Fit Femininity

Exploring the intersection of culture, gender, and exercise.

Is It About Socializing or Working Out?

Why do some men and women participate in group exercise classes?

In my last blog I pondered why there are few men in group fitness classes despite men having created many of the currently commercially successful formats. I highlighted one woman’s successful branding of her Method Putkisto and wondered why more women do not take the opportunity to develop new exercise forms. I received several, all anonymous, responses that offered further opinions regarding the gender imbalance in group fitness classes. Some felt that to bring up the issue of men’s success in the commercial fitness industry was to paint men as ‘evil bastards who end up trying to control everything.’ My blog actually focused on one woman’s successful marketing of her exercise brand and I also mentioned Canadian Moira Stott whose Pilates brand has been extremely successful in North America. Stott was recently interviewed for the Pilates Magazine (July-August, 2013) that highlighted the history of the Stott Pilates brand. The company behind the brand, Merrithew Health & Fitness, is founded together by Moira and Lindsay Merrithew, a husband-and-wife team. In the interview, they were asked about their current roles with the company. Moira Stott replied: ‘Lindsay’s the CEO and idea guy. Without him, I’d just have a [Pilates] mat on my living room floor.’ The couple did not attribute their division of labor to men’s evil tendency to control everything, but rather to a set of complementary skill sets. Regardless, Moira Stott asserted that she would not have embarked on a successful business venture without her husband taking the lead.

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Others who responded to my blog focused on reasons why they don’t personally attend group fitness classes. For example, some felt out of place in a class filled with women. One respondent explained that women ‘would look at me suspiciously and question the “real reason” I’m there. Some may even complain that I’m there or insist that men be barred altogether.’ Instead of anticipating women’s reactions, other respondents focused on the differences between men and women emphasizing that ‘men tend towards solitary things. Most men I know prefer solo pursuits or things that are done in pairs or very small units.’ Others agreed that it is the possibility to socialize that makes group exercise attractive to women: ‘most fitness classes are not about fitness. These are about getting out of the house and feeling supportive. Ever notice in men’s gyms you have "shut up and train" posters? That simply won’t fly in most fitness classes because these are primarily social events first and fitness classes second.’ Another respondent did not expect people ‘who like group-think to be business leaders or entrepreneurs.’ It was not always clear whether the opinions about group exercise classes stemmed from personal experience of participating in a class. No one who enjoyed a group exercise class joined the conversation. With these thought provoking responses in mind I decided to gather further opinions about group exercise from people who actually participate in these classes.

I visited Europe this summer and I found myself in the middle of two men’s discussion of their group exercise classes. Although both engaged in solitary exercise (Nordic skiing, cycling), they could not stop talking about the importance of attending their respective exercise classes. One explained how his class, led by a male physiotherapist, counterbalanced the physical stresses of his work (his work involved surveying forest land), particularly the stretches that the professional exercise leader was able to devise for the class. When I asked why he did not simply stretch on his own, this man explained that it was also important to be able to socialize with other men after the exercise class, an opportunity that was not readily present in everyday life when balancing between work and family. The other man’s class was led by a female fitness instructor, a fact that the participants in this class felt was a positive motivation to keep up and complete all the repetitions. This was quite contrary to one of the blog readers who indicated that ‘personally’ he (?) ‘would find it very uncomfortable, being among all these woman (sic) who are physically energetic and trying to focus on my own personal fitness—that could be a tough call.’ The European men also indicated that men tended to be ‘competitive’ in a sense that none of them wanted to be the one who will give up first. This idea of men’s competitiveness was also brought by a man attending yoga classes here in North America. He complained about an injury he suffered when performing a demanding yoga move that, as he explained, he could not quite complete. When I asked why he needed to perform such a move, he said that everyone in his class is really ‘competitive’ and thus, he will have to be too.

The two European men’s group exercise classes targeted solely men. Could ‘men only’ classes catch on in North America similar to other classes designed for groups with special needs (e.g., pre-natal, post-natal, older people)? Or would this violate our sense of equal access? Or is it to do with the way masculinity is culturally understood in North America?

