It was pretty hot this weekend for my long run. I wanted to avoid the heat as much as possible so I got up super early. There were quite a few other runners who had the same idea. For some reason, all the runners I saw seemed to be friendlier than usual, greeting each other, smiling or just nodding. Maybe we recognized that we all are members of the same crazy fraternity of runners who had to get their miles in no matter what the weather. Normal people would be staying inside their air conditioned homes.
I was running the last mile of my 13-mile run on a long straight part of the trail. I could see over a mile down the trail. I saw a young woman runner approaching me from the opposite direction. This runner was a bit heavier and moving a bit slow. I noticed that when someone passed her, she avoided eye contact and looked down at her feet. As I came closer to her, she glanced up. I smiled and greeted her. Her apprehensive expression softened and she smiled back at me.
My encounter with this runner made me remember reading about a study done in the United Kingdom (UK) by the House of Commons’ Health Select Committee on exercise. The committee found that while 56% of men do not get the recommended level of weekly exercise (2 1/2 hours per week), an alarming 68% of women don’t. The committee found millions of women are reluctant to exercise because they are afraid of being ridiculed for how they look. This is just as bad as that whole “Like a Girl” thing.
Many of the women that they interviewed explained that they did not want to be seen as someone out of breath and “struggling at the back” of an exercise class or a running group. The report found that girls as young as ten avoided physical education class because of their concern over their body image. Some of the women reported that they ran on a treadmill in a shed behind their house because they did not want to be seen in public. It makes me sad that women are so self conscious about their appearance while exercising that they don’t, or go to great lengths to hide when they do.
I am certain that these feelings are not unique to the UK. If they did a similar study in the US, the results would probably be the same. When I first started running, I felt out of place. The image that I have always had of the perfect female runner is a girl with her hair in a bouncy pony tail, short boy shorts, long skinny legs and a crop top displaying flat abs. That will never be me. Perhaps the young woman I saw on Saturday felt the same way. I didn’t let my preconceived notions of the ideal female runner stop me. My shape is different and always will be. That is ok. These feelings of inferiority are really not unique to women either. I know men who have felt intimidated by other men who appear more trim and athletic to the point that they won’t get out to exercise.
Sport England, in partnership with other organizations, started the “This Girl Can” campaign in the UK to help “inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.” The campaign encourages women to go out and exercise no matter how well they do it or how they look. If it were me, I wouldn’t limit this campaign to women. I think the message should be for everyone – men and women. We all can!
Running on the trail is not just for the 10 percenters (I mean body fat, not wealth). It is for everyone, regardless of your sex, your shape or how fast you go. I wish I could find the young woman I saw on Saturday. I would tell her to keep her head up and keep on going. She looks great!
This fun video is part of the “This Girl Can” campaign.