On International Women's Day, it's important to take a moment to consider that women's equity, particularly in health and wellbeing, is further away than ever. Despite progress in some areas, research shows that one in three women worldwide are doing so little exercise that it's harming their health (WHO), less than half of women have done any strenuous exercise in the past year (Nuffield Health), and girls as young as five don't feel that they belong in sport (Women In Sport). These statistics are troubling, and stubborn inequalities for women have worsened due to global challenges such as COVID-19, violent conflicts, climate change, and the backlash against women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. It may take close to 300 years to achieve full gender equality at the current rate of progress.
Despite the alarming numbers, there is hope. And it comes in the form of an often underestimated, yet steadily growing and increasingly determined army of movement builders, community creators and activists that have made it their mission to provide safe and inclusive opportunities for women of all backgrounds to not only get involved in regular physical activity, but to change how women feel about their physicality and create lifelong exercise habits that stick.
This International Women's Day, as brands and organisations around the world hurry to add the #embraceequity hashtag to a hastily assembled campaign, we would like to shine a light on the work that is happening day in and day out, often under the radar of mainstream activities, to break down the barriers that keep so many women from the joy of regular movement.
As we celebrate International Women's Day, it's important to recognize the incredible impact that communities dedicated to empowering women to be more physically active are having. Groups like This Mum Runs, Black Girls Do Run UK, Fearless 261, ASRA, and Black Trail Runners are quite literally changing the game, smashing down barriers to exercise and creating inclusive ways for women to start moving more. Through their always-on communities, truly innovative programmes and often bootstrapped campaigns, these organisations are shifting perceptions of women's fitness and inspiring women of all ages and backgrounds to take the first step towards a healthier, happier life. Their work is crucial in creating a world where all women can thrive and achieve their full potential.
Empathy and lived experience is just one of the magic ingredients used by these communities, core to their DNA and infusing every aspect of their mission and programming. By leveraging empathy and lived experience, these communities are able to co-design highly relevant and impactful experiences and programmes that address the unique needs and challenges faced by women. It is particularly important in helping them to reach women who have traditionally been excluded from exercise, such as women who don't identify as "sporty", women of colour and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The true catalyst for sustainable and scalable change in women's physical activity, though, is something that meets the simplest of human needs - the desire to belong.
"“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” C S lewis
What connects each of these communituies is the sheer craftsmanship they have in creating and nurturing meaningful connection, through both digital and in person communities, connection that is created and amplified every single day, connection that is intentional and doesn't just happen by chance.
Women who join these groups are able to connect with other women who share their life experiences, challenges, and aspirations. They form meaningful relationships, support each other, feel safe enough to be vulnerable about their deepest fears; they inspire one another to push past their limits and achieve their dreams - whether that’s their first ever 1 minute run, a regular 30 minute run, or building the confidence to get out on the trails. The feeling that "these women's lives are just like mine" is like a sledgehammer, breaking through every last barrier. And this sense of community is especially important for women who may feel isolated or unsupported in other areas of their lives.
The truly magical thing is: when women feel empowered and supported, they are more likely to stick with their exercise routine and to encourage others to do the same.
This Mum Runs is just one example of a community-obessed organisation that provides an incredibly inclusive space for all women to engage in regular exercise, with multiple access points designed for both those who have been long term inactive or have never run before, and those who just want to be a bit more active. This includes free weekly runs in hyper-local communities, a free Run 30® app for beginners, and a nationwide network of digital community chapters. These communities provide a 24-7 window into what's happening for women right now, what they need and how we can best support them through relevant programming. In addition, through a series of listening circles with diverse groups of women, including military personnel, single mothers, black runners, and Muslim women, TMR has recently gained valuable insight into the barriers to exercise that these groups face - insight that has been invaluable in developing pilot programmes tailored to meet their needs, such as a new community-led programme for Muslim mothers in a deprived area of Birmingham.
With 68% of women in the TMR community more active than 2 years ago, and 90% attributing that to a feeling of connection with the TMR community; theirs is an approach that is delivering results.
Black Girls Do Run UK and Black Trail Runners are also doing important work in creating safe and inclusive spaces for women of colour to engage in regular movement. These communities have lived experience and a deep understanding of the unique challenges that women of colour face, including racism, discrimination and a lack of visible representation; so they advocate, speak out and work to provide a supportive environment, to create community experiences where women can come together and feel empowered and encouraged to exercise - whether that’s on the streets of London, or the mountain trails of Wales.
Fearless 261 is a grassroots community that was founded by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Fearless 261 provides brilliant training, support, and advocacy for women of all ages and abilities across the globe, with a particular focus on empowering women to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.
ASRA is a UK-based running community that aims to inspire and empower Muslim women to lead active and healthy lifestyles. They provide a safe and inclusive space for women to come together, participate in regular exercise and challenge traditional stereotypes around women's participation in sport and physical activity.
And here's where hope comes in.
The work of all of these communities is not just about getting more women to exercise (although they all do).
Their work is about creating a more equitable and just society for all women.
Together, one conversation, one post, one run at a time, these communities are helping to shift the conversation around exercise and physical activity. They are challenging traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a "fit" or "active" woman and instead embracing the diversity of women's bodies, abilities, and experiences.
In doing so, they are helping to break down the stigma around exercise and demonstrating that it's not just for the elite or the already fit, but something that every woman can and should embrace for her own health and well-being.
By empowering women to take control of their own health and wellness, these communities are helping to dismantle the structures that have long held women back from reaching their full potential. They are showing that when women come together to support and uplift each other, there is no limit to what we can achieve. None. Nada.
So the work of these communities is a beacon of light; and on International Women's Day, we'd like to ask you to take a moment to honour and celebrate the work these organisations - and the armies of volunteers within them - do every single day to #embraceequity
This March 8, ours is also a call to arms in a world where too many women still face significant barriers to physical activity;
> to anyone working in sport, or physical activity, or public health, how are you embracing and investing in the power of community to create meaningful and lasting change for women and girls?
> to brands investing in women's sport right now, or thinking about it. Take a look at the work these purpose and impact organisations are delivering every single day. How could you support them, invest in them or amplify the impact of their work?
> to individuals curious or passionate about the power of community to create change we would love to hear from you, to share our experiences with you and shine a light on your work
Lets work together to bake meaningful and connected communities into the very DNA of all we do; to create opportunities for all women to connect, surprise themselves by what they can do, and thrive; to use community as a catalyst to break down barriers and build a brighter future for all women.
One where exercise and physical activity are accessible to all, regardless of background or circumstance. #embraceequity