Most of us will stay fat as we're 'too scared' to exercise

It's worse than we thought. Not only are we fat and unfit but also half of us are actually afraid of exercise. According to a report to be published tomorrow, 52 per cent of Britons will be branded "fitness phobics".

It's worse than we thought. Not only are we fat and unfit but also half of us are actually afraid of exercise. According to a report to be published tomorrow, 52 per cent of Britons will be branded "fitness phobics".

The report will conclude that many of us are - for a variety of reasons - just too afraid to exercise. The excuses given range from fear of injury to embarrassment at sweating in public. Other excuses included a refusal to exercise because "the kids will laugh at me" and "I can't exercise because I'm out of shape".

While Jane Fonda once espoused a fitness regime based on the principle of no pain, no gain, many Britons, it now emerges, merely opt for the no pain solution.

Professor Craig Mahoney, one of the country's leading sports psychologists, who oversaw the report, said: "It is very easy for us to generate negative impressions of what exercise is about, particularly if we've had poor experiences of physical activity during our school days. This is a major condition, particularly among women, and it is difficult to turn around."

The findings, based on a survey of 1,000 adults, carried out by market research company TNS, showed 52 per cent of those surveyed were not planning to do any exercise this year. More than half, according to the professor's report, said that "the fear of the pain and discomfort of exercise ... is the key reason for people not taking up exercise".

Professor Mahoney, of the University of Wolverhampton, said the phobia, particularly among young people, needed to be addressed seriously by the Government if it wants to achieve its professed aim of getting the public exercising for 30 minutes a day, five times a week.

"Most young people think there's more fun to be had by drinking, smoking or meeting members of the opposite sex than by exercising," said Professor Mahoney. "They think they're invulnerable. What they don't accept is that a lack of exercise now will come back to haunt them later in life - in the form of high blood pressure, diabetes or coronary heart disease. It's a whole lot more serious than people realise."

The study, paid for by the gym chain Cannons Health and Fitness, is the latest indictment of the state of the UK's physical health. Britain is already one of the least healthy nations in Europe, and the Government estimates that 70 per cent of us do not undertake enough exercise. Last week, a new national governing body for physical activity, the Get Fit Foundation, was set up in response to growing concerns.

According to the public health White Paper, published in November, 22 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women are now classified as obese with a cost to the public purse of £3.6bn by 2010.

According to the latest study, although 18 per cent of Britons pledged to get fit as their New Year's resolution, more than a third will have given up by the end of March.

Professor Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, said it was not just the gym-goers, but also the gyms that were largely responsible for this fitness phobia.

"A lot of people still find gyms unwelcoming places," said Professor Cashmore. "The industry needs to own up to the fact that it simply doesn't supply a good product to people.

"We pay twice as much for gym memberships here as people do in the US, but the gyms there are better value: they are better maintained, cleaner, and tend to offer more support and more interesting classes. I don't think the industry here is really doing enough to encourage people to keep going to the gym."

The findings of the survey support those of another report, published in October, which found that half of all teenage girls wanted to be fitter, but felt embarrassed and uncomfortable about exercising in front of other people.

The paper, My Body, My Self, by Professor Helen Haste of Bath University, found further evidence of fitness phobia among those in the 11 to 21 age group.

"Particularly for girls, there was a tension between wanting to improve their appearance but at the same time being anxious about how they looked in exercise clothes, and exercising in front of other people," Professor Haste said. "The conclusion that we reached was that we needed to be able to provide facilities to allow girls to exercise without confronting that tension."

According to the latest industry figures, around 10 per cent of the population are currently members of a health and fitness club. Membership of a private club, of which there are almost 2,000 in the UK, costs an average of £442 a year, according to a survey last month by fitness company Holmes Place.

Tellingly perhaps, its research showed that just three per cent of its members cited "enjoyment" as a reason to go to the gym.


'Something in my arm went ping'

Michael Brown, 31, is a regular smoker. He admits he should be doing some kind of exercise to "compensate", but can't bring himself to do so - largely because of a painful accident he suffered last year.

Mr Brown joined an expensive gym in central London in the summer, but lasted only a few minutes before seriously injuring an arm - and he has not returned to the gym since.

"I think it was the third bit of machinery that I tried," said Mr Brown, an advertising executive from south London.

"I wasn't trained in how to use it, and something just went ping in my arm. The next day I couldn't even lift the arm up to shoulder height: I had to hold it in place and move my head around to clean my teeth.

"It gave me a real mental block about going to the gym. At lunchtimes my colleagues spring up and grab their gym bags, but I just get the fear - and feel the twinge in my elbow."

Mr Brown is still paying £35 a month for his gym membership, thanks to a contract signed when he joined, but he has no intention of going back.

"I committed to the gym for six months, but I ended up lasting about six minutes," he said.

"It was meant to be improving my health, but it did the opposite really."

'Sweating in public does not appeal'

Amy Smith, 26, a public relations executive from Steeton in West Yorkshire, is so averse to exercise that she doesn't even own a pair of trainers. She feels uncomfortable without the right clothes or make-up on, and particularly ill at ease with the idea of sweating in front of others. She has never been inside a gym.

"The gym scares me to death," said Ms Smith. "The way you have to dress there scares me, and the fact that other people are watching you while you're there.

"I'm quite an image-conscious person: I like to have my make-up on and my hair in place, and the fact that in a gym you have to sweat in public and look revolting just doesn't ring my bell."

She said the gym is "the last place" she'd like to be.

"I wouldn't go to the pub, run up and down and get my hair all messy, so why would I do it in the gym?" she said.

"You want to look good in public, and the thought of sweating in a room full of people you don't know just does not appeal."

'A real Bridget Jones moment'

Louise Kirsh, a policy researcher from Hainault, Essex, says she is a "fitness phobic". She joined a gym as a New Year's resolution at university, but went only once.

"I wouldn't go the gym now if you paid me," said Ms Kirsh, 23. "I had one gym experience and it put me off for life.

"It was immediately obvious that I didn't know what I was doing and might collapse at any minute. It felt like everyone was kind of looking at me, waiting for it to happen. It felt very uncomfortable, and I quickly discovered there's no way to look attractive at the gym.

"I was going to have a go on some of the weight machines, but they just looked like instruments of torture and I didn't know what to do with them.

"Basically, it was a real Bridget Jones moment and I wouldn't go back. I'd love to be fit, but I just can't bring myself to do it."