Dr Rachel Hewitt, a lead member of research network Women In The Hills which studies how women’s experiences of being outside differ to men, says women’s fears of exercising alone are often based on experience.
“There’s quite a lot of debate around whether this is rational, or whether it’s all in women’s heads,” says Dr Hewitt. “But there are things that women fear that aren’t necessarily to do with gender.
“More women express fear of injury that’s caused by poor maintenance of public space but, overwhelmingly, the fear that women feel when exercising in public space alone is to do with men.”
A winter lockdown also risks exacerbating inactivity levels among women, which are traditionally higher at this time of year than men: Women in Sport’s most recent winter sport report in 2017 found the drop-out rate for outdoor sports among females was 27 per cent. This increased to 36 per cent for women aged 55 to 64 and further rose to 47 per cent for women aged 65 and above.
Stephanie Hilborne, the chief executive of the charity, insists those figures are “still pertinent” in a year which has seen the pandemic widen the inactivity gap between men and women.
“Women have traditionally depended more on social contact for exercise, so it’s vital that the Government considers the impact of the new lockdown rules on women’s wellbeing,” says Hillborne.
This Mum Runs, a network of over 80,000 runners all over the UK which empowers mums of all ages, backgrounds and fitness abilities to stay active, had been gearing up to relaunch social runs just last week.
The community running group, which was set up by Bristol mum Mel Bound in 2015, had even built track-and-trace technology into its digital app as part of its Covid risk assessment.
“The fact we’re able to run with one other person is massive progress,” says Bound. “But it’s not as good as being able to go outside in groups of six, which is what we’ve been working towards.
“Given the very minimal transmission risk that scientists say there is with outdoor activity, a slight relaxation of those rules to enable small groups of women – particularly for organisations which have put in the hard work to create that Covid-secure environment – would be really good to see.”
The reclosure of gyms and leisure centres is also expected to severely impact women. Pre-pandemic data from Sport England shows that 22 per cent of women took part in a fitness class within a 28-day period in 2020, compared with just seven per cent of men.
As a regular gym goer, Kate Mason, a Sky Sports news presenter, can relate. After the Government announced the country would be re-entering into a lockdown last week, she posted a video on social media urging women to negotiate with employers about exercising during the day.
“Not long after I posted that, I ended up having to go for a run quite late in the dark,” said Mason. “I ran holding my house keys in my fist, and I randomly thought, ‘What am I going to do if someone jumps on me out of nowhere? Should I use my keys as a sort of defence?’
“Since posting the clip, a handful of people have got in touch to say their employers are setting aside daylight exercise time for their staff, which is so great to hear.”