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The Art and Science of Fitness | Running for empowerment

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

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

Switzerland might seem like the odd one out on this list, but it might surprise you that it wasn’t until 1990 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 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 boys. Girl children are often treated as liabilities, and are reminded of 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 household, and so their needs often come before the needs of other family members – especially the women of the home. So when they go for a run, there are chances of them disturbing the peace at home, sleeping early and changing everyone’s plans to suit them. However, because of women’s central role in the family and household, they have little time to exercise. They wear several hats within the household itself, which requires them to almost always adapt to everyone else’s needs. However, they balance all these roles and do an amazing job of it, but don’t get the time they need to devote to their physical well-being.

As toddlers and young children, most girls are allowed to run around, but once puberty hits, they are often repeatedly reminded by everyone around them that they are not supposed to be running around and playing sports. They are often made to feel ashamed of the changes happening to their bodies. Because of this social pressure, many girls start to hide their bodies and shrug their shoulders. It even goes so far as to be ashamed of being tall (as this will “intimidate” the boys, causing them to slumber even further.

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

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

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

Here are some key problems they face:

One, they struggle with coordination. Although this is true for both men and women, it is much more common among the latter because they spent too little time on sports that were easily accessible to boys.

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

Three, a social struggle. It is the repeated issue of being reminded that strength training is not for them as they will build muscle and have an “unladylike” appearance. When they go to the gym, they almost always focus on cardiovascular machines such as treadmills, cross trainers, stationary bikes and so on, and avoid weights so that they conform to “acceptable” body images and don’t get too “bulky”. People who force these opinions on women don’t realize that it’s muscles that get us moving, help us reach our threshold and prevent injury. And that desired posture then comes naturally.

This is why there is a great need to get all the girls and women to run, get fit and bring back the confidence that society has taken away from them. They must run and train to empower themselves, be in control and protect themselves. After all, running is not 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 school-goers are much more disadvantaged. To address these issues, I work with SwaTaleem, a non-profit organization, which works to provide 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 help them reach their full potential as young women. We will empower 4,500 girls from 31 schools across the state by getting them running. As girls become anchors in the transformation of their families and society, this means we will work with more than 40,000 beneficiaries.

And so I say to all my female readers, take control of your life by continuing to run and exercise. Although this is only one aspect of empowerment, it will help with your overall development, which in turn will naturally trickle down to the rest of the family and society. As anchors of inclusive growth, women can lead the way.

Keep smiling and smiling.

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

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

The opinions expressed are personal

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