Cultural Values are Hindering Women’s Physical Activity

Physical activity is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. In most countries, however, men are more likely to be active than women.

Cultural values and traditions can influence levels of physical activity among women. There is often a lack of safe, affordable and appropriate programs and places where girls and women can be active.

Globally, inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death.

Exercise is a necessity for good health. It can prevent noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, depression, breast and colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. But it isn’t only about sports – the World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that requires energy expenditure”. This means that cycling to work or school, taking the stairs, and walking instead of taking the bus all count.

As stated in the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030, physical activity needs to be integrated into people’s everyday life. However, this can be challenging if cultural values don’t allow it.

In Pakistan, girls and women who cycle may experience resistance. In Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to cycle, but only on beaches and in parks and only while remaining close to their male guardian.

Women who perform sports often experience opposition based on cultural norms.

Based on a true story, the Indian movie Dangal tells the story of a father who opposes traditions and cultural values and raises and trains his two daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari to win India’s first international gold medal in female wrestling. This raises quite a few eyebrows in the community.

At first, the girls loathe the training and want to be like other girls, but when the sisters complain to a friend about their father and the tough training they have to endure she replies: “I wish God had given me such a father. When a girl is born here, the only thought is to teach her household work and get her married off at 14”. Geeta and Babita’s mother initially opposes the training. In one scene, she asks her husband “Who will marry our girls?”The father confidently replies, “I will make our girls so capable that boys will not choose them, they will choose boys”.

Of course, the story is not only about choosing a life partner. It’s about gaining confidence, physical and mental strength and allowing women to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives.

When women are discouraged from being active, whether it’s walking, cycling or performing sports, their right to health is under attack.


So, what can we do to promote physical activity for women?

Emphasize the importance of physical activity for health. Physical activity is essential for good health and this should be stressed in the face of resistance.

Demand safe spaces for women. Sports and physical activity should be for all. In places where women don’t feel safe walking or cycling or when performing sports, advocacy is needed.

Encouragement is key. Just as Geeta and Babita’s father encouraged his daughters to train, we need to encourage our children and young people.

Be the change you want to see. To change cultural values and traditions we need to see women doing sports or being physically active. Don’t wait for an invitation. Women need to conquer the streets, whether on bikes or on foot just as we need to take our rightful place in the gym and in sports.

Health is a human right and physical activity plays a huge role in a healthy lifestyle.

How can physical activity be promoted for women in your community? Post your suggestions in the comment section!

Repairing the Mind-Body Connection After Trauma

 “Yoga can build back people’s ability to slow down in reacting to stress, to re-build the connection with their bodies, and engage in self-care.”
– Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality

A recent report from Georgetown Law revealed a new avenue of trauma-informed treatment for adolescent girls. Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and current yoga teacher, co-authored the report alongside Thalia González, Associate Professor at Occidental College. The report explores the potential of somatic interventions to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of girls who have experienced trauma. Somatic interventions – meaning interventions that focus on the connection between the participant’s mind and body – are not new, but this research is showing new levels of promise for adolescent girls and young women.

“Trauma is part of many marginalized girls’ lives,” Epstein stated in a recent interview. “Across the board, girls have experienced every form of trauma studied at a higher rate than boys…yoga is one way to try to repair the mind-body connection.” Somatic interventions are made up of three core components: mindfulness, regulated breathing, and physical poses.

Epstein and González specify that, to be effective, somatic interventions targeting girls who have experienced trauma need to be trauma-informed, gender-responsive, and culturally competent. The teachers must pay attention to girls’ specific needs, provide options and choices, and acknowledge that different cultural experiences may affect a girl’s reaction to somatic interventions and the practices involved therein.

A stand-out participant named Rocsana exemplifies how somatic interventions, specifically yoga, can help girls heal. In a phone interview, she described how yoga taught her to be calm, to be more patient with her children, and how to think before she reacts. She practices yoga at home with her children, along with breathing and mindfulness exercises, and states that the techniques helped her leave an abusive relationship.

Now a yoga teacher herself in her own community, Rocsana aims to empower other girls through the methods she learned from the California-based Art of Yoga Project.

“The girls that I teach are young girls and they’re mostly Latina and African American. I want them to feel strong and powerful. I want them to feel good about themselves.”

A key element of somatic interventions is an appreciation of girls’ intersecting identities and individualized experiences. One of the report’s key recommendations reads, “Account for differences in types of trauma experienced by girls based on their intersectional identity.” Many holistic approaches to girl-centered programming acknowledge that girls’ experiences are directly related to the various, and often multiple, types of oppression and discrimination they face.

As Epstein describes, girls’ overlapping identities – be them race, gender, sexual identity, or others – affect how they experience trauma and how they are treated if they should choose to disclose or report their experience. “Women of color are responded to differently when they experience trauma…they are often ignored or blamed for their trauma.” Epstein underscores that girls of color are often seen as complicit in their trauma or are blamed for their experience.

Trauma-informed somatic interventions that acknowledge and address intersectionality allow girls to reclaim their agency, their sense of choice, and their ability to separate the trauma from their self-worth, dignity, and potential.

The use of somatic interventions signals an advanced appreciation for girls’ holistic wellbeing. As evinced by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, childhood trauma can lead to long-term mental and physical health effects. These include depression, suicidal tendencies, heart disease, and cancer.

Epstein and González see great potential in using somatic interventions to mitigate these effects and interrupt the inter-generational cycle of violence. “While there has not yet been a mainstream connection between the body and the mind and trauma and the body,” says González, “we see this report as a critical next step in advancing policies and practices aimed at providing system-involved girls with the foundation for a healthy and successful future.”

Perhaps this report will help those in the adolescent girl field make the connection and envision new, holistic ways to help girls improve their wellbeing.