I love walking (with other people!)
On a chilly morning in June Victoria Walks caught up with women from Step & Connect, a social walk series hosted by community health service Inspiro.
Each Thursday, women living in the Yarra Ranges have been given the opportunity to meet up with others for a morning or evening walk at Lillydale Lake and other local trails.
For Judith, who is diabetic, the organised walks have provided an easy way to stay motivated to exercise regularly. “I like the structure,” she explains. “It’s the only way I can do it.”
“It really works for me to have to turn up somewhere. Otherwise, I’ll start watering a plant or the phone will ring …”
Judith is one of 76 women who have so far taken part in Step & Connect, which started in early May and runs until late June.
Inspiro Health’s Megan McInerney initiated the program because she saw a need to provide opportunities for women to exercise on local trails with others. “I thought if I couldn’t find a social walk to join, others were probably looking also.”
A national survey found that while walking is Australia’s most popular form of active recreation, only 4% of the walking that occurs is ‘organised’.
While the women Victoria Walks spoke to all had unique reasons for joining the walks, the social aspect was a common drawcard for all.
For Elaine, who lives alone, the regular social contact is helping her deal with feelings of loneliness – which have been acute since her husband died 12 years ago.
Elaine explained that keeping busy is as important for her as keeping fit.
Step & Connect has provided a launching pad for new friendships and further opportunities to exercise with others. Sue, Janet and Suzanne first met on one of Megan’s walks at Lillydale Lake in May.
They realised they all hailed from the neighbouring community of Mt Evelyn, and have since begun walking together closer to home.
Janet says she prefers not to walk alone on the recreational trails in Mt Evelyn for safety reasons.
“Some parts of the tracks are quite rugged on the body. If you fall it is better if someone is with you.”
Sue likes to walk in green spaces but not ones that are too busy. She says it’s about finding a good balance.
“During the Covid lockdowns Lillydale Lake was so busy; it was like Bourke Street,” she recalls.
Sue began walking at the nearby wetlands instead, but didn’t always feel safe – particularly in areas bordered by thick vegetation. “You want to feel like you can see who is coming, and also that other people can see you.”
Access to walking is “a very gendered issue,” Inspiro’s Megan McInerney points out. “Lots of women want to walk but prefer to walk with other people around.”
In Victoria women and girls feel much more vulnerable walking alone than males, especially at night.
On the positive side, understanding about these issues is likely to increase as organisations begin to respond to their obligations under the Victorian Government’s Gender Equality Act (2020).
The Act now requires councils, other land managers and public service organisations to include a gender impact assessment whenever a policy, program or service that impacts the public is launched or updated. For example, when a council updates an open space strategy it will have to consider whether the strategy provides equal access to parks for all genders.
Inspiro’s Step & Connect is partly modelled on a pilot women’s walking program run by City of Melbourne and Victoria Walks at Princes Park in 2019. Both programs seek to provide a social or ‘organised’ way to participate in Australia’s most accessible and popular recreation, while also addressing a key barrier for many women: feeling safe.
Hopefully in the near future parks and other public spaces will feel equally safe for everyone, all the time - regardless of gender.