Getting active in an inner city environment can be challenging if there is a lack of green space or affordable gym facilities. But that shouldn’t stop you, says Neil Maggs, who has been finding out about Urban Fit.
I have heard and seen many interesting fundraising events over the years in Bristol, but Urban Fit, an organisation based in Easton committed to engaging with young women and girls in physical activity, was one of the most innovative ones.
Last weekend, a team of local residents could be found running up and down stairwells of all eight tower blocks in the Easton area, in an event named Beat the Block.
This sounded not only rather eccentric, but very tough. Emma Cochrane, director and founder of Urban Fit explained: ‘’Today is about involving members of the public, all those fit bods who like doing crazy challenges, running up and down local tower blocks.
“We hope to raise awareness for the project by being visible in the area that we operate in. By doing so hopefully we can raise some funds for what is a vital local resource for young women.’’
Urban Fit began four years ago in an attempt to address the decline in young women’s activity in the inner city.
Nationally, the lowest participation cohort are young women aged 14-25 in areas of deprivation, and Emma wanted to try and tackle this issue.
She felt strongly that ‘’sport and fitness can be a barrier for young women, particularly in inner city environments, because generally it’s a male dominated environment.’’
To engage the girls locally she decided to ‘’base all our activities around being fun, encouraging them to be active and healthy through fitness groups but also education workshops”.
And why was this so important? ‘’Because being healthy, makes you feel good, and when they feel good young people make better choices in life.’’
Urban Fit had voted for a young ambassador to represent them, St Paul’s-raised Cartelea Howell, aged 21, who has been coming to the project for a few years.
She explained the impact it had had on her life. ‘‘It is a brilliant way of getting to make new friends, finding out more about yourself and keeping fit’,” she said.
She said she had learned many transferable skills as ‘’the project has helped me build confidence, through CV writing, got me more involved in other things around the community, and inspired me to be the best I can be”.
It was evident that Cartelea had been on quite a journey, and was now a role model herself, passing across her experiences to other young girls from the community.
A journey like this can be challenging, and the fundraising block run was no doubt just that. I stood around with the marshals watching the grueling feat as many grimaced, and struggled to complete it.
An interesting sight to behold as local residents looked on in amusement, evidently curious about what was going on.
One runner, Phil, looked worse for wear and as I attempted to jog alongside and chat to him he just mumbled ‘’it’s tough, it’s very tough’’.
What was his motivation? “It’s a good cause and helps our community,” he declared, whilst sweating profusely, sacrificing his body for the greater good.
Bristol North MP and boxing campaigner Charlotte Leslie was due to take on this challenge, but had fallen ill on the day, and despite pressure to step into her trainers to take on the challenge, I stubbornly resisted.
For today I remained an interested bystander, and a fellow spectator was local constituent MP Thangam Debbonnaire. “I am really impressed with what the girls are doing here,” she said.
“I think there is some fantastic work going on, engaging young women in an urban environment. By doing such work they are boosting young women’s self esteem, helping them with their confidence, getting them out of their houses if they feel isolated, providing emotional support, and exercise – as everyone knows – gives endorphins which helps with mental and physical health. What’s not to like?’’
The event involved a series of marshals dressed in pink fluorescent bibs guiding the runners on the marked out route and shouting encouragement. The local residents that took part on the day were of all ages, abilities, and gender. It was pleasing to see so many people getting behind the campaign to engage young girls and women in sport.
The national This Girl Can campaign hopes to increase participation rates in females, and I wondered if an entirely different approach is needed to achieve this in order to overcome the various social and body image barriers that academic research has demonstrated.
Emma was very clear on Urban Fit’s approach. ‘’Engaging girls of a certain age is notoriously difficult, so we were very careful from the offset where we held our sessions, what we look like as an organisation, careful about our logo.
“Girls need to be able to relate to something, they need to know that it has value, they need to know that it’s something that they can contribute to and want to contribute to.
If it’s something that they think is lame, they are not going to come anywhere near it so we’ve tried to give it a bit of an urban edge, and something that inspires confidence in them.’’
And the day definitely had an urban edge. This was clearly a creative, progressive organisation, prepared to think outside the box to meet the needs of young people. Urban Fit is supported locally by Access Sport and is part of the national StreetGames initiative, which attempts to engage young people in the top 20 per cent areas of deprivation areas across the country in what are known as ‘doorstep sports’.
The blockrun was certainly on the doorstep, and unfortunately for Phil even on the stairwell of the 8th floor. Judging by his face, it looked like he would rather get the lift next time.
Neil Maggs is a sport development consultant, presents Midweek SportsBar on BFCM, and is Director of Street2Elite promoting the development, value and promotion of grassroots sport.
Pictures by Stephen Lewis