Exercise can be life-changing. It can improve our physical, mental and social wellbeing. Fitness spaces such as gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools therefore have a huge role to play in promoting the health of the population. However in order to do this, they need to be places where everybody feels comfortable, not just certain social groups. Otherwise, fitness spaces are doing a disservice to all the people they could potentially help.
There has been positive change in the fitness industry over the past couple of years; fitness is more affordable than ever, thanks to the huge growth in budget gym chains such as The Gym Group and Pure Gym, there are more fitness opportunities for beginners and people of all ages, the marketing of fitness is gradually becoming more representative of different ethnicities, and staff are more diverse in terms of gender than in many other industries, with women representing 46% of sports and fitness professionals in the UK (Statista, 2019), a far higher figure than the number of women working in construction, transport and manufacturing (ONS, 2021). However, this is just scratching the surface of inclusivity. Far more needs to be done to make the fitness industry a more inclusive place. And we as fitness professionals have a responsibility to help make this happen.
Before I begin, it’s important that I acknowledge my privilege. I am a young, white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, straight-sized woman. I’ve never particularly felt like I don’t belong in a fitness space, because on the whole, fitness spaces are full of people just like me. However, I have experienced sexism in gyms, and I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable with the fitness industry’s preoccupation with exercising for weight loss and aesthetics, so I have some pretty strong feelings about inclusivity (or the lack thereof) in fitness spaces.
Make fitness spaces more comfortable for women
There’s no doubt that there’s been change in the past few years in terms of women’s fitness; more women are exercising in gyms and lifting weights than ever before, and this is wonderful. However, many fitness spaces are still are long way from being considered a comfortable and safe space for all women.
One only needs to look at The Everyday Sexism Project’s webpage, a catalogue of more than 80,000 instances of sexism experienced by women worldwide in everyday situations, to see that sexual harassment is rife in fitness spaces. Women speak about being leered at, touched by and offered unsolicited advice from men whilst exercising in gyms and pools. For example, Barbara (2020) recalls:
“I was at the gym squatting when a guy I had never seen before deemed that I needed help. I didn’t. He came mid-set to ‘spot’ me, literally hugging me from behind as I was lowering down. After that rep I stopped, pretended I was done, and left the gym. This was 5 years ago. What bothers me to this day is not slapping that MF instead of cutting my workout short and leaving”.
Another woman working in a gym describes how she was called a 'fat bitch' by a man for using the squat rack, and her space was then intruded on, equipment moved and belongings taken by another man.
This kind of behaviour is inexcusable. Unfortunately however, it’s alarmingly common. Research with over 1000 women found that 71% said they have experienced an interaction that made them feel uncomfortable in a gym (FitRated, 2021). These interactions included being watched (76%), flirted with (58%), offered unsolicited advice (57%), followed (33%), sexual harassment (28%), comments about their body (16%) and physical contact (15%). I’ve certainly experienced many of these uncomfortable interactions myself in gyms, and although I’ve generally learnt to ignore it, the point is that we shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of sickening behaviour in the first place.
Another perhaps more subtle way in which sexism shows up in gyms, which as an apparently average-height 5ft3 female I’m acutely aware of, is that most gym equipment is designed for males. I have to set the resistance machines to their smallest user setting, and even then often they are still too big or an awkward fit, and cardio machines are programmed for the ‘default’ average male user. Ever since I read Caroline Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women’ a few years ago (a must-read if you’re interested in gender inequality), I’ve become so aware of how almost everything in the world is designed by and for men (THIS is why we need more women working in manufacturing), and therefore is potentially inappropriate for half of those who use it. Although things like gym equipment might seem trivial, what if I were to also tell you that cars are crash-tested with male dummies, leaving women 47% more likely to be seriously injured in an accident? The gym is just an illustration of the way the world is built for men, and it needs to change!
What are the solutions to this? First and foremost we need zero-tolerance of harassment in fitness spaces. If anybody makes a woman, or any person, feel uncomfortable in a fitness space they must be reported and made to leave. Other men in gyms also have a role to play – they need to call out men who are being disrespectful or aggravating towards women, rather than bystanding and allowing this behaviour to continue. As I mentioned, we need women to be more involved in the designing and manufacturing of gym equipment, so that it is built with womens’ dimensions in mind. I also think we need more women’s-only classes, areas and fitness spaces. I did a quick Google search and could only find around a dozen female-only gyms in London, yet there are approximately 7000 gyms in total in the UK, so female-specific fitness spaces are few and far between. I think even small touches like providing hair bands and sanitary products in the female changing rooms, which I’ve seen done in some boutique fitness studios, can go a long way to making women feel seen in fitness spaces.
Stop assuming that everyone’s in the gym to lose weight
There is an implicit assumption in the fitness industry that everybody’s main motive for exercise, particularly if they are overweight or obese, is to lose weight. I read a quote on Instagram where somebody described:
‘I went to join a gym and in the induction the employee said “I’m assuming you’re here for weight loss” and then went on to show me all the machines that are best for burning calories (I wanted to start the gym to become stronger).’ (Against Weight Stigma, 2021).
I think it’s unforgivable that a member of staff should assume why somebody has come to the gym, yet sadly, in my experience these attitudes are not uncommon. Not only is this kind of judgement extremely rude, but also reinforcing the narrative that the gym is a place to go to lose weight is bad science, because research shows that physical activity is largely ineffective for substantial weight loss (Swift et al., 2014). Moreover, physical activity has so many health benefits independent of weight loss – it can promote longevity and delay the onset of over 40 chronic conditions (Ruegsegger & Booth, 2018), not to mention the psychological and social benefits of exercise too, such as supporting mental health and promoting social connection. So why is weight loss always put on a pedestal?
