A SEARCH in the picture archive for "women & exercise" throws up a smorgasbord of stereotypes.

Ladies stretching, ladies on mats, ladies high fiving, and ladies stretching on mats while high fiving. What a feat. They have one thing in common: no sweat and all smiles.

In lecturing people about taking up regular exercise for a specific number of minutes a week – the NHS recommended 150 minutes moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity – we forget to mention that quite often it doesn't leave you with a swooping feeling of elation and a joyous glow.

It can be hard, boring and feel utterly not beneficial. It takes time, motivation and perseverance to really get into an exercise routine to the point of enjoying it and keeping going to that point is hard.

At the start of lockdown the swimming pools closed, the gyms closed, classes were stopped, team sports ceased and exercise sessions moved online. Being among other people with a shared goal is, for many of us, the best motivating factor to keep moving.

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Hats off, unequivocally, to those who managed to sign up for online yoga or show up every week to Joe Wicks. Unless there's someone with a beady eye on me, I don't have the commitment to persevere.

With the lack of access to in-person fitness classes and the extra duties of home schooling, home working and the stress of becoming amateur virologists, forced to learn an entire new lexicon and about mitigating risk in an emergency situation, it's no wonder keeping fit has fallen off the to do list.

It is, as with so many things, women who are worst affected. Almost half the female population does no regular exercise, new figures show, after giving up sport in lockdown. Unsurprisingly, as a result, a third of women say their physical health has deteriorated in the past 12 months.

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For men, the figure was one third doing no regular exercise and a quarter said their health had declined. That's quite the gap.

Two in five women said they had stopped exercising entirely in the pandemic and found it difficult to start again.

Women can be terrible at putting themselves first. It is a frustratingly enduring fact that women do the vast bulk of everything: they take on the childcare, the caring roles, the housework, volunteering, and on and on. They feel less safe cycling than men do, and they feel less safe running alone or in the evenings.

When it comes to making time and creating justifications for going to a football session or HIIT class, everything takes priority.

It is laughable to hear fretting about a lack of organised exercise meaning a sedentary lifestyle. That doesn't quite correlate to running around after children, belting from school drop off to the office, and running around the house doing chores.

But while health providers do acknowledge housework as cardio, it's a rotten deal for women that men get football and they get the hoovering.

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A huge and obvious barrier to allowing women time and space to exercise is the fact we do not live in a child-friendly society, it is simply not designed for ease of raising children.

When my godson was small, his mother found herself driving 40 minutes each way to the only vaguely local gym that had a creche. If you are a young mum who wants to take part in daytime exercise classes then you need access to childcare but this isn't freely or easily available in short, class-sized chunks and certainly not affordable for everyone.

Ditto evening sessions if there isn't a willing partner to support her.

It can be daunting getting started. There's a general assumption that you need to go into exercise classes with a base level of fitness at the beginning. Without that level of fitness, women don't want to start exercising. But they'll never build up to that level without exercising, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

It's also an absolute slog to regain lost fitness, both physically and mentally. Physically, you feel terrible in the early days. There is nothing like the pain of the day after a first exercise session. That feeling of trying to sit down the next day but being unable to command your thigh muscles sufficiently for a controlled landing. And forget getting back up again.

Oh, and the perturbed wonder of feeling aches in places you didn't know there were muscles to begin with. That's such a cliche - "I've hurt muscles I didn't know I had". But it endures because it's true.

I did a weights class three days ago and I can't fully straighten my arms without muscles just above the crook of my elbow screaming at me. That's a first.

There is pleasure in the pain eventually but it takes time to feel any enjoyment.

It can be embarrassing to be the slowest or the largest or the least bendy or the one woman with no idea what's she's doing. It shouldn't be - no one's really looking, they're all too focused on their own form - but woman are self-conscious.

It's easy to say, "No one looking" but another thing to believe it. There's also a damaging lack of visibility of women's sport in the media, which is its own column, but important here too. You have to see it to be encouraged to do it.

Plenty of well meaning articles try to negate all of the above by encouraging women to build exercise into their daily routines. Always take the stairs, goes one commonly recited maxim. Do squats while you wait for the kettle to boil and single leg raises while you clean your teeth.

Get off the bus a stop early and walk or do stomach crunches during Love Island.

Very efficient but very anti a major boon of exercise, which is the mental health benefits of being among other people, of being part of a team and of being encouraged by those around you to work towards a common goal.

With obesity rates rising and an increased awareness of the importance of exercise in boosting mental health, women's reduced lack of engagement in fitness is an important issue to be tackled.

However, it has to be approached in such a way as to avoid implying this is something at which women are failing. We've been nagged long enough about doing it all and not making time for sport on top is not a failure.

The decline dovetails with wider issues, and those all need a head on tackle and not kicked off into the long grass.