Creating Inclusivity in Fitness Spaces
Widen the circle of wellness to include people from all backgrounds.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and
celebrate those differences.”
—Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist and civil rights activist (1934–1992)
When I first moved to Brooklyn from the Midwest, I missed my gym community and decided to mix things up a bit and take a strength training class so that I could connect. There, I met a woman who shared with me that she was nervous and that this was her first time back to a gym in 2 years due to a racist experience she’d had at a different facility. She had chosen this new facility based on its reputation for inclusivity. However, she’d gone without a health club home for 2 years because of racism.
Think about that. This woman missed out on 2 years of instruction, guidance, support and wellness advocacy because she didn’t feel welcome or safe.
Can you be sure that her experience couldn’t have happened under your watch?
Wellness is for everyone. It’s safe to say that most fitness professionals agree with this statement and truly want to reach as many people as possible. But are we succeeding at making everyone—regardless of race, age, body shape, sexual orientation, gender, etc.—feel safe and welcome? And how does a ripped safety net affect the health and well-being of millions of historically excluded communities? When fitness professionals fail to acknowledge racism, homophobia, transphobia and other systems of oppression, we fail in creating inclusivity and diverse wellness spaces.
The good news: We can change.
The Case for Inclusivity in Fitness
I’ve always been passionate about social justice, and my educational background reflects that. I didn’t initially set out to have a career in the fitness industry, but I fell in love with fitness and strength training and decided to become a personal trainer. As I shifted from my corporate job to my new career, I wanted to learn more and engage with other fitness professionals.
However, when I went to conferences, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. I also didn’t hear a lot of people talking about the fact that we needed more representation, diversity and inclusivity in fitness. I didn’t hear conversations about race or racism in the fitness space.
Maybe you’ve never thought about the topic of inclusivity and diversity and you don’t understand how racism impacts health. That’s okay. As an industry, we can learn; we can pull together; and if we do that, we can expand the circle of wellness to include everyone. It’s extremely important that we create inclusive, accessible spaces and, most crucially, that we demand justice for all bodies, because wellness truly is for everyone.
Systematic Oppression and Health
As fitness pros, we know that the benefits of fitness are expansive, and we spend a lot of time talking about nutrition and movement. While those things really matter, the benefits of fitness extend far beyond what we eat and how we move our bodies, which is why it’s so vital to ensure that everybody has equal access to our fitness facilities.
Fitness goes well beyond the physical to include mental, emotional and spiritual health, all of which directly influence how we feel physically. As wellness practitioners, we must look at holistic health and understand how the different aspects of our lives affect our ability to feel safe and healthy in our bodies. Difficult conversations are a must if we’re committed to creating an inclusive and diverse industry.
We want to help people from all backgrounds live lives that feel healthy, energized, nourished and whole. We want people to flourish. If that’s the case, then we must take an industrywide, intersectional approach to fitness that looks at gender, race, sexual orientation and body diversity and how all these things—especially when they intersect—affect people’s lives in and out of the gym.
Our clients have entire lives outside of their time with us, and as much as we may not think that our work impacts them, the truth is they bring their experiences into sessions and classes, and it affects their ability to feel secure and healthy. Systematic racism has a profound effect on the health of Black people, Indigenous People and other People of Color.
David R. Williams, PhD, a professor of public health at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, says that every 7 minutes a Black person dies prematurely in the United States. That means more than 200 people die every single day who would not die if the health of Blacks and whites were equal. In his 2016 TED Talk, “How Racism Makes Us Sick,” Williams said, “Research has found that higher levels of discrimination are associated with an elevated risk of a broad range of diseases, from blood pressure to abdominal obesity, to breast cancer, to heart disease, and even premature mortality” (Williams 2016). All of these can be addressed by a good fitness and wellness regime if—and only if—the door is wide open.
Here are just a few additional race-based health disparities:
- Black women are two to three times more likely to die due to pregnancy or complications of childbirth than white women (Martin & Montagne 2017).
