Opinion: Staying safe as a woman with an active lifestyle

In Fitness / Health, Outdoor, Running

A 2017 study by Stanford University that analysed data from over 700,000 people worldwide, found that on average, women do fewer steps per day than men. The study’s lead researcher, Tim Althoff, acknowledges that there could be many reasons for this disparity, including differences in cultural gender roles and urban environmental issues, but one of the most prevalent concerns for the women involved was that of personal safety. Feeling afraid to walk from A to B is not just costing women and girls more in alternatives - whether you choose a bus, a train or a taxi, it is still cheaper to walk – it is also impacting their health. The gender step gap puts women at greater risk of exercise-related health issues later in life.

It really does not seem fair that women should feel that they are gambling with their safety in order to get enough exercise, especially when choosing a more active lifestyle in the great outdoors should not have any downsides. You should be full of endorphins and feeling more energised than ever before. However, if you live in an area where you do not feel safe to be out walking, running or cycling alone, plucking up the courage to go out can be fraught with anxiety. Even what may be considered as “harmless” heckling and catcalling can make women feel so uncomfortable that it either ruins many of their experiences of being outdoors or makes them decide not to go out to exercise at all.

Silhouette of man at entrance to underpass

Your perceived safety is subjective. As a regular runner who trains on country lanes and on local footpaths, I have never felt threatened by unwanted attention and the only tangible way that I have felt my personal safety to be in jeopardy has been as a result of drivers not slowing down enough to pass me or by driving so close that I feel it necessary to jump into the hedge! However, I have friends who train in similar environments who have been heckled by the occupants of passing cars and a fellow runner at my club who has had negative experiences in the past and says:

"I definitely feel vulnerable as a lone female runner, and I hate the fact I feel that I can’t run where I want, when I want.

We have miles of pretty country lanes on our doorstep but I don’t feel safe running these on my own. I’m acutely aware of how isolated I am if I’m running in these areas and am hyper-vigilant about any passing vehicles, or anyone walking on their own.

As a result, I tend to run into town when I run alone as this feels safer as there are people about. Even then, there are areas I avoid, particularly in an evening.

There have been a few occasions where I have felt unsafe. Passing parked lorries down a nearby lane, or vans driving slowly past. Occasionally, people driving by have shouted comments as they’ve passed. Last year a car slowed as it passed me, crawled down the road, then turned round to come back - it was odd at the time and I changed my route to divert off down a path that a car couldn’t get down.

It makes me sad that I am particularly suspicious of men, especially lone men, but safety comes first."

Whether I am right to be unconcerned or my friend is right to worry, the dangers exist independently of our ability to perceive them. I am, perhaps, being too cavalier with my safety when I assume that wearing high vis and obeying the laws of the road are the only precautions I need to take when I walk out of my door, without a thought for any of potential dangers that may lurk around the corner. Perhaps my friend has paid too much heed to media portrayals – both factual and fictional – of women being attacked whilst out on their own. What unites us is that we continue to run and pursue an active lifestyle, despite the disparity in our perception of the risks involved. 

The reality is that my friend is not alone. Many women are feeling threatened and many women are being subjected to unwanted attention to one degree or another. This has created the worldwide step gap and it is a genuine concern that women’s health is suffering as a result. In order to combat this our societies and our governments need to tackle these threats to our safety so that everyone can enjoy exercise without feeling vulnerable. It is not within the scope of this article to suggest how we go about creating a safer environment for women to exercise (and exist) but whilst we wait for these changes to be made, we can try to find work-arounds that allow us to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. 

woman running up steps

Things you can do to feel safer while exercising 

Ultimately, if you are the victim of unwanted attention or even attacked while you are out exercising, it is no one’s fault but the perpetrator’s, but we have put together a list of things you can do to minimise your risk and help keep you safe while you exercise.

Don’t wear headphones

Although it can be motivational to have your favourite tunes blaring as you make your way along your favourite running routes, listening to music – or even your favourite podcast – means that you are less aware of your surroundings and your personal safety radar is less likely to be working at full capacity. Ideally, keep your headphones for the gym, but if you find you hate running without music, try bone conductor headphones such as Trekz Titanium, which are wireless and don’t plug directly into your ears—allowing you to still hear what is going on around you.

