There Are No Men in My Exercise Class

Gender, Fitness, and Business

Posted Aug 12, 2013

My niece is excited about her new Zumba class. She tells me that so many of her friends and colleagues enjoy the class. But, she continues, there are no men in the class. Do I know why that is? I don’t have an immediate response, but come to think of it, I only had one man in my Pilates class of 35 people. This is particularly curious considering that the founders of both of these exercise forms were men. Zumba was created by Alberto ‘Beto’ Perez who, originally from Columbia, founded Zumba Fitness in 2001 with Alberto Perlman and Alberto Alghion based on dance movements drawing from Perez’s South American background. Joseph Pilates, originally from Germany, is credited as the father of Pilates that now has multiple forms. Pilates, who originally titled his exercise program ‘Contrology’, established a studio in New York City in the late 1920s. Other currently popular group exercise classes in many fitness and health clubs are Bodypump, Bodybalance, and Bodycombat that are products of The Les Mills Company (Les Mills International, LMI). They were created by Philip Mills in New Zealand in the 1990s and continue to be licensed to 70 countries. In addition, several popular Westernized postural yoga forms have been credited to a male guru. For example, hot yoga is a franchised by Bikram Choudhury and B. K. S. Iyengar established a yoga style named after him. According to the Yoga Journal’s website, the majority of yoga participants in the United States, 72.2 percent, are women although yoga was originally exclusively a male activity in India.

Obviously, men are the founders of many popular and commercially successful group exercise class brands, but the participants are mainly women. The majority of group fitness instructors are also women. Why don’t women create and market new group exercise forms although they excel in instructing fitness? Do we lack business skills? Are we simply happy to follow exercise forms created by men? Should we conclude that men brand group exercise classes and make the money, while women teach them with low salary and pay to participate in them?

Things are not quite this categorical. Women do create exercise classes and some men also participate in these classes. Men’s participation figures also change based on the cultural context. For example, Les Mills exercise classes can draw a large male following in Australia and New Zealand and many instructors are male. There are successful women fitness entrepreneurs such Moira Stott in Canada. It is curious, however, that so many currently popular group exercise forms have been created by men. Has this always been the case?

There is little scholarly work on how certain group exercise classed have become popular. When I was writing my own research on aerobics, I mapped some broad lines of how exercise to music classes might have become a part of the fitness scene in the United States. The YMCAs and YWCAs have organized exercise classes for women for some time, but also televised exercise programs popularized the idea of exercising to music. Here again two men, Richard Simmons who is still an active exercise leader and Jack LaLanne, led televised exercise programs that enabled women to exercise to music at home. However, several women have also been instrumental in popularizing group exercise.

Exercise classes were institutionalized quite simultaneously (but separately) by Jacki Sorensen and Judi Sheppard Missett in 1969. These two women were the first to enter into a nationwide fitness business. Both of their programs derived heavily from dance: Sorensen’s Aerobics Dancing used popular ballroom and folk dance steps to apply the principles of Dr. Cooper’s aerobic exercise programs to music; and Sheppard Missett, a former dance teacher, simplified jazz dance movements into nontechnical Jazzercise classes to attract women. Philip Mills, the founder of the LMI empire, is also rumored to have been inspired by Jazzercise. These early aerobics classes emphasized the enjoyment of dancing and the playful nature of women’s exercise.

Group exercise, or aerobics, became a mass movement when the actress Jane Fonda, who provided a widely distributed ideal exercise image, entered the fitness field. Fonda’s success was largely based on the premise of exercise as a “body shaper,” publicized in her Workout Book (1981) and her exercise videotapes. Fonda herself was not an exercise instructor, but provided an of the “right” body for women to exercise for. She used a number of exercise experts to create her workouts. In these workouts, Fonda encouraged her participants to work hard and discipline themselves to obtain the desired body changes. Fonda’s early workouts were seriously criticized as unsuitable for ordinary exercisers, but she created an important new exercise concept: celebrity ‘self-help’ exercise books and videos that further cemented the notion that aerobics is a means to get an improved body. The next successful group exercise form, step aerobics, was created by a woman, Gin Miller, as a rehabilitation device for her own knee injury. Miller sold her ‘exercise concept’ to Reebok that then provided the equipment, the step platforms.