- Black and Indigenous people and other People of Color receive poorer-quality medical care than white people (Bulatao & Anderson 2004).
- Black people have died from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people (Pilkington 2020).
- One study of 400 hospitals in the United States showed that “Black patients with heart disease received older, cheaper and more conservative treatments than their White counterparts” (Bridges 2018).
- Even when minorities have the same level of insurance, they receive subpar health care compared with the care given to non-Hispanic whites (Bradley University n.d.).
Racism is a public health issue.
To begin creating spaces that feel good for individuals from all backgrounds, we have to examine our own implicit biases, meaning the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decision-making, typically in an unconscious manner. No one likes to admit to being racially biased, because when we talk about racism and bias, we think of it in terms of “good” and “bad.” A “good” person couldn’t be biased, right?
It’s time to shift your narrative around that idea, because bias, particularly when you’re unaware of it, doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad person—it means you’re human. We all have biases. Bias doesn’t have to be intentional or conscious. Implicit bias is insidious, particularly when it’s unexamined, because even when we have the best of intentions, it informs our work, our interactions and the decisions we make.
To get in touch with your own biases, you need to be aware and be willing to identify them so that you’re more empowered to address them. A simple approach is to pay attention to your own thoughts as you go through your day. What kind of unannounced, stereotypical thoughts do you have about others? The next time you notice a bias, follow these steps:
- Pause and sit with the thought/feeling.
- Ask, “Why did that come into my mind?”
- Examine whether or not you want to think that it’s true.
- Ask, “Is this belief system in line with who I want to be?”
The more you examine your own biases and the more you question your automatic thoughts, the better you’ll be able to recognize them and do something about it to create inclusivity in fitness. If you want to go a level deeper, take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test (implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).
Once we’ve examined our biases, we’re in a better position to embrace a more intersectional approach. The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar. In a paper written for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, Crenshaw stated that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude Black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them. “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated,” Crenshaw wrote (Perlman 2018).
Human beings can have several identities—among them, gender identity, body size and appearance, sex assigned at birth, skin color, and more. All of these can define a person’s experience in the world and, depending on the levels of intersection, can have a huge impact on the person’s life. Some overlaps can create higher levels of disadvantage.
When we don’t consider how identities overlap, we can forget how difficult it may be for some people to feel safe in our fitness spaces. For example, if you own a gym, do you have gender-
neutral changing facilities or gender-neutral bathrooms? If not, that’s a problem, because if someone is transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming, how do they change clothes or feel safe going to the bathroom? This is one aspect that’s often overlooked when we fail to take an intersectional approach to fitness.
Diversity and Inclusivity in Fitness
When we discuss wanting to create an industry that’s diverse and inclusive, we have to look at our own implicit biases and consider the need for anti-racism policies. We must look at why we
need to take an intersectional approach to our fitness services and offerings, and then we can start to think about diversity and inclusivity in fitness spaces. How many of us know the difference between the two?
Diversity is the range of human differences, including—but not limited to—race; ethnicity; gender; gender identity; sexual orientation; age; social class; national origin; intellectual or physical ability; economic, religious and ethical value systems; and political beliefs (Lucas n.d.). Ask yourself if people from a range of backgrounds are represented in your space. Can an individual walk in and see others who look like them or who have similar backgrounds?
Next, there’s involvement and collaboration, where people’s inherent worth and dignity are recognized, and belonging is promoted. Inclusivity is a step beyond having different people in your space—it takes into account how people feel while visiting your facility. Was thought put into how the space was designed? Was there an attempt made to consider a wide range of belief systems and backgrounds? Will everyone enjoy a sense of belonging, no matter who they are? This is important, because what generally happens is that fit pros check off the diversity box and leave it at that, without considering inclusion. Stopping there is dangerous, because if you have people from different backgrounds in your space, but they don’t feel welcome, it can be harmful.
In short: Diversity is about quantity, and inclusivity is about quality. They both serve vital roles, because while we need representation from all different types of people, we also need people to feel safe, welcome and celebrated. As diversity advocate Verna Myers has said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance®” (Sherbin & Rashid 2017).
