unrealistic stereotypes of body shape, limited access to suitable high school physical education classes and/or organized sports, and insensitivity of current programming to girls of varying cultural backgrounds [19].


Differences in physical activity rates exist in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, immigrant status, age, and geography. Women of low socioeconomic status, as well as recent immigrants, are less likely to be as physically active as the Canadian average, whereas off-reserve Aboriginal people are more likely to be at least moderately physical active [20]. Across Canada, women in British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon are more likely to report being active or moderately active in their leisure time, while female residents of Quebec, Nunavut, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories are more likely to be below the average for Canadian women [21].


Not all women have the same opportunities to be physically active. Women with low income may not have the resources required to join exercise programs or clubs and/or be able to get to recreational facilities due to transportation costs. As women are more likely to be in low-paying and precarious employment, their time may also be more constrained and they may be disproportionally less likely to have jobs that provide access to physical activity facilities at the workplace [22]. High income neighourhoods often have more community resources for recreational facilities and may thus provide girls and women with more options for being physically active [23]. Neighbourhood safety is another factor that impacts girls and women’s physical activity and there is a need for strategies that ensure that neighbourhoods are safe for walking, cycling, and other forms of physical activity. There is also a need for strategies to ensure equitable access to resources [24], including access to suitable physical education classes and/or organized sports which may be subject to gender-related inequities.


Currently, there is no system to accurately measure the physical activity levels of Canadians. Data is often collected through self-report surveys, which can result in reporting bias. Further, commonly used measures of physical activity rarely capture activities performed in the workplace, school, household work, or transportation [17]. Since activities performed by women with young children are often unstructured (e.g., carrying children while performing household chores), these activities are often less memorable and more difficult to categorize and quantify compared to planned physical activities [25]. Research is needed to evaluate the determinants of physical activity for different groups of women, including those at particular risk such as adolescent girls, Aboriginal and immigrant women, women of low socioeconomic status, as well as elderly women and lone mothers. By understanding the barriers, policy and programming can be further developed to help close the gap between women’s and men’s physical activity rates.