Sorensen, Sheppard Missett, Fonda, and Miller were all important figures in popularizing and commercializing group exercise. Jazzercise and step aerobics still appear in fitness programs. Exercise professionals continue to try to make money through exercise books and DVDs for home exercise. Group exercise classes are a part of the fitness industry that provides service and exercise instruction, rather than selling equipment. At the core of group fitness is the movement choreography that will then be taught to the clients. How does one create a distinct ‘brand’ for movement patterns to ensure a market value? There are several established ways. For example, trademarking, franchising, licensing, branding, or aligning with fitness equipment producers. Sheppard Missett already franchised Jazzercise while Miller sold her movement choreography to Reebok to go with the equipment. Currently, branding and licensing appear as the dominant aspects of a successful group exercise enterprise. In her work, Jaana Parviainen has analyzed more closely how service oriented fitness such as group exercise can be turned into a distinct fitness brand.

From the perspective of feminist economics, Parviainen argues that the currently successful brands focus on communicating clear values that, instead of a specific product, can be extended to different products and services. Because a product is no longer the focus, Parviainen observes that a successful fitness company now invests on brand vitality. A fitness brand becomes a combination of a fitness community and the experiences such as bodily feelings, music, apparel, shoes, books, DVDs, surroundings, co-movers, and the emotional inspiration by the instructors generated by the commodity. Franchising, then, creates the network of common beliefs, norms, and language between various fitness locations. According to Parviainen, the fitness industry uses two types of franchising: fitness program (class) and fitness center franchise systems.

Parviainen provides one woman’s successful fitness enterprise as an example. Marja Putkisto from the UK and Finland has created a brand of her ‘Method Putkisto’ (MP) based on franchising fitness instructing concepts. Instructors attend the MP Institute to obtain licenses after attending a training course and several of the instructors then open new (MP) studios. In addition, the Institute developed several fitness products Method Putkisto (deep stretching method), Method Putkisto Pilates, and Face School that are continually updated based on the needs of different client groups. MP products target women with a brand based on Putkisto’s heroic life story of overcoming a childhood disability, her femininity, her ability to maintain her body, and the notion of ‘slow movement’ (enjoying the silence and tranquility of movement).

Although a successful business method, Parviainen argues that license-based fitness workouts disempower women instructors who have become dependent on their license owners instead of being able to create their own movement choreographies. While some of the license owners are women, the instructors now have even less access and ability to actively create innovative movement practices. In addition, the instructors are experts in providing movement services, but when the product, the exercise routine, has become less central to branding, instructors are not generally in a position to establish fitness franchises or license their programs worldwide. From her lens of feminist economics, Parviainen argues that the business model based on franchising principles generates a new kind of hierarchy between female instructors and the license owners regardless if they are women or men.

This might partly explain why women instructors are less successful in creating brands than men: they are part of a female oriented business where their task is to execute licensed programs created by someone else and thus, they lack the skills needed to brand and market their services. Many group exercise formats also actively target women and thus, men do not have much to say about their content and thus, might choose not to participate. But why are men still successful in marketing fitness services?

I don’t have answers to this question, just further questions. We obviously need to know more about this issue if more women are to act as creators of fitness brands in addition to instructors and participants. Or are we happy to follow men’s lead?

Works cited:

Parviainen, J. (2011). Women developing and branding fitness products on the global market: The Method Putkisto case. In E. Kennedy & P. Markula (Eds.), Women and exercise: The body, health and consumerism (pp. 44-59 ). New York: Routledge.

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