Introducing the This Girl Can classes

Guest blog by Shelley Meyern, Head of Operations and Projects, EMD UK

The This Girl Can campaign was born to increase the number of women participating in exercise and sport, to reduce the gender gap and keep women engaged. Fear was stopping some women from exercising and Sport England’s insight told them “That women felt distanced from exercise due to the usual portrayal of women and exercise in society.” ¹

Since 2015, the Sport England This Girl Can campaign has activated millions of women across England to take part in physical activity. With fitness classes only second to running in terms of female participation (if you exclude walking) and 38% of female attendance at leisure centres being for group exercise (UK Active 2018 data). Sport England identified that emotional barriers such as feelings of inadequacy with respect to ability, self-consciousness around appearance and fears of being judged for prioritising exercise over family or work as well as embarrassment in new social environments were key factors that impede women’s participation. In addition, there were practical factors such as cost, lack of time, lack of an exercising peer group or cultural norms that can affect women – especially those from LSEG, diverse ethnic community or teen demographics.

When looking at EMD UK 2020 You Gov data, for those that don’t participate in fitness classes, perceived cost, inconvenient class times and feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness came out as the top reasons why. This was backed up by the beginner exercise class pilots we ran (which were key elements of our planning and preparation phase) where the women who attended listed being confident they could keep up, instructor support and price as key reasons that prompted their attendance. Additionally, further Sport England research indicated that perceived ability to keep up was a key motivator to participate for those who were not active (achieving less than 150 mins a week).

Exercise classes can seem intimidating to the less active, even if they are attracted to the prospect, as the enclosed group atmosphere heightens fears of being judged for not being able to keep up/ for being overweight, uncoordinated etc. Classes are often an hour long and of high intensity, with equipment and movements that people may not have done or used before. Many of the recognised brands in the market are aspirational rather than reassuring and although some providers do run “beginner” classes, these aren’t the norm, they often aren’t run at peak times, and there’s no standard and recommended way to do these or market them in order to reassure and therefore attract less active women.

Focus groups have shown that there are many women who have the drive to participate in exercise classes but have had an experience which has meant that they haven’t gone back. An example quote from a less active woman being … “It just used to kill me: I ended up coming out feeling so embarrassed because I’d stop halfway through or forget the routine. I hated that but if it was a group of people, I could feel comfortable with then yes I would prefer to be in a group for the motivation.”

We felt that there was an opportunity to co-build with channel partners, a way of running and promoting classes, as well as improving workforce delivery and the class concepts available to ensure that this highly desirable exercise type could be opened up to less active women – increasing participation and helping toward the Sport England target, at the time, of getting 250,000 more women active by 2021.

But developing a new group exercise concept wasn’t the only objective. The ultimate objective of this work is to provoke a sustained behaviour change among less active women – at scale. The objectives underpinning this are to open up exercise classes to women who previously felt that it wasn’t for them or who have had a bad experience, and also to work with leisure operators as well as instructors to shift focus to less active females showing that they are an audience worth engaging with in their group exercise programme. Either by showing it makes financial sense or, showing how it can help them achieve their local authority contract requirements. We wanted to keep the needs of the providers, in this case the leisure operators and instructors, as well as deep-rooted female insights at the heart of this initiative.

In 2019, following detailed conversations with Sport England, we partnered with This Girl Can and started creating This Girl Can Classes. Work began to develop a new concept focused on getting inactive women active through group exercise by introducing them to different group exercise styles.

Building on the success of the This Girl Can campaign, This Girl Can Classes was developed working alongside experts in the sector and built on insight from the target audience. The emphasis being on having fun, having a go, and having a laugh. We knew that the music we chose was pivotal to the success of the product.

The classes are designed to tackle the aforementioned barriers and are structured to offer two tasters of different types of group exercise each week such as dance fitness, box fitness, tone, variable intensity training, and yoga inspired stretch. Classes are low intensity with instructors trained to create a warm, inclusive, fun, and non-judgemental experience for all. The overall aim being to support women to move into other group exercise classes as and when they are ready.

We are hopeful that This Girl Can Classes can have multiple impacts across the sector. The primary aim is to increase activity levels in the target group, but we also hope to work with instructors to develop their delivery skills, to think about how they approach instructing classes to remove the barriers. We also believe the classes can open up an untapped audience for leisure operators, and be a mechanism to bring communities together, creating active environments led by instructors delivering classes in their local communities.

Instructor training has now launched² and a webinar saw over 1000 people sign up to find out more. As well as instructors undertaking training to deliver the classes within local communities, a number of leisure operators have signed up to add it to their timetables. Alongside this, early adopters are being supported with physical This Girl Can Classes marketing collateral, paid media campaigns and branded kit. The early signs are promising and with classes launching, a brand new This Girl Can Classes website³, an evaluation programme in place, and a consumer campaign planned for early 2022, working with partners across the sector we hope this is just the start of something amazing, an offering which can promote behaviour change at scale.

¹ Sport England, This Girl Can Campaign Summary, 2020