And yet she persevered: women from ELL boroughs on how they stay active

Woman running pic: Andrea Piacquadio

‘Lots of women feel uncomfortable playing in front of men’ – In this part of the #WhatsStoppingYou series, Celine Wadhera explores the disparity between female and male sports participation.

In early March, before COVID-19 forced us all into self-isolation and social distancing, Hilly Fields Park in Lewisham was a Mecca for exercise. On weekends it was full of parkrunners, out for a quick 5km run among friends; on weekdays it’s full of mums and pensioners enjoying the fresh air and getting their heart rates up through Nordic walking and baby boot camps. Witnessing these scenes, where active women dominate the landscape, you wouldn’t think that women in the UK are less active than men. But across the country, men spend an average of four hours and 40 minutes more per week, when compared with women, participating in leisurely activities, including exercise and sport.

On average, men spend six hours and nine minutes per day, engaged in leisure activities, which includes attending church, participating in sport, watching TV, engaging on social media and dining out, compared with the five hours and 29 minutes that women enjoy. Leisure time excludes formal and unpaid work, study, time spent sleeping, and travel time related to these activities. In London, although the picture is more equal with men enjoying four hours and 58 minutes, compared with women’s four hours and 38 minutes per day, a difference of two hours and 20 minutes per week, Londoners have less leisure time overall. Commuting and chaotic lifestyles in the capital lead people to have an hour less leisure time than the national average, with Londoners enjoying four hours and 48 minutes of leisure time per day, compared with the five hours and 49 minutes.

A major reason for the disparity in leisure between the sexes is the burden of unpaid work that often falls to women. Unpaid work consists of housework, care for children, the sick and the elderly, voluntary or community work, maintenance work, transportation and other activities that a member of the household performs for free, that could be contracted out to a paid service provider. It has been estimated that the unpaid labour that women perform amounts to more than £140 billion to the UK economy annually.

These drains on women’s time are also a major barrier that prevent women from engaging in physical activity and sport. Across the UK and within London, women of all ages have lower rates of physical activity and sports participation when compared with men; in the boroughs of Croydon, Hackney, Lewisham and Tower Hamlets the picture is much the same, as women consistently report having less time to exercise (see graph below).

Graph based on data from Sport London, 2016-17; Celine Wadhera

Laura Kinnunen, 41, belives these barriers to female participation can be overcome. She runs Brockley Nordic Walking, where she teaches people of all ages and abilities how to get the most out of walking, through the use of walking poles to engage their whole bodies. Laura first started the group in 2011 as a way to become more involved in her community, and find a reprieve from working a stressful job in central London. 

Pic: Laura Kinnunen

Born in Finland, Laura had just returned to the UK after working in Japan for five years, and was looking to enhance her connections in South East London. After completing a volunteer training program and a Nordic walking instructor qualification, she started leading walks in the winter of 2011, and the appetite for Nordic walking has only increased in the community since. 

Laura’s groups are predominantly made up of women between 35 to 84 years old, and range between 13 to 50 people, depending on the day. She runs several paid classes every week, with free classes on Saturdays as part of the Lewisham Healthy Walks scheme. “I don’t want cost to be a barrier as everyone is kind of trying to stretch their salary or pension to go further,” Laura said. 

Brockley Nordic Walking pic: Laura Kinnunen

Beyond finances, Laura said that health problems, the need for specialist equipment, and even the confidence to try something new could often prevent women from becoming more active: “We have people who are recovering from hip replacements, knee replacements, and long-term illness, and who still feel like they want to do something. With Nordic walking everyone can go at the pace that’s right for them. I nag every now and then about technique, and it goes out the window sometimes when people are chatting, but that’s okay because people are also getting a social benefit from the sessions.” Moreover she says that she provides poles to anyone just starting Nordic walking, so that there is no additional cost involved. 

Elizabeth Taylor, a retired teacher, is one of Laura’s regulars. Sport had always been a part of her life, having always cycled, and played tennis and hockey, but once she had children, she says it all stopped: “I had no time, no money, no thought process.” A single mother, she says that she wouldn’t have been able to engage in anything like Nordic walking when her children were small.  