67% of men and 60% of women are considered overweight in England, and over a quarter of these are obese (NHS, 2020). This means that a high proportion of people using fitness spaces are likely to be overweight. However, this does not mean we should assume that everybody wants to lose weight. We need to give every gym member the ‘blank slate’ treatment, whereby we let them tell us their motives for exercising, rather than forcing our own preconceptions about weight and health onto them.
We need to train fitness staff on weight discrimination and hire staff who are non-judgemental and open-minded. We must also call out members and colleagues when we see weight stigma in our fitness spaces because it is unacceptable. Finally, we need to ensure that fitness classes, marketing and communications are not focused around weight loss and burning calories, e.g. by avoiding using language like ‘fat-burning’, and instead focus marketing efforts on reinforcing the wider physical, mental and social benefits of exercise. I received an email last Christmas from a gym telling me that I could take part in their classes to ‘burn off (my) turkey’, and don’t even get me started on the marketing campaigns focused around ‘losing the lockdown pounds’ back in April when the gyms reopened. This kind of messaging infuriates me; at best it's lazy marketing that's missing the wood for the tree, and at worst it perpetuates a disordered relationship around food and exercise.
Don’t forget about people with non-visible disabilities
A final area in which fitness spaces need to do better is accommodating members with non-visible disabilities. One in five people in the UK has a disability (Department for Work and Pensions, 2020), however around 70% of these people have non-visible disabilities (Brookes et al., 2008), and indeed adults with non-visible disabilities make up the majority of my client base. Non-visible disabilities include mental health issues, learning difficulties, behavioural problems, memory impairments, vision impairments, hearing impairments and chronic pain conditions. It’s likely that the number of people with non-visible disabilities will rise over the coming months and years as more people struggle with their mental health as a result of the fallout from Covid-19, with 20% of the population in England expected to require specialised mental health support following the pandemic (Centre for Mental Health, 2020).
This means that there’s likely to be a large number of people with disabilities that we’re unaware of using fitness spaces at any one time. It is our job to make everybody feel comfortable and help people to see the gym as somewhere they can go to feel good, rather than it being an unpleasant or intimidating experience.
To achieve this, it goes without saying that staff must be patient with and considerate towards all members. It’s also important that fitness spaces hire staff who themselves have non-visible (as well as visible) disabilities, and staff who specialise in working with clients with different disabilities, so members can reach out for support for their specific needs.
We need to be aware that members taking part in our fitness classes may have non-visible disabilities, and so they might need exercises to be explained and demonstrated multiple times, or provided with modifications. It’s also worth considering providing alternative entry methods to PIN numbers, such as fingerprint or QR code entry, given that 16% of disabled people have memory problems and 12% have vision impairments, so may struggle to memorise or type in a PIN number.
Where do we go from here?
I’ve only scratched the surface here based on my own experiences and observations. There are so many other things fitness spaces should be doing to make people feel more comfortable, from providing the option of gender-neutral toilets and changing areas to supporting staff from minority groups and women to reach the highest managerial positions. At the end of the day, if people don’t see themselves represented in the places they spend time, these places become exclusive and off-putting. It’s our responsibility to make fitness spaces as inclusive as possible. The suggestions I’ve made in this article are not ground-breaking, however they will require facility-wide, company-wide and industry-wide commitment to do better in order to effect change.
But if the past year and a half has shown us anything, it’s that the fitness industry can change plans and implement novel systems rapidly, given the speed at which we adopted new rules around social distancing, face coverings and cleaning regimes. This gives me hope that the fitness industry will continue to evolve over the coming months and years and it will become a better and more inclusive place for everybody who wants to be a part of it.
Brookes, S., Broady, R., & Calvert, L. (2008). Hidden disabilities. National Union of Journalists Disabled Members Council. Retrieved from: https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/brookes-NUJ-Hidden-disabilities-Report-plus-Lena.pdf
Criado-Perez, C. (2019). Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Vintage.
Department for Work and Pensions (2020). Family resources survey 2018/19. Retrieved from:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874507/family-resources-survey-2018-19.pdf
Fitness Professionals Against Weight Stigma [@againstweightstigma] (2021, 1 Feb). Lived experiences of weight stigma [Instagram photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/CKv7alAlxIV/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
FitRated (2021). Uncomfortable at the gym: Exploring women’s experiences while working out. Retrieved from: https://www.fitrated.com/resources/uncomfortable-at-the-gym/
NHS (2020). Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet, England 2020. Retrieved from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england-2020
Office for National Statistics (2021). Dataset: EMP13: Employment by industry. Retrieved from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyindustryemp13
Ruegsegger, G. N., & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health Benefits of Exercise. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 8(7), a029694. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a029694
Statista (2019). Gender distribution of sports and fitness occupations by types of employment status in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1086516/gender-distribution-of-sports-and-fitness-occupations-by-types-of-employment-status-in-the-uk/
Swift, D. L., Johannsen, N. M., Lavie, C. J., Earnest, C. P., & Church, T. S. (2014). The role of exercise and physical activity in weight loss and maintenance. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 56(4), 441–447. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2013.09.012
The Everyday Sexism Project (2014). Gym: Gym chick. Retrieved from: https://everydaysexism.com/tag/gym
The Everyday Sexism Project (2020). Gym: Barbara. Retrieved from: https://everydaysexism.com/tag/gym
Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal, 174(6), 801–809. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351