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Megan Kenyon: Miles to go

Monday 25 January 2021

The dark winter months are always a worry for women runners – and now they can’t just go to the gym instead. Lawmakers must find a solution

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Around this time last year, I was comparing runs with a friend on the app Strava. He poked fun at me for always running the same route. At the time I laughed it off, suggesting that I couldn’t be bothered to find a more exciting choice of run. But what I failed to mention was that, in the depths of winter and with university between 9am and 5pm, the route in question was the only one I felt safe running. 

When the clocks go back, ushering in the winter months, I am forced to rethink my usual running habits. That winter route was a few laps of a busy, well-lit park in the centre of Edinburgh, bordered by a main road. I am not alone in having to tailor my exercise routine to the time of year. According to research recently published by Nuffield Health in collaboration with YouGov, “50 per cent of women do less exercise as the mornings and evenings get darker.”

For most women, this decrease in physical activity during the winter months is linked to concerns like mine, concerns around safety. A survey conducted in September by Runner’s World found that 46 per cent of women in the UK had been harassed while out running. 13 per cent had even been propositioned while on a run. 

The pandemic has made these concerns even more urgent. Policy decisions now have an explicit and legally binding impact on the options available for exercising. When the Tier Four restrictions were introduced – and bear in mind, we’re in a stricter national lockdown now – gyms were told to close. Normally, when the darker months roll in, gyms would provide many women with a safer way to exercise, especially when the working day limits the daylight hours which can be allocated to physical activity. 

The Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy raised the issue in the Commons in early November. “Gyms act as relatively safe spaces for women to exercise,” she said, “and many simply cannot do so outdoors in the dark with the same confidence or security.” In order to ensure that this trade-off between health and safety would only endure for a short time, Foy asked that the government look at how gyms might be opened in a more Covid-secure way. Two months on, nothing has materialised. Gyms remain closed. 

It’s sadly unsurprising that, instead of adapting policy to support women’s safety concerns, the burden is placed on individual women to make changes to their exercise habits. In truth, policymakers should have been thinking about this well before the pandemic struck. Sadly, not even the pandemic appears to have forced them into action. 

That must change. It should no longer be a socially accepted fact that a woman out running can expect to be cat-called, followed or worse. There needs to be a culture change. It’s only when this message is translated into actual policies – such as finding ways to keep gyms Covid-secure – that the burden is removed from individual women. 

Shifting the public mindset and cracking down on harassment will take time. In the short term, there are measures that can be put in place to support and protect women. For example, ensuring that parks and popular routes – such as Regent’s Canal in London – are well lit, creating better visibility for runners. Or allowing employees more flexibility so that they can exercise during the daylight hours.

In time, let’s hope that women in the UK won’t be held back by fear when it comes to deciding when and how they might exercise.