For Gaynor Harper, 59, a retired NHS worker, feeling unsafe while exercising in public parks was a major barrier. But after joining Brockley Nordic Walking, she said: “Because of walking with Laura all the time, and the way she says hello to everyone we pass, I feel safer in the park. It’s a connection to the local community, and makes me feel like there’s less division. It’s like nudging people towards being better.” 

Basketball coach, Sister Nailah Leminous Gray pic: Celine Wadhera

Safety and comfort concerns were also high on Sister Nailah Leminous Gray’s list of reasons why female sport participation is low. Nailah, 40, coaches a five-a-side women’s basketball league in Lee Green on Wednesday evenings, which aims to appeal to Muslim women in the boroughs of Lewisham and Croydon. Most weeks the group has between 10 and 20 women, but it’s been known to have at least 25 women between the ages of 16 and 52.

She says that although options exist to play basketball within Lewisham, they don’t properly cater to women’s needs.  “Lots of women feel uncomfortable playing in front of men, and would rather be free to just be in a t-shirt and shorts. For the ladies from the Lewisham Islamic Centre, we don’t want to be so sweaty with a scarf on when we’re playing.” Because of this, Nailah’s team requires a covered hall or gymnasium where no men will enter while she is coaching.  

A related obstacle that Nailah encountered is funding. Because her team requires a covered hall, funding is needed to rent the hall on a regular basis. While councils often provide funding for women’s sport, Nailah says that she has had her requests denied for failure to provide photographic evidence that the women are actually playing basketball. “The ladies don’t want to be photographed while playing – it kind of defeats the purpose of women’s only opportunities,” she said.

Other barriers, like childcare, seem to take care of themselves, though, as Nailah welcomes the mothers in the group to bring their children along, to sit and watch on the side. Similarly, Nailah said that many of the women who come to her are facing mental health challenges, “A lot of women on the team told me they came to the sessions in really dark days. We laugh a lot, and that’s why I do it, I do it for them.”

Eibhlin Vardy, Lisa Power, Tinu Ogundari, Samantha Simpson, Sarah Maris-Shaw, and Karry Hrysicos after IWD parkrun pic: Celine Wadhera

Laughter and community are a thread that can be traced through many women’s experience in becoming more active and are two key elements that were present at the Hilly Fields parkrun in Lewisham, the Saturday before International Women’s Day. A group of women at the shared their thoughts with Eastlondonlines, amid grins, giggles and an overall atmosphere of camaraderie. 

Many of the women started running when their children were young, and kept with it as it became part of their weekly routine. Lisa Power, 40, said: “I started parkrun when my daughter was five months old, so for me it was a way to just escape. In the early weeks of crossing the finish line I had to run home to breastfeed because my daughter was desperately hungry! But just that became such a part of my life, and my family got really used to the parkrun way, and now it’s just part of our weekend.” 

Lisa, who is one of the event directors of junior parkruns at Hilly Fields on Sundays, said that she encourages mums who come out with their children on Sundays to run the 2km with them. “We often see that parents start at junior park runs, then they start turning up on Saturdays because they’ve gained that confidence.” 

Tinu Ogundari, 45, started running when her daughter was two: “It was hard to get childcare, so I had to get a treadmill initially because of the lack of time to get out.” But between balancing taking her children to school with her husband, work, and training at 4:30am she’s been able to complete more than 70 parkruns, and is aiming to run her 100th marathon in September. “You just get a little bit addicted to running – I got into the wrong crowd,” she joked. 

Eibhlin Vardy, 35, who regularly does parkrun and also attends junior parkrun with her four-year-old daughter, says that she does so because it’s easy, efficient and it solves her childcare problem. “You know the set times you’re going to turn up, whereas if you thought, ‘Oh I might go for a run later,’ it’s less likely to happen. Turn up, get it done, feel better.”

Although Covid-19 presents yet another barrier to turning up, getting it done, and feeling better – as parkruns, Nordic walks and Nailah’s basketball sessions have all been cancelled – options remain for those willing to take them. Laura often lends out poles to those who have taken the intro-course, and encourages those from within her group to continue to be active, even if the social aspect must be compromised for the short term. Walking, running and even shooting hoops outdoors is fine, as long as people maintain at least two metres distance between themselves and others, respecting the guidelines set by Public Health England.

This is day two of four of our Eastlondonlines’ #WhatsStoppingYou series. Read the rest of the story here.

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