Now, I'll admit, I've been wanting to write something about access to running, particularly Mountain, Ultra & Trail (MUT) running for some time and this seemed to be the perfect stimulus to set me off on a sweeping narrative, in which no discipline was left untouched. What does obesity have to do with anything about anything though? You might ask. Keep reading, we'll get to that.
The trillions of dollars in health care costs and lost productivity that are incurred by the accelerating demise of our collective health are merely numbers. What really produces empathy and problem- solving urgency is understanding how obesity impacts the lives of specific individuals. There is a certain type of person who is far more likely to "be a statistic" in the world's obesity story, and this person is a poor woman in an emerging economy.
At the moment there are billions of people who face significant barriers to participating in sports. Remember those obesity statistics? Well the thing is that that initial percentage doesn't really get at the heart of the issue. When you look at the gendered breakdown of the statistics you will start to notice an absolutely stunning difference. In Nicaragua, a very poor country with an expanding economy and poor infrastructure, there is only a 16% rate of obesity amongst men, while the rate is 48% amongst woman. While these numbers back up what I observed while living there, it's important to note that this Central American nation is not alone. In South Africa the prevalence of obesity in men is 8% while for women it jumps to a staggering 37%. In Kuwait, 30% of males are obese while 55% of woman are! In the rapidly changing society of Mongolia, 15% of males are fat, whereas 37% of woman are. See a pattern yet? (Did I pick out particularly bold examples? Yes. Did I run a regression? NO, this is a blog post, not a dissertation. If you are in grad school and feel the need to support my assertion, feel free.)2
I am not going to argue that exercise alone is a solution to obesity. However, I do believe that the glaringly gendered obesity statistics can in part be explained by access and participation to sport. Let me imagine the life of a poor women living in Managua, Nicaragua for a moment. Suppose she lives in the sprawling ugly capital, where streets are crowded with buses, trucks, aggressive taxis and motorcyclists and pedestrians may have to wait before dashing across the busier streets. Greenways and urban park trails do not exist, and are not going to any time soon. Nonetheless, there are Managuans who wake up early and walk through some of the wealthy neighborhoods of the city. Shouldn't the poorer woman be able to do the same if only they had the will power?
Well, there are a litany of stumbling blocks standing in her way. In Nicaragua abortion under ANY circumstances is illegal. The formerly progressive, socialist and currently governing Sandinistas have forged a new alliance with the Country's Catholic Church and reproductive rights for woman do not exist. Women do hold positions of significant political power in Nicaragua, but that doesn't really matter if you are bearing children at the age of 17 or younger. Condoms and other birth control are not as accessible as they should be, and I think the quality of sexual education is abysmal, if present at all. It is rare to meet a young woman who does not have her time marshaled by the needs of her offspring and family. Men in Nicaragua, if given the chance, are very hard workers. They tend not to help around the house. In most communities, a culture of machismo is pervasive. The home is commonly accepted to be the responsibility of the woman, and her work there is never done, especially since everything is done without the aid of modern appliances and technology.
Say this poor woman managed to evade having children, or they are already grown, and she even has a partner who shares in the daily chores (The rich can simply hire someone else to pass this labor onto, as well as count on the aide of time and labor saving technology). Is she going to be or feel comfortable running before dawn or at night? Is she going to be sexually harassed for daring to workout in public space, or dare to enter a male dominant sphere like sport? Is there a social network to support the dreams and support the development of the self, even after you are an adult woman? In almost all cases, no. All these obstacles are not merely making women's lives more difficult, they are barriers to health which contribute to a worldwide obesity epidemic.
Now, of course there are exemptions. I had the pleasure of discovering a small pocket of elite, poor runners in Nicaragua's northern highlands. Somehow, a few women had been encouraged to pursue their natural running gift and were supported by their male counterparts, some of whom competed internationally. Alas, to be transformative, women participating in sports has to be mainstream and not the exception. The severe obstacles to participation in sports for poor woman in Nicaragua are significant. However, when compared to situations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Honduras, levels of violence and/or common social norms (religious or otherwise) are not as horrific.
2 Obesity defined as BMI equal to or more than 30. Source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Closer to home, in the United States of America, our obesity numbers are not nearly as gendered. Nonetheless my newfound sport of running, and MUT running in particular, is extraordinarily homogeneous. Not just everyone has the money, stability and time to get to the most inspiring and epic races in the scenic mountain ranges where the most exhilarating Ultras take place. If I have learned anything about living, I know that life is about social networks and the social network of trail running is embarrassingly upper-middle class and white. People are not going to be interested in participating in distance running if the community doesn't do some very intentional outreach. Change does not just happen, you have to work at it, and if you think that running has made a positive change in your life than I challenge you to get out there and open some doors. As a community, we need to get out of our comfort zone.
We would be naive to think that running is going to be accessible to everyone in our communities in the US. Is their neighborhood safe to run in after dark? Is someone in a food-secure household going to be able to focus on a goal when their next meal is in question? There are plenty of barriers here as well, but we can harness the power of social networks and relationships. I guarantee you, relationships move mountains, and it's about time that some new faces join us in those mountains.