If you exercise alone outdoors after dark stick to well-lit areas

Even if you are happy to wear a head torch and tackle the path less travelled, it may be worth waiting for an opportunity to do this with a few friends. That way you will have someone to help you if you trip over a tree branch and you are a far more difficult target for an attacker. A well-lit park or a town centre route with regular streetlights are far better options for solo workouts after dark.

Exercise in a group

If you feel too intimidated to go for a walk, run or bike ride alone, buddy up with fellow exercise enthusiasts and go out in a group. This will not only make you feel safer, it will also give you a sounding board and sympathetic ears for any training issues you may be having and, if you are lucky enough to be training with someone slightly quicker than you, it also has the potential to increase your speed. In addition, if you have to make plans with others to work out, you are less likely to cancel and more like to stick with your training plan.

Women running at night in an urban environment

Tell someone where you are going

Tell a friend or relation where you are going and when you expect to be back. Allow for obvious delays such as chatting to a friend you bump into unexpectedly or going a slower pace due to aching muscles from the previous weekend’s race, but encourage them to come and look for if you are not back within the agreed time frame and to raise the alarm if there is no sign of you at home or on your route.

Wear an outfit with bright and reflective elements and say hello to people!

As well as being invaluable for keeping you visible to passing traffic, high vis and reflective clothing make you stand out to all bystanders. This means that people are more likely to be aware of what you are doing and to notice if you get into difficulties. Whether this is because you have tripped over the kerb or because are being intimidated by an individual or group, you will be grateful for your decision to be bright and shiny! If you also make the effort to say hello to people you pass, you will be making yourself far more memorable, should they ever need to come forward with information for the authorities.

Run with your dog (if you have one)

Your dog may not seem scary to you and the thought of them putting off anyone with malicious intentions may have you roaring with laughter, but running with a dog adds an unknown element to any potential attacker’s plan. Even dogs that don’t have the muscle to knock people over and pin them to the floor can be noisy and unpredictable enough to put off an approach by someone who means no good.

Woman running on the beach with her dog

Take your phone with you and consider getting a tracking app

Today’s bulky smart phones are not the easiest accessories to take along on a workout, but if feeling connected to friends and family makes you feel safer, it is worth slipping it into an armband or finding a jacket or leggings with a big enough pocket to accommodate it. For added peace of mind, you can download the Find my Friends app, which allows nominated friends and family to track your progress, seeing where you are and whether you are still moving. 

Find My Friends app for Android

Find My Friends app for iPhone

Carry ID

Should anything happen to you while you are out, it is important that the person who finds you knows who to contact. If you take your phone out with you, have an emergency contact saved as ‘ICE’ (in case of emergency) in your contacts. If you don’t like to take your phone out with you, consider investing in a wristband printed with your emergency contacts (in international format if there is a possibility that you may go out running or cycling while on holiday or travelling for work) and listing any medication allergies you may have. The ID Band Company offers a great range of wristbands that are good value, durable and comfortable.

Don’t wear valuable jewellery

A lone runner or cyclist sporting an expensive engagement ring or large diamond earrings is an easy target for an opportunist criminal. Leave your good jewellery at home to avoid this reason to be harassed by a stranger.

Vary your route

Don’t be a predictable target and give an attacker the opportunity to memorise your routine by slavishly sticking to the same routes. Mixing up distance, pace and direction is safer and will make your exercise schedule more interesting. Also, if you are leaving the house empty in your absence, it will keep your possessions safer too. 

Last words

Suggesting that women take so many precautions to keep themselves safe while they are exercising goes against everything that I stand for. It just should not be necessary. However, ignoring potential risks because they have no right to exist is not the best way to address them or to close the gender step gap. The only consolation to my inner angry feminist is that not one of the options on this list was to stay at home. If you are a woman who has - or wants to have – an active lifestyle, find a means to get out and exercise that takes adequate account of your personal safety, but try not to let anyone or anything make you too scared to try at all.