The reality is that diversity and inclusivity in fitness take a lot of work and require difficult and challenging conversations that may make some people feel uncomfortable. This is part and parcel of any transformation.
5 Steps Toward Inclusivity in Fitness
While the topic is expansive, there are five steps that we can all take to create more inclusive environments.
The first step is education, which is one of the most important things we can do individually. It is the foundation of this work. We often think that diversity and inclusivity in fitness spaces require sweeping changes. While this is true, it starts with the individual.
Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy (Sourcebooks 2020), a book I highly recommend, encourages everyone to create the change the world needs by creating the change within. When it comes to education, it’s important that every one of us understands how racism shows up in our own life and that we examine implicit bias and consider some of the ways we’ve been complicit. Once we do that work individually, we can start sharing with friends, family and co-workers, and then we can all work together to make some bigger changes.
In step two, we have to lean into discomfort and discuss racism, implicit bias, and diversity and inclusivity in fitness. For most of us, there will be some level of discomfort, which is understandable. However, I like to remind myself and other people that there’s discomfort with starting every new practice, whether it’s a new strength training program, a new yoga practice, running your first 5K or something else. I remember when I did my first strength training session in the gym, 8 or 9 years ago. It was only 30 minutes, but it felt like 3 hours. I kept going, though, because I understood the benefits of continuing that practice, and it paid off.
You have to be willing to make mistakes—and you will make mistakes. We all do. How you respond to those mistakes is what’s important. People care less about the mistakes you make and more about how you respond and take responsibility.
Fostering accountability is the third step. Accountability is twofold: We have to hold ourselves accountable and hold organizations, institutions and others accountable. We all play a role in this. Sometimes accountability means partnering with someone, explaining your goals around diversity and inclusivity, and asking your partner to do so as well. To help hold an organization accountable, you have to think about policies and goals, particularly if you’re a decision-maker. Here are some good questions to ask:
- What does your organization stand for?
- What is the expectation around behavior for community members?
- For staff: Are agreements in place to ensure that you’re keeping people safe from harm? And if those agreements are broken, how do you handle it?
- Do you have any policies in place (anti-racism, diversity and inclusion, etc.)?
Saying you have a diverse and inclusive environment is one thing, but doing the work to ensure that policies are in place is another thing entirely.
Step four involves diversifying your social and professional circles. If you look at your own life and recognize that a lot of people in your personal and professional circles all have similar backgrounds and look like you, it’s a big indication that it’s time to diversify your own life. This will open your mind to new things—it will help you see the world differently and encourage you to consider some things you might be missing.
The fifth step, and, in my opinion, probably the most important, is committing to the ongoing work that’s needed within the diversity and inclusion realm—the work of anti-racism and unlearning implicit bias. This is a marathon, not a sprint. While it’s wonderful that people are showing up to this conversation and the energy and momentum are strong, let’s take our time and put the right steps in place. Let’s learn what we don’t know, so that we can set the metrics to have amazing environments, long term. Let’s become a part of the solution.
The work of creating an industry that is diverse and inclusive, that demands justice for all bodies, and that creates environments in which individuals from all backgrounds can feel seen, recognized, affirmed and celebrated is a lifelong commitment. Until we as an industry actively demand justice for all bodies, especially the most marginalized, while also inviting individuals from a variety of backgrounds to be decision-makers and leaders, we aren’t doing the real work of inclusivity in fitness spaces.
Diversity and inclusion are not simply buzz words. It takes real dedication to change, and it also requires a willingness to alter current structures. While this won’t be easy, it is so worth it.
It Starts at the Top
Let’s get into some of the things that inclusion is going to require from leaders in the fitness industry.
Consider and affirm different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives. For so long, we built institutions and organizations from a narrow point of view, and we didn’t plan our curriculum or our events with a variety of backgrounds and cultures in mind. To be inclusive, we have to consider all the people who are coming to the table. The leadership must also reflect the people we’re hoping to reach; otherwise, we won’t have a inclusive perspective.
