Creating an Inclusive Fitness Facility

A shift in legislation, social acceptance and demographics warrants an internal review of standard operating procedures.

By Maria Luqué, PhD
May 26, 2016

Roughly a year ago, the transgender community was catapulted into the mainstream media when Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman. Suddenly, most of the country took notice, and a “trans issues” dialogue started. Jenner’s story is not a singular event; Laverne Cox made headlines when she became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine and be nominated for an Emmy Award. Milestones such as these—in addition to recent changes in legislation on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender issues—are proof that social acceptance of previously marginalized populations is growing.

What do these developments mean for fitness facilities? Should you review your stance on inclusion and diversity? Regardless of your personal feelings, as awareness grows it’s safe to assume that more transgender individuals will feel comfortable hiring a fitness professional to help them with their physical transition. It’s also more likely that transgender staff will feel more empowered to be open about their lives. This awareness translates into better business for fitness facility owners and managers of both large corporate chains and small, independently owned studios.

Creating an environment of inclusion that welcomes diversity in staff and clientele may translate into an increase in revenues. As Robert Weigand states, “Diversity is a strategic initiative that provides firms with a competitive advantage” (Weigand 2007).

A Growing Demographic

According to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 700,000 Americans identify as transgender (Gates 2011). In fact, this number is thought to be much larger; the U.S. Census Bureau offers only two options for gender identification (male and female), so getting an accurate number is difficult. If we extend the numbers to the whole LGBT community, the group is even larger. The Williams Institute estimates that roughly 10 million adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (Gates 2011). Failing to market to this population can be bad for business. In fact, the LGBT community represents an estimated $884 billion in buying power annually (Witeck Communications 2015).

Hiring Diverse Staff

With an increasingly diverse population, it’s only natural that some employees will be members of that increasingly diverse group. To create an inclusive environment where all employees feel welcomed, owners and managers must first be aware of the many different layers of diversity. This includes not only race, ethnicity, gender and religion, but also sexual orientation and gender identity. During the hiring process, it’s beneficial to have a “hiring team,” rather than just one person, conduct the interviews. This helps avoid bias or subconscious prejudices. The goal is to include a wide range of individuals. The more diverse the staff, the better the chances of attracting more customers by appealing to a diverse customer base.

Understanding Clientele

Experienced fitness professionals and managers know that understanding the goals, challenges and expectations of each client is the key to success, not only for the client, but also for the business. Clients who feel that their individual needs are understood will be much more likely to stay with a facility than clients who feel they’re receiving generic treatment and prefabricated programs. It’s paramount to understand the unique needs of the transgender population, including basic knowledge of the physical transformation, as well as the role of hormone treatments and their impact on body composition and on mental and physical well-being. In the same way that you educate staff on how to approach and train other special populations—such as people with disabilities and clients who are obese, older or pregnant—it’s beneficial to educate staff about the LGBT population in order to ensure superior personalized service.

Employee Education

Transgender individuals often struggle with their own body image and their physical body. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of training male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM) clients is essential for any fitness professional who wants to serve this population. Going into depth regarding the transition is beyond the scope of this article; however, here are some points to consider:

  • Hormone treatment can influence how well a client responds to training. It’s important to understand the role of estrogen and testosterone in metabolism and the endocrine system. Supplemental estrogen and testosterone can influence where body fat is deposited, how well someone gains or loses muscle mass and how weight is gained or lost (Bonzagni 2014).
  • What if your staff is working with an MTF client who wants to strength-train but also wants to lose muscle in order to look more feminine? Or how about an FTM client who is supplementing with testosterone but still has estrogen-producing body parts? Trainers must take these facts into consideration in order to optimally understand and help a client.
  • Hormone treatment can increase risks for certain health conditions. For example, estrogen therapy for MTF clients may increase the risk for thromboembolic and vascular events, increased high-density lipoprotein levels and osteopenia (Weinand & Safer 2015). FTM testosterone supplementation has been shown to lead to a significant increase in body mass index (Fernandez & Tannock 2016).
  • The stage of transition also plays a vital role. For example, it’s important to consider whether the client has already gone through gender reassignment surgery or will be going through it while starting a fitness routine. If the latter, it’s essential to know about the different surgeries (some are more invasive than others) and the recovery protocols (Unger 2014).

Community Impact and Outreach

Being part of the community is essential to long-lasting success. Fitness facilities open and close all the time. Why do some succeed while others don’t? Of course, there are many aspects to being successful, but one key element is being able to provide customers with a sense of community and belonging. One of the biggest factors in sales and retention is the art of making every customer feel special. Creating an environment that is free of judgment, where all individuals interested in living a fit and healthy life are welcome, means success for both the business and the individual.

It behooves fitness professionals to be mindful of the many considerations involved in working with special populations. The transgender community is a specific population that has its own possibilities and challenges. Fitness facility owners and managers who create an inclusive environment stand to reap the rewards of a successful and rewarding business model.

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Maria Luqué, PhD

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