I already indicated in the earlier blog that more men participate in group exercise in some other cultural contexts such as Australia. In his UK study, Nick Crossley, who reported using also the other workout spaces in the gym, recorded his experiences in a mixed (male/female) circuit training class with a focus on the males’ perspectives. He found that some regular participants scheduled their week around their attendance in this this class: it was something they looked forward to when having a bad day. However, an enjoyment of the class required ‘know-how’ of the practical mastery of the movements, the terms used in the class, the space, the equipment, and general social competence to act in a group. The ‘new-comers’ did not possess such know-how and thus, were easily recognizable. After absorbing the necessary knowledge, the participants engaged in a ‘serious’ workout during which they found ‘the burn’ in their muscles, which in other contexts was uncomfortable, positive. In addition to improving their health and appearance, participants were there ‘to meet people, “have laughs”, relax, get out of the house or escape the pressures of work’ (p. 56). Regular participants also established special identities in the class. Similar to the European men I met this summer, Crossley also regularly socialized with the other participants outside of the class. Through his participation in circuit training he created social networks beyond class itself. Obviously, the men did not feel excluded or out of place in mixed circuit training. ‘Effective’ participation in a circuit training class required, nevertheless, some ‘know-how’ of the class format and movements. Crossley observed that the new comers were often uncomfortable or over exhausted themselves too fast. Having to master the exercise form is not, however, characteristic only of group fitness classes. Using resistance training equipment also requires technical knowledge and the lack of this ‘know-how’ will make beginners distinctive and possibly uncomfortable.

Several studies demonstrate that women, around the world, participate in group exercise because they want to change their bodies toward the desired feminine body ideal (e.g., Maguire & Mansfield, 1998; Markula, 1995; Spielvogel 2002, 2003). Many group exercise classes are designed to include a cardio-vascular segment to burn fat (at least 20 minutes at length but performed in intensity of no more than 80% of maximum heart rate) and a toning section that typically focuses on women’s problem spots: the under arms, the abdominal area, buttocks, and thighs. As the ideal masculine body differs from the feminine ideal, men might not find the toning section to meet their exercise needs. The cardio-vascular training typically includes continuous movement to music. This section often requires body coordination because in a small space different step patterns and directional changes can provide variety to fill the length of this segment. Similar to Crossley’s circuit training participants, not everyone readily possesses the ‘know-how’ of how to perform these movements or the terminology used to describe them. These would need to be learned through participation. The less familiar a person is with these movement patterns, the more time it takes to learn the required skills. This applies to both men and women, but it is possible that it is considered more ‘feminine’ to move to music and thus, many women feel more comfortable in these settings. Alternatively, it is considered more masculine to be muscular and strong and thus, many men feel more comfortable learning the necessary movement skills for weight training. While some group exercise classes are designed for beginners, most often the instructors have to teach a group of exercisers with mixed skill and fitness levels. This is obviously a challenge and it requires a good instructor to deal with such a variety of participants all at once.

Despite a major focus on appearance, women, like the participants in Crossley’s circuit training class, exercise also to develop physical health (Malin 2010), increase strength (Dworkin 2003), and be in a social environment with other women (Malin 2010; Markula 2003; Wray 2003). For example, Craig and Liberty (2007) demonstrated that a chain of women-only gyms in the U.S., were ‘feminized’ places that offered a nonjudgmental, supportive space for noncompetitive sociability. According to this study, women did not embrace the competitiveness that characterized some men’s experiences in group exercise settings.

Several successful group exercise formats obviously target women: they include movement to music assumed to attract women who look for weight loss and/or exercises designed to tone the ideal feminine body. The feminine ideal is also unachievable for most women despite any type active exercise engagement. Not all women want to exercise for better looks, either. Should this, then, continue to be the focus of group exercise? Could we learn something from the ‘men only’ exercise classes irrespective of whom the participants are? Do they focus on improving appearance or something else, for example, counter balancing everyday body stresses? Should ‘men only’ or ‘women only’ exercise classes differ substantially? Should any group exercise format be based on an improved body appearance? While many of current group exercise formats are marketed based on improved better body shape, it might be time to brand new group exercise formats, for women and men, based on alternatives to body shaping.

Works cited:

Craig, M. L., & Liberty, R. (2007). “Cause that’s what girls do:” The making of a feminized gym. Gender & Society, 21, 676-699.

Crossley, N. (2004). The circuit trainer’s habitus: Reflexive body techniques and the sociality of the workout. Body & Society, 10(1), 37-69.

Dworkin, S. (2003). A woman's place is in the…cardiovascular room? Gender relations, the body, and the gym. In Bolin, A. & Granskog, J. (Eds.), Athletic intruders: Ethnographic research on women, culture, and exercise (pp.131-158). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Malin, J. (2010). My life at the gym: Feminist perspectives on community through the body. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Markula, P. (2003). Postmodern aerobics: Contradiction and resistance. In A. Bolin & J. Granskog (Eds.), Athletic intruders: Ethnographic research on women, culture, and exercise (pp. 53-78). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Wray, S. (2003). Connecting ethnicity, gender and physicality: Muslim Pakistani women, physical activity and health. In S. Scraton (Ed.),Gender and sport: A reader (pp. 127-140. London: Routledge.

 

 


Pirkko Markula, Ph.D.,
is a professor of socio-cultural studies of physical activity at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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