What to do if you get harassed while exercising

Too many women feel unsafe when they work out outdoors. Here's what to do if that's you.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read

What you need to know about staying safe if you exercise outside alone.

Getty Images

Getting enough exercise each week is hard enough, especially with a busy schedule, social commitments and work deadlines looming. The last thing you need getting in the way of your workout goals is feeling unsafe. But unfortunately, a ton of women, especially female runners who exercise outdoors, don't feel safe on a regular basis when they exercise alone.

In a survey conducted by Runner's World, 67% of women said they were sometimes concerned about being assaulted or attacked while running. Another 16% of women said they have, at some point, feared for their lives while running. 

Speaking from personal experience, it doesn't take much to make you feel afraid when you're out exercising alone. I've run outdoors in more rural environments and on the streets of cities like New York, and in both environments any whistle, comment, prolonged gaze or honking is enough to throw me off center. 

No one deserves to feel scared while exercising, and it's important to know what to do if you feel uncomfortable, or worse, your safety is threatened. Below, you'll find helpful guidance on what to do if you feel unsafe while exercising and how to keep things from escalating. 

What to do if you're verbally or physically harassed

When someone says something or even looks at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it's hard to just walk away. But even though you may feel the need to react, respond defensively or confront the person, doing so can make matters worse. 

"While no one should have to 'take' harassment, responding in the moment can escalate the situation, so your best move is to keep moving and remove yourself as quickly as possible," Joyce Shulman, founder of 99 Walks, an outdoor walking community for women, tells CNET.

Harassment is in no way limited to outdoors -- it's something that can happen in public gyms too. But, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, (RAINN) street harassment can feel more intense. "Because street harassment is about power and intimidation -- and there is often a reasonable fear of escalating violence -- it is essential to 'trust your gut' in these situations," RAIIN suggests on its website.

RAINN recommends the following strategies if you are in a situation that feels unsafe:

Assess the situation and evaluate if it is safe to respond to the situation. Your safety is most important.

Remind yourself this isn't your fault. You did not do anything wrong. It is the person who is pressuring you who is responsible.

Identify of an escape route. If you had to leave quickly, how would you do it? Locate the windows, doors and any others means of exiting the situation. Are there people around who might be able to help you? How can you get their attention? Where can you go when you leave?

Go somewhere safe. If you are being followed in or outside of the gym and feel that your physical safety is in danger, you can approach a gym employee or find a public space where the harasser may be discouraged from following you. Never hesitate to approach a trusted individual for help.

Do what is best for you. The best thing to do if you are being harassed is whatever will make you feel most safe and comfortable. You are in no way obligated to respond to a harasser or to report them. Though responding to or reporting a harasser can be empowering, it can also be exhausting and potentially unsafe. Trust your judgement to do what feels right for you.


It's important to stay alert when you exercise outside alone.

Getty Images

How to stay safe if you exercise outdoors

When you exercise alone outdoors, even if you feel safe, it's important to stay alert. While you can't control what other people do, it's helpful to learn some tips and strategies that can keep you safe if you are ever in a bad situation. 

Avoid exercising alone

For many people, exercise is a form of meditation or an activity that helps them clear their heads and blow off steam. Unfortunately, exercising alone -- especially in isolated areas -- is not the best when it comes to safety.

Try to identify places, trails, paths and parks where you usually feel safe and see plenty of other people around. "The best offense is a good defense. Avoid exercising in places where you will be alone, where it is dark, or where 'bad guys' can hide," Shulman says.

Bring your dog, or a friend or family member along. You may enjoy the company and opportunity to catch up with a loved one, while feeling more safe. "Exercising with a friend will give you accountability, valuable time together and improved safety and security," Shulman suggests.

How to get help 

If someone makes you uncomfortable, follows you, gropes you, flashes you or says something you don't like, don't hesitate to report it. If you are in a gym, report the behavior to a receptionist or a trainer.

If you are outside, whether other people are around or not, immediately find a public place that feels safe. Once you are removed from the situation, you can report the behavior to the authorities. For more guidance on reporting street harassment, use the National Street Harassment Hotline, operated by RAINN and Defend Yourself. You can either call 855-897-5910 or use the online chat hotline.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.