Last year a study conducted by Women’s Running found that 69% of women do not feel safe or adjust their behaviour when running in public. Of the women surveyed, 79% said they have been shouted at while on a run and 31% have considered stopping running altogether due to feeling unsafe.1
While the sad truth is it’s not uncommon to hear statistics like this, it’s important to raise awareness of the issues women face. We wanted to hear the experiences of women exercising in public spaces and the gym, so we conducted our own survey of Myprotein staff to learn more on the experience of friends and colleagues. The results were eye-opening.
76% of women surveyed have felt like they’ve been stared at while exercising in public spaces
Non-physical and non-verbal harassment can be harmful to confidence and mental health as well as being highly intimidating. But unfortunately it’s a common occurrence, with the majority of women in our survey saying they have been stared at while exercising.
“Staring is probably the main one for me. Nothing too major in other people’s eyes but trying to gain confidence in the gym and noticing blatant stares is slightly off-putting. Especially when you’re the only female in there.”
76% of women surveyed have felt uncomfortable when exercising in public spaces
Staring is just one of the behaviours women face when in the gym and exercising in public spaces. Sometimes these initially uncomfortable situations escalate to verbal or physical forms of harassment. Here are a few of the experiences reported in our survey.
“I’ve had men purposely start working out in my way or using equipment I was already using because they think they deserve it more than I do.”
“I’ve had guys laughing at me for my form in the gym before, pretty horrible. Had a bad exchange of words with them as a result and left the gym pretty upset.”
63% of women surveyed have changed their behaviour depending on who was in the gym
Our survey highlighted many considerations women feel they have to make in order to feel safer and more comfortable when working out. Much of the time these are considerations men never have to give any thought.
“I never go to the gym at night. I never work on my lower body if I’m alone with men at the gym and I never wear shorts to the gym, even if it’s a warm day.”
Avoiding peak times was a common response. But this is difficult as many people have busy schedules.
“I try to avoid peak times and overcrowded areas as these make me feel like I’m being watched — it’s an uncomfortable feeling.”
Clothing was another commonly cited anxiety.
“Depending on what time and how many people are in the gym, I will alter my clothing.”
And planning leg days at quieter times. This gym-goer highlights how certain sections of the gym are still dominated by men — making it more intimidating for a lot of women, especially beginners.
“I try to do a leg workout when I know the gym will be quiet as I need to head into the ‘men’s section’. For this, I try to dress for the workout, so on a leg day I’ll wear something that covers me.”
44% have cut a workout short due to unwanted attention
Much like the 31% of runners who had considered stopping running altogether, many women in our survey have cut a workout short because other gym-goers have made them feel uncomfortable.
“I choose the time I go to the gym, and if there are men looking at me, I do a different workout than what I had planned and I don’t take my sweater off. And usually, if I feel that some guy is looking or talking to me with certain intentions, I always do a shorter workout.”
Cat-calling is something that too many view as harmless, but women on the end of it find it incredibly intimidating. Several of the women we surveyed said they’ve experienced it.
“Cat-calling when leaving the gym and in the gym.”
Sometimes behaviours like cat-calling can lead to more physical forms of harassment and intimidation too.
“Cat-calling while running on my own. I have also had someone intentionally standing in my way while running so I couldn’t get past. I had to run onto a busy road to get past.”
46% have felt unsafe when exercising in public spaces
Given the tragic events of the past few years, it’s understandable that many women are feeling increasingly unsafe when exercising in public.
“I’m gutted that I’m not really running in the winter months, I love running in the woods near my house but this is a no go as it’s just too unsafe. Particularly since Sarah Everard and more cases of females especially have been attacked in these scenarios, I’m more considerate on the timings and changing routes of my runs to more high-footfall areas as a result.
“Gym wise, I do make sure I consider wearing a baggier t-shirt more as I’m a little self-conscious, sometimes. If I get super warm, I don’t really want to strip down to sports bra due to this and a few wandering eyes, unless that’s just in my head!”
Only 11% of women feel “very confident” exercising alone in public, while 25% felt “fairly unconfident”
While it’s brilliant that 50% of women in our survey said they were “fairly confident” exercising alone in public, there were still 36% who said they were either “very unconfident” or “fairly unconfident”. So, what can be done to make women feel more comfortable in the gym and other public exercise spaces? Here are some of the suggestions we received in our survey.
Education within the gym was a big one for our survey participants. Confidence comes with knowing what you’re doing in the gym, which can take time.
“I only feel this way [confident] now as I fully know exactly what I am doing in the gym, and probably know more than some of the men who treat me badly anyway. I would say knowledge is power, learn as much as you can through practice and research and then you’ll feel more confident as you know what you are doing is right.”
But education outside of the gym is important, too, helping people to understand what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable.
“More education on etiquette around people working out, such as don’t make comments or stare.”
“Being aware of personal space — it’s really off putting when people hover waiting for you to finish your sets, just go do another part of your workout and come back when people are done.”
“More male allyship education.”
Importance of clothing
Clothing that makes you feel confident also proved important to those who completed the survey.
“Running clothes and fitness clothes tend to be designed only with slim people in mind, which I can understand to an extent. But some of us in the larger categories would like to try to move towards getting fit. It’s hard to do with current clothing ranges. Also, more realistic sports bras. I have broad shoulders for a female, granted, but what’s currently out there is ridiculously under-sized.”
This feedback affirms our own goals as a brand. MP has committed over recent years to developing greater ranges in size and using a diverse pool of modelling talent.
Here’s what the MP team said when we asked what their vision is to create more inclusive clothing:
“Inspiring confidence is so important to the team at MP. We believe that active bodies come in all shapes and sizes, it’s not about an aesthetic, it’s an attitude. Our design team are constantly working to expand our ranges, to suit every body, every activity, every goal, everyday. This is reflected in our plans for the future, in which we want to be even more representative and inclusive, breaking down barriers and focusing on the active individual, regardless of body type or gender.”
Take home message
Hopefully the results of this survey have highlighted many of the issues women experience and the considerations they have to make just to get a workout in. Education around these topics is constantly improving though, and as long as we’re prepared to listen to women, committed to change and prepared to address behaviours, there’s hope for a better future.
And if you need some advice to help foster a more confident mindset, one participant put it best…
“Just bear in mind you are training for yourself, for your own wellbeing, improvement and health. Enjoy it and make the most out of every training session.”
Check out our articles celebrating International Women’s Day below…
Be An Ally And Break The Bias
"If you're not educating the people that need to be educated, we're not going to get very far."
“I Didn’t Need To Change My Body To Be Worthy Of It” | Exercising Self-Love With Jensofit
Jenny talks nurturing a relationship with her body and prioritising herself.
Women's Only Gym Drives Empowerment & Education
"It's how your body can perform, not what it looks like"