If most of the people in decision-making roles have similar backgrounds and thought processes, then—by default—there is bias. How can we change those structures and systems?
Fitness professionals can do so much to make sure fitness facilities are safe and welcoming for all. Even if you’re not a decision-maker, you can work to create an industry that feels good for everyone.
Racism: Stress and Health Disparities
Education is one step toward opening your mind to the critical role that inclusivity—and everything that ties into it—plays in inspiring the entire world to fitness, and not just a segment of it. David R. Williams, PhD, professor of public health at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, co-created the Everyday Discrimination Scale to
look at how social influences like stress and racism affect people’s health and outlook on life. You can view the paper at scholar.harvard.edu/files/davidrwilliams/files/measuring_discrimination_resource_june_2016.pdf.
In his thorough research on health disparities, Williams found that the “genetic differences” many people associate with being Black are “actually rooted in the precarious nature of life for African-Americans and other disadvantaged people. Race is not a useful genetic category, but it’s a profoundly useful social category,” he said. “That we know
what race we belong to tells us much more about
our society than about our biological makeup.”
Williams stated, as an example, that it’s a preconceived notion that African Americans are more
susceptible to hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure, than white Americans. This was commonly perceived as being a genetic disposition (O’Hara 2018). However, Williams references research led by Richard Cooper, MD, of Loyola University Cardiovascular Research Institute,
showing that the association is societal, not genetic (Cooper et al. 2005). “What predicts hypertension
is the social context,” said Williams. “It’s not consistent with a simple black gene causing high blood pressure” (O’Hara 2018).
Being disadvantaged in the United States sets up a downward spiral for health outcomes. Contributing factors include
- subpar nutrition as children, which affects healthy development;
- stress from anticipating violence in everyday life;
- inadequate access to good health care; and
- socioeconomic differences that might not exist if segments of the population weren’t targeted, marginalized and deprived of the tools to make their lives better.
Find out more: apa.org/pi/health-disparities/resources/stress-report.pdf.
Bradley University. n.d. An examination of racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Accessed Feb. 2021: onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/an-examination-of-racial-and-ethnic-disparities-in-health-care/.
Bridges, K.M. 2018. Implicit bias and racial disparities in health care. Human Rights Magazine, 43 (3).
Bulatao, R.A., & Anderson, N.B. (Eds.) 2004. Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life: A Research Agenda. Chapter 10. Accessed Mar. 1, 2021: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/about/copyright/.
Cooper, R.S., et al. 2005. An international comparative study of blood pressure in populations of European vs. African descent. BMC Medicine, 5 (2).
Lucas, L. n.d. Diversity and cultural competency. Austin Community College. Accessed Feb. 26, 2021: courses.lumenlearning.com/austincc-learningframeworks/chapter/chapter-17-diversity-and-cultural-competency/.
Martin, N. & Montagne, R. 2017. Black mothers keep dying after giving birth. Shalon Irving’s story explains why. Accessed Feb. 21, 2021: npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why.
O’Hara, D. 2018. David Williams studies health disparities in America. American Psychological Association. Accessed Feb. 26, 2021: apa.org/members/content/williams-health-disparities. Perlman, M. 2018. The origin of the term “intersectionality.” Columbia Journalism Review. Accessed Feb. 2021: cjr.org/language_corner/intersectionality.php.
Pilkington, E. 2020. Black Americans dying of Covid-19 at three times the rate of white people. Accessed Feb. 26, 2021: theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/black-americans-death-rate-covid-19-coronavirus.
Sherbin, L., & Rashid, R. 2017. Diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion. Harvard Business Review. Accessed Feb. 2021: vernamyers.com/2017/02/04/diversity-doesnt-stick-without-inclusion/.
Williams, D. 2016. How racism makes us sick. TEDMED 2016. Accessed Feb. 23, 2021: ted.com/talks/david_r_williams_how_racism_makes_us_sick/transcript?language=en#t-115407.
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