jada sezer fitness barriers

Crappy sports bras and expensive gyms: the barriers to fitness keeping women unfit

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Put off from running by your crappy sports bra? Tired of never seeing women like you at the gym? Here’s how to overcome all of that, with the help of marathoner and model, Jada Sezer.

With so many gyms, studios, influencers and athleisure brands around, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve reached peak fitness. You can’t go into a clothes store these days without being bombarded with a new activewear collection. But just how accessible is fitness and sport to most women, and how can we get more women moving comfortably?

According to research by the University of Bristol, English girls are among the least active in the world, with the latest Women in Sport report finding that just 8% of girls aged 5-18 are doing 60 minutes of physical activity every day (half that of boys). The same paper found that by the time girls reach 14, one in three is so unhappy with their body that they no longer feel comfortable exercising, while 35% say they feel unconfident or uncomfortable with being watched while moving.

1. Finding the right gym kit

One person who believes that things really have progressed since she was at school is model and marathon runner, Jada Sezer. Now in her early 30s, Sezer has become a regular face in the sportswear industry, fronting campaigns for Adidas and working with brands like Asics – not bad for a woman who at 16, “had to layer crop top over crop top” for support.

For Sezer, physical education (PE) at school was something she really enjoyed, despite the lack of “diversity or size inclusivity” on display by sports brands – something that she knows forced a lot of her classmates to drop out of exercising.

“Fortunately I went to an all-girls school so I didn’t have the added pressure of boys thinking: ‘Oh my God, look at her run, jiggling around’, but I still wore lots of oversized T-shirts to avoid the overspill that you can get when you have big boobs and not very good bras.”

That lack of great support and attractive kit was one reason that motivation to work out eventually dwindled when Sezer reached university. She tells Stylist that her go-to outfit would be a baggy jumper that wasn’t really nice enough to wear out of the house. “I don’t recall having access to the size ranges that we have now and that inevitably put me off. If you think that you look like crap and you’ve got to go and do stuff that is hard, there’s no real incentive to carry on.”

Having the right kit then is one of the main barriers to fitness that women face, Sezer believes – particularly for those living in bigger bodies or don’t necessarily conform to standard ‘fitness’ shapes. “I’ve found that stepping into the gym as a larger woman can be intimidating because you stand out,” she explains. “That’s connected to the way that fitness is marketed as a means of changing your body to conform to society’s ideal body type.” 

What would get more people through the doors of gyms, studios and clubs instead would be talking about how fitness can enhance health. “The way that [fitness] messaging has been marketed to us is one reason I believe that women drop out of exercise.”

jada sezer fitness barriers
One of the biggest barriers to fitness in the past has been the lack of stylish, inclusive sports bras — something that Sports Direct's new bra-finding tool has been working to improve.

2. Getting a properly supportive sports bra

According to research by the English Institute of Sport (EIS) at the University of Portsmouth, more than a quarter of elite female GB athletes have had their ability to train or compete hampered by breast pain from ill-fitting bras. 

If even the best sportswomen have to deal with poor support, then what about the rest of us? Sports Direct’s newly revamped store on Oxford Street has just launched a new multi-brand bra-finding tool to help women find the right support. All you have to do is scan the QR code and then you’ll be taken through questions about what kind of activity you do, support you want and size you are, before throwing up a wide range of bra options available to buy. 

Sezer says that that bra finder has “opened up so many more options” for her as she can go in and be told what high-impact bras are available in her size. “It’s done all the hard work for me.”

As a size 16 who wears a 34GG bra, finding support to run, lift and bend is absolutely crucial for Sezer. “I’ve tried every bra when it comes to running but the Elomi Energiser bra is my go-to. It was a God-send when I found that bra. It’s not the prettiest but it’s functional and it’s supportive and doesn’t give me backache.”

Having gone from running her first marathon to teaching yoga, Sezer’s bra needs have obviously changed. She now values comfort more than anything and looks to bras that remain breathable during a sweaty flow. “I definitely think that it’s because brands are making kits in larger size ranges that I’m able to have the range of options that weren’t there before.”

3. Diversity within fitness

Aside from her fashion career and running challenges, Sezer is currently training to be a yoga teacher. It’s that experience on the mat that makes her well-positioned to understand why more women aren’t turning up to studios. “If you look at yoga studios, there’s often a lack of size and ethnic diversity. Not seeing different faces in marketing campaigns, social media and within the studio is going to stop women from coming in. They’re just not seeing themselves as a part of those fitness communities.”

She suggests that institutional racism plays a huge role in keeping certain sectors of society away from mainstream venues. Fitness spaces and activities can be expensive, and discrimination can have a knock-on effect on employment rates, wage rates and the ability to pay £10 for a yoga class. “There are loads of levels that need to be addressed.”

Fundamentally, brands have a role to play in changing their messaging to encourage women of all sizes, incomes and backgrounds to get involved. “Sport is for all abilities and fitness shouldn’t be reserved for the super-fit or skinny,” says Sezer. Many of us would argue that that messaging is changing; Nike was the first sports brand to boast plus-size mannequins – promoting this idea that all bodies can move.

4. Life beyond the gym

Here’s a barrier that many of us will relate to: Sezer says that she used to think it was “mandatory to have a gym membership” – because that was the most heavily marketed fitness offering around when she was growing up. If you don’t want to lift weights or spend your mornings slogging it out on a treadmill, being at the gym may not necessarily make you feel good or motivated to continue moving.

“These days, I’m a member of a yoga studio and have trained with an international running club,” she explains. Finding those ways of exercising that suit her has been half of the battle, and have allowed her to form mantras and ways of thinking about fitness that are wholly based in the positive. “‘You never regret a run,’ was a quote I’d tell myself on frosty mornings when training for the marathon,” Sezer recalls of her journey to the 2018 London Marathon, which she ran in her underwear.

“Starting a sport or returning to one has always been quite daunting, and worrying about not being at the level I once was can feel immediately demotivating – but overcoming those fears and expectations is so empowering.”

For more fitness investigations, healthy recipes and workout ideas, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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