The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in decreased levels of physical activity, which has an impact on physical and mental health. Physical activity can also be an important tool for recovering from the collective trauma experienced and exacerbated throughout the pandemic, especially for equity-seeking communities.
During the pandemic, high levels of stress, isolation and inequality have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls around the world. Progress that had been made in gender equality and women’s rights was reversed in areas such as employment, economic setbacks and expanded domestic roles. According to the United Nations, a“Phantom pandemic” of violence against women emerged during the pandemic which has disproportionately affected racialized women and girls.
There have been several calls to address the negative effects of the pandemic on physical and emotional well-being, including the impact of increased violence and poverty on sport participation and safety.
As we approach spring and summer and more and more people consider physical activity outdoors, it is crucial to focus on issues of equity, inclusion, safety and access. One such strategy is to promote trauma- and violence-informed physical activity.
In the search for gender-responsive approaches to pandemic recovery, there is a need to improve access to physical activity by creating inclusive opportunities for equity-seeking populations. Our research used trauma- and violence-informed physical activity as a tool to address inequalities in physical activityand explored the potential of sport to help prevent gender-based violence as part of development interventions.
Trauma- and violence-informed physical activity
Trauma- and violence-informed physical activity research has highlighted the value of this approach in creating ways to work equitably with program participants and reach new participants. Importantly, this approach addresses structural and systemic issues of access in COVID-19 recovery efforts. Given the competing social determinants of health, there is often a lack of political will and/or commitment to sustainable funding for recreational physical activity focused on women living in poverty.
Trauma- and violence-informed physical activity is a equity-based approach that actively considers and addresses barriers to practice. This includes collaboration across systems, such as offering physical activity programs or referrals through health and social services that women already have access to, as well as removing barriers. Examples may include providing free on-site child care or children’s participation in programs, transforming spaces to accommodate self-identified women-only programs, and using invitation language that focuses on choices rather than directives.
Recognizing the intersections of trauma with health and social issues, this approach integrates an understanding of trauma and marginalization into all aspects of program design and delivery.
In our previous research, we have examined how culture, historical issues, and gender shape our critical thinking for new approaches to physical activity. We believe that everyone involved in developing and implementing physical activity programs should address the key principles of trauma-informed and violence-informed physical activity:
Trauma- and violence-informed physical activity links important work on sports trauma and recovery. It has been identified as a strategy that enhances social connections, community cohesion and collective movement and healing.
Current efforts to engage people in physical activity have focused on the individual physical benefits of physical activity and improved mental health. By refocusing our attention on the social determinants of physical activity, there are more options for developing programs and resources designed for specific communities.
Apply the principles
The pandemic has also further underscored the need to examine the structural and systemic problem of access related to physical activity in COVID-19 recovery efforts. A relatively new and promising approach to improving access to the natural environment is to adopt prescriptions such as Canada’s national parks (PARX, a prescription for nature). This innovative program enables healthcare professionals to connect patients to nature as “Canada’s first evidence-based national nature prescribing program.”
This strategy could be further improved by using a trauma- and violence-informed physical activity lens by clearly identifying and addressing key barriers to participation:
Transport, challenging the assumption that people have equal access to green spaces; and
prominent intersections of race, gender, and class when it comes to access and perceptions of “safety” in outdoor spaces. For example, studies have shown that racialized women do not feel welcome in “uncultivated green spaces and rural areas,” and that racialized people are three times more likely than white people to live in places without access to green spaces.
Considering trauma- and violence-informed approaches can improve access to and uptake of physical activity, as traditional programs may fail to take into account social and structural inequalities.
Our research aims to better understand how this approach could be a promising post-pandemic intervention to safely address trauma caused by things like stress, isolation, and violence. It also examines how such interventions can be developed and scaled up as a tool for use by health practitioners, sports leaders, non-governmental organizations and policy makers.
This is especially critical as Canadians will need to consider how gender inequalities in physical activity will continue to be exacerbated as the pandemic continues, and how unequal access to spaces safe to participate in inclusive physical activity can set back recovery efforts.
We recognize that trauma- and violence-informed physical activity is not a panacea. However, having an equity-based approach that considers and actively addresses barriers to participation is a step towards promoting equitable access to physical activity.