The Art and Science of Fitness | Running for empowerment

Updated on Dec 03, 2022 12:04 PM IST

When young girls are taken out of playgrounds and forced into gendered family roles, they lose out on a lot more than the health benefits that come with sport and exercising, leading to long-term negative effects.

When young girls are taken out of playgrounds and forced into gendered family roles, they lose out on a lot more than the health benefits that come with sport and exercising, leading to long-term negative effects. (Ashly Gopalakrishnan) PREMIUM
When young girls are taken out of playgrounds and forced into gendered family roles, they lose out on a lot more than the health benefits that come with sport and exercising, leading to long-term negative effects. (Ashly Gopalakrishnan)

Girls and women are the nucleus of a just, fair and inclusive society.

In this pursuit, when the first mapping of global road running participation was done by athlete Jens Jakob Andersen looking at race results of more than three decades, he observed, “The countries with the highest proportions of female participants are also the ones that have the most gender equality.” Iceland, the United States, and Canada had 55% more female participants as compared to Switzerland, Japan, and India, which had under 20%.

Switzerland might seem like the odd one out on this list but it might surprise you that it was not until a 1990 decision by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland that women gained full voting rights in the final Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. On the other hand, in India, women have had full voting rights from the very first elections since Independence. Despite this, equality in its true sense eludes India. We are a country where, irrespective of class, caste, creed, region or religion, there is a strong preference for sons. Girl children are often treated as burdens, and are reminded about this over and over again.

This is why the intersection of gender and health is crucial. Men in traditional homes in India are considered the head of the households, and so, their needs often precede the needs of other family members — especially the women of the house. So when they go for runs, there are chances that they disturb the peace at home, sleep early, and change everyone's plans to suit them. However, because of women's central role in the family and the household, they are left with little time to exercise. They wear several hats within the household itself, requiring them to almost always adjust to everyone else's needs. However, they balance all these roles, and do an amazing job of it, but do not get the time they need to give to their physical wellbeing.

As toddlers and young children, most girls are allowed to run around, but as soon as puberty hits, they are often reminded repeatedly by everyone around them that they aren’t supposed to be running around and playing sports. They are often made to feel ashamed of the changes happening to their bodies. Because of these social pressures, many girls begin to hide their bodies and shrug their shoulders. It goes even as far as being shamed for being tall (as this will “intimidate” the boys), making them slouch even further.

As they grow up, they are reminded again and again that they need to focus on academics and household chores, giving them less and less time for themselves. Active girls are looked down upon, setting a (bad) example for the other girls. What is the norm among young boys — to run around and be good at sport — is the exception among girls — who are forced out of fields.

It is often later in life — when societal pressures begin to wane — that many young girls discover the joys of sport, exercise and running.

However, most of these young women who begin running in their mid-20s and beyond, lose the basic movements that come to us naturally.

Here are some key problems that they face:

One, they struggle with coordination. While this is true for both men and women, it is a lot more common among the latter because they spent too little time playing sport that were easily accessible to boys.

Two, they struggle with breathlessness when they start walking or running. If girls develop a hunched posture at puberty (which is common), they limit their lungs from fully expanding. This is why correcting posturing is crucial to their overall health.

Three, a social struggle. It's the repeated issue of being reminded that strength training is not for them, as they will build muscles and that they would have an “unladylike” appearance. When they go to the gym, they are almost always focusing on cardiovascular machines such as treadmills, cross trainers, stationary bikes and so on, avoiding weights so that they adhere to “acceptable” body images and don't get too “bulky”. People who force these opinions on women don’t realise that it’s muscles that get us moving, helping us reach our threshold, and preventing injuries. And that desirable posture then comes naturally.

This is why there is a dire need to get all the girls and women to pick up running, become fit, and bring back the confidence that society took away from them. They need to run and exercise to empower themselves, be in control, and protect themselves. Running, after all, isn’t just about the physical benefits of health and fitness. It’s about becoming emotionally and psychologically strong.

Girls born into poor families who are first-generation schoolgoers are a lot more disadvantaged. To address these issues, I am collaborating with SwaTaleem, a non-profit organisation, which works towards providing better life opportunities for such historically underrepresented rural adolescent girls enrolled in Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs, central government-run secondary residential schools) in Haryana and aiding them in attaining their full potential as young women. We will empower 4,500 girls from 31 schools across the state by getting them to start running. Since girls become anchors in the transformation of their families and society, this means that we will be working with more than 40,000 beneficiaries.

And so I say to all my women readers, take charge of your life by picking up running and exercising. Although this is just one aspect of empowerment, it will help with your overall development, which will, in turn, naturally trickle to the rest of the family and society. As anchors of inclusive growth, women can lead the way.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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