Strengthening core understanding of physical activity for individuals who experience gender-based violence: A scoping review approach

About the project

Physical activity (PA) is a key mechanism for promoting positive mental health. This may be of particular importance to people who have experienced high levels of trauma and violence, with regular engagement in PA being associated with decreased depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and other health conditions associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, despite the effective and low-cost potential of PA-centred interventions, it remains a very low priority within health promotion efforts targeted for individuals who experience(d) gender-based violence (GBV). Support to create accessible and appropriate PA programming is all the more pressing to understand since COVID-19 has created a de facto ‘shadow pandemic’ with a notable global upsurge in GBV and a resulting strain on community programming for victims of GBV.

As such, through this project, we conducted three scoping reviews to develop a nuanced, interdisciplinary understanding of past and current research initiates related to GBV and PA. These diverse, yet interrelated reviews were addressed through three objectives:

  1. Examine PA interventions for individuals who have experienced GBV with a focus on the last decade in the Canadian context.
  2. Understand how noticeably neglected groups, such as pregnant individuals who experience(d) GBV, are included/excluded from specific research and/or programmatic interventions leveraging the therapeutic potential of PA.
  3. Understand how geographic information system (GIS) mapping is and/or can be used to assess the relationship between PA and experiences of GBV.

Key findings

Gender-based violence and physical activity interventions

There is limited research (n = 5) in the Canadian context leveraging PA interventions as an adjunctive support specifically for individuals who have experienced GBV. Included studies used a variety of PA interventions.

One notable similarity across all studies is the intentional decision to not ask participants directly about their trauma. Researchers partnered with organizations who are mandated to serve clients who have experienced abuse and/or face barriers to access social determinants of health.

Researchers highlight the importance of a trauma- and violence-informed approach to PA (TVIPA) programming. All studies employed community-based participatory approaches in at least one aspect of the intervention and worked with community-based agencies, programs or stakeholders for program advisory and/or development capacities. Across sites, social workers, support staff and/or therapists were present during the PA delivery; 80% employed some iteration of trauma training to coaches/staff prior to the intervention.

Researchers noted improvements in physical and mental health outcomes; evidence of trauma symptoms being alleviated by TVIPA. PA may strengthen social connectedness and positive mental health outcomes among equity-owed, self-identified women and gender-diverse people.

Physical activity, gender-based violence and pregnant bodies

Review of the literature supports further research with/for pregnant individuals with experiences of trauma, PTSD and physical activity to address a sex and gender gap in research and explore the potential to interrupt intergenerational cycles of trauma.

There were no studies with human subjects that met our inclusion criteria; we found a singular animal model study. This finding reveals a significant gap in research on the potential impacts of PA on trauma and PTSD symptomology in pregnancy.

Geographic information systems and gender-based violence

From our review, there is clear momentum with the use of spatial approaches to understand GBV; however, no studies directly integrating PA were found. As such, we reviewed the use of GIS to examine reporting trends in GBV.

Of the 43 studies, the majority were conducted in urban or suburban centres (n = 28, 65%) and dominantly depended (n = 30, 70%) on institutional data sources (e.g., hospitals and police data), which hold major caveats in structural and systemic barriers to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) data collection, such as stigma in and/or fear of reporting and historic distrust in institutional services.

There is an opportunity to leverage GIS and spatial approaches to better understand relationships between PA levels, availability of health promotion services and environmental/neighbourhood factors.

Policy implications

Gender-based violence and physical activity interventions

Increased federal, provincial and municipal funding and support is needed for novel GBV and PA research, including:

  1. conducting a randomized-control trial (RCT) for population-relevant (Canadian) data, and
  2. discovering innovative ways of conducting RCTs, or similar research models, under a trauma-informed lens.

Funds should be provided to community organizations for:

  1. the evaluation/delivery of community organizations offering PA programming to equity-owed groups, and
  2. integration of TVIPA programming into GBV support services.


There is urgency to fund and advocate for PA research with pregnant individuals who have experiences of trauma and/or PTSD to develop evidence-based practices to protect them through research, not from research. Such benefits may decrease the risk of intergenerational transmission of trauma, thus enhancing the quality of life of pregnant individuals as well as their families.

Geographic Information Systems

As GIS is increasingly employed in GBV research, funding should prioritize mixed-methods, innovative research models to:

  1. account for structural/systemic barriers to data collection for those who have experienced GBV, and
  2. integrate community-identified insights into spatial analysis of GBV risk.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Francine E. Darroch, Principal Investigator, Assistant Professor, Department of Health Sciences, Carleton University:

Other members of the Health and Wellness Equity Research Group, Carleton University:
Madeline Sheppard-Perkins, Ainsley Lewis, Leah Margetson, Sarita Hira

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