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Shouldn’t Gyms Be More Inclusive?

Personal Perspective: The gym should never be an unwelcoming place.

Perhaps mid-afternoon on a beautiful sunny and dry weekend is not the time to evaluate the size diversity of gym membership. Why would anyone give up enjoying the last few summer weekend days to work out in a gym? Certainly, only the most dedicated gym goers would be inside pumping iron or running on a treadmill. And a casual survey of the body types in the gym revealed not one overweight body, not one that did not have at least a little muscular definition, not one person spending more time on the cellphone than on the treadmill—and it seemed there was no one over 45 except this writer.

But the absence of variety in the body types of gym goers is also apparent during more traditional gym hours. To be sure, some members are old and/or have limited mobility. There are some, just a few, who would be considered obese, or whose bodies do not reflect so-called "toning" or muscular definition. The gym would claim that the absence of members who could be defined as not very fit is a testament to their success. Obviously, they imply, one joins the gym and whatever physical deficits one had before joining will vanish due to the exercise the gym facilitates.

The more plausible explanation is that someone who is a gym newbie or an outlier because of size, mobility, or age is probably not going to feel too comfortable working out. Certainly not at first. Imagine walking into any gym, be it a community center workout space, a Y, or an upscale health club, and looking around for someone who looks like you. If you are relatively young, muscular, close to your ideal weight, and have been in gyms before, you will feel comfortable. You may not know how to lock the lockers or adjust the seat on a piece of gym equipment, but you don’t mind asking for information because your fit appearance allows you to blend in. If you, on the other hand, are not so fit, not so thin, not so young, not so muscular or agile, and you enter the workout space, you may feel quite isolated in your differentness. You may look around and realize that there are not too many other people who look like you.

The lack of physiological variance among gym users can be a barrier that is difficult to overcome for a person who wants to get thin, get fit, get healthier and is told to do aerobic and muscle-based exercises in a health club. Weight-loss clients of mine have told me that they avoid gyms because they believe people will stare at them.

"I have to lose a lot of weight before I feel comfortable working out with all those skinny girls in their tight workout clothes," a client told me. Another client who did go to a gym while on a weight-loss regimen said that people would come up to her and praise her for exercising. "I found that offensive," she told me. "No one else was being praised for walking on a treadmill, but I guess those gym folk thought I was really unusual because I was fat and exercising."

Many people who undergo physical therapy to regain or improve their physical mobility, balance, and strength are told to continue their exercise regimen on their own. Gyms would ideally be a perfect place for patients to continue the exercise program they are given by their physical therapist: They could work on their improving their balance, increasing stamina, and building up muscle. Unfortunately, some gyms might actually resist such potential members for fear they might hurt themselves due to impaired balance, mobility, or lack of strength. Management might insist on the member being accompanied by a trainer. And one wonders how comfortable someone using a cane, a walker, or unable to move quickly would feel in a gym environment.

Such lack of inclusiveness extends even to those who are uncoordinated and have trouble locating themselves in space. There are those among us who find it very difficult to follow the instructions of an aerobic teacher, especially when given rapidly over loud music. The same individuals may find themselves with their legs or arms or torso in the wrong position during a Yoga class. Wouldn’t it be helpful if classes could be offered for the spatially impaired? It could a class sensitive to those among us who are delighted with a dance or yoga class for the clumsy (not by choice) i.e., those who tend to turn left when everyone else is turning right.

Indeed, IHRSA, an organization devoted to making fitness for health available to all has pointed out the failure of many health clubs to make their facilities accessible to everyone. Another article specific to the health club industry describes the absence of outreach to the obese community.

One solution is to promote the gym, the community center, and the Y as places that welcome all shapes, sizes, levels of fitness, and ages. There should be classes at a beginner’s level, and staffing to help. There should also be a welcoming culture that implicitly offers support to those unfamiliar with the equipment. Directions should be available on a treadmill, exercise bike, stair stepper, and other machines for beginners. It could be helpful to advertise times when the workout space is not crowded to make it more physically and emotionally comfortable for those with mobility or weight issues to exercise. One cannot ban the wearing of tightly fitting workout clothes that reveal every muscle or toned curve to the body, but one gym I belonged to many years ago offered freshly laundered baggy shorts and T-shirts to wear. The effect was to reduce the pronounced differences in fitness so those with more bumps than muscles were not intimidated. That reduction in visual multiformity was a good thing.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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