The Problem with Gyms

Not all gyms, but too many, thrive on shame.

And I have a major problem with that. And you should too.

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I became a NASM certified personal trainer earlier this year and I’ve been dabbling (ever so slightly) in the idea of actually putting it to use. I mostly pursued it for my own information and benefit. Also, I like to tell people to move joyfully with a sense of authority.

In this dabbling, I began reflecting on my own experience in gyms and with fitness professionals and a varied relationship with movement. About a year and a half ago I felt a need to literally break up with the gym, because well, I had come to resent it so much. I’m just now returning to our local Y and trying to continue to find what fuels me instead of just hopping on the elliptical because it’s there, and discovering classes that feel uplifting instead of defeating… it’s a slow, but much more fun process, to say the least.

In spite of my own experiences, I decided I needed to do some research and find out what other people’s experiences have been as well… so I turned to Instagram. I first posed a poll-fairly vague-asking if anyone else had been uncomfortable in a gym or fitness class and at least 95% of those who responded said that yes, they had.

The reasons for discomfort varied.

Mostly, it was feeling different from those around them, a sense of being judged or “othered”, and that they just don’t belong.

Often, it was men physically (and inappropriately) entering a woman’s space in one form or another.

Occasionally, it was a trainer or fitness professional publicly calling a person out in a manner that was not necessary.

And of course, a big one was and is the pervasive diet culture, weight and calorie/restriction talk by members, trainers, and wellness professionals.

So what can we do to make these spaces more comfortable for EVERY BODY?

We can start by discouraging all inappropriate behavior in gym spaces.

  • The gym is not a place to pick up women. They’re there to move their body not to be evaluated and/or harassed because of their body. Let them do what they came to do. Can you be friendly and establish relationships at the gym? Absolutely. But read the situation. If what you are saying or doing may be making others uncomfortable it probably needs to change or stop all together.

  • Learn what words, phrases and talk comes from a privileged place… Then take measures to change it. And spread the message. This includes but is not limited to:

    • Diet talk and food rules

    • Weight chat

    • Body Bashing of any body

    • The latest “health” craze

    • Ableist commentary

    • Sexist remarks and actions

  • Beyond your words be aware of your actions. If you run the gym encourage inclusion and lead by example. Don’t make assumptions based on a person’s body about health, fitness, eating habits, or anything between.

Make your spaces and exercises accessible and accommodating to as many people as possible - yes we should all be ADA accessible by law BUT that goes beyond a ramp and larger bathroom stall:

  • Do we offer alternative versions of exercise for varying levels of fitness, mobility, and accessibility?

    • The fabulous Anna, of Urban Fitness Studio, recommends starting with offering what would be considered the “modified” version FIRST and advancing from there, instead of starting with the advanced

  • Is the furniture, equipment, shower facilities, and gym set up comfortably and accessible for a variety of bodies (shapes, sizes, ability) to use and navigate?

  • If someone was coming to your facility for the first time ever would you and/or a staff member have the knowledge, patience, and compassion to show clients how to do exercises and use equipment safely and appropriately? Repeatedly if necessary?

Gym go-ers also have a responsibility in creating a welcoming and comfortable space, and can do many of the things listed here, as well as:

  • Making staff aware if there is an immediate concern

  • If you have the capabilities and privilege, standing up for those that may be shamed or made to feel bad at the gym

  • Fill out the surveys and questionnaires for the facility to help it do better and improve

  • Giving yourself permission to leave spaces that don’t align with your values or create a welcoming and inclusive culture

Lastly, we must take shame and guilt out of the toolbox.

  • It doesn’t matter if it is shame for the sale.

  • Shame to get them in the door.

  • Shame to keep them coming in.

  • Or shame to “motivate them” (shame is actually a horrible motivator)

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Shame shows up in many ways. Sometimes obvious and other times more subtle. The sale that pounces on a perceived weakness. The comments before, during, or after a session to “burn/do/push/be”. The moralization of food and bodies. Any advertisement that suggests there are wrong/right ways to have a body. There are no wrong bodies.

This list is not all inclusive. If what you are saying or doing is to make people feel wrong for their behaviors or bodies, causes them distress, guilt, or is meant to cause an intense, unnecessary fear, it is shaming.

So we need to put a stop on the shame. We need to make gyms and fitness facilities more welcoming for larger bodies. Women’s bodies. Gender non-conforming bodies. Persons of color. Disabled bodies. Every dang body that wants to be there and move. We must uplift people instead of leaving them filled with guilt and shame and having little desire to return.

Anything less than is unacceptable.

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Amanda is an anti-diet dietitian and nutrition therapist practicing in Bloomington, IN and virtually. If you are looking to work with a dietitian, she is currently accepting new clients. Check out her services or reach out to set up your FREE discovery call today. She would love the opportunity to work with you!