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By Harriett Jones, Head of Consumer Engagement, ukactive

Tuesday 8 March will mark International Women’s Day, so I wanted to reflect on what ukactive and our sector is doing to encourage and empower women and girls to be active in safe and welcoming environments.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Break the Bias’, described as, ‘A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination’ – something that the physical activity sector strives towards and demonstrates, through campaigns such as This Girl Can, We Are Undefeatable and ukactive’s own National Fitness Day.

These campaigns celebrate all abilities, fitness levels, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and ages, to inspire, empower and encourage physically active lifestyles, which in turn support wider health benefits.

However, despite the success of such campaigns and the fact that women’s participation levels were increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that physical activity levels were disrupted during the pandemic, with the number of women achieving the recommended levels of physical activity dropping by up to 3.2%, according to Sport England’s Active Lives Survey.

Sadly, there are a vast number of women and girls who are sat at home without the confidence, knowledge or motivation to step foot inside their local leisure centre for a variety of reasons. We need to break down the barriers and the subsequent perceptions of fitness in order to encourage and empower women and girls to be comfortable in being active in all fitness and leisure settings.

This is why the work we delivered in partnership with This Girl Can – How to improve your services for women and girls: As told by the 51% – is paramount in supporting the growth of our sector and the engagement of this audience. This guide was built on understanding directly from the audience themselves what the key barriers are, and how these can be broken down to encourage and improve engagement.

The guide features tangible and practical recommendations for gyms and leisure facilities that are easily applied. Ultimately, the aim is to enable the sector to help get women and girls to the point of stepping into the door of their local facility and ensuring they have a positive and welcoming experience right from reception through to the gym floor, swimming pool or a group exercise class.

Facilities play a huge part in supporting this audience to be active, enabling them to access great equipment and expertise from staff around them. As an active female who uses a gym, I am passionate about working to reach this audience as I know personally the benefits being active in this setting can have – even more so since becoming a mum.

However, for some, we know the journey needs to start at home, because the personal confidence required to even get to the local gym or leisure centre door, is too great.

This is where online communities offering digital workouts come into their own. Despite the struggles that the pandemic brought, it is fair to say that the isolation it caused then created the optimum conditions for online communities to exist and thrive. Through these, women and girls have built confidence, knowledge, ability and motivation at home that then can enable them to take that next step in their fitness and physical activity journey by trying something new within a facility – benefitting them even further thanks to the social wellbeing this can bring.

We must also appreciate that for some to be active, a hybrid model between virtual and physical offerings will help them maintain an active lifestyle between the likes of work and family life – something again that I personally benefit from.

Physical activity is for everyone and at the heart of what it should be is fun – releasing those all-important endorphins that make us feel good, physically and mentally. But to have fun we need to feel safe and that is why I’m proud that as part of the work referenced above we are supporting the sector with tangible steps, to ensure our sector is a safe, welcoming and positive environment for all women and girls.

Our sector alone cannot solve societal issues around behaviour and personal safety, however, we can accept responsibility that what we do and importantly how, can support and contribute to those societal challenges faced within communities across the UK.

This is something at ukactive and as a sector we are moving forward in, with the development of a Task Group, alongside This Girl Can, that has representatives from across the fitness and leisure sector that provides a collaborative approach to tackling women’s barriers, challenges and experiences in relation to personal safety within the sector.

I’m also pleased to see the latest Home Office campaign, ‘Enough’. As someone who is female and raising a daughter, having the issue of harassment openly spoken about will help challenge it. But it is not a female-isolated issue – we all play our part, to all stay safe and enjoy public places, together.

ukactive and many of our members also have been positively engaging with the #LetMeLift Campaign to understand better the experiences and objectives in supporting women and girls to have positive experiences when being active in our sector’s facilities. Allying with such organisations allows us to reach those who are completely disengaged with our sector and look at how we can develop and learn from them to improve.

Empowering women and girls to have the confidence to be active, regardless of shape, size and ability, by celebrating them getting active on their own terms, is something that will continue to be at the top of the agenda for our sector for many years.

Our sector is uniquely placed to make big changes in the perception of what fitness is, body image, representation and celebrating self. Which is why I work in it. I truly believe in the power of physical activity to help tackle some of the societal issues we face today.