The Gym Workout: Does Sweating with Others Energize You?
Research shows that not all women feel comfortable in the gym.
Posted Mar 11, 2019
In these times of digital media, where also online-exercise workouts abound from yoga, indoor-cycling to weight workouts that can be done at home, at one’s convenience, is there a need for live in-gym training? There are still some strong advocates for working up a sweat together with other exercisers in an actual gym space. For example, live training, Angela Yochum (2018) argues, still makes her feel energized. She lists five reasons to get up and attend live training sessions:
1. Human interaction: face-to-face community inspires and motivates. Exercisers can share emotions, endomorphins, and excitement with similarly passionate people.
2. Facilitated learning: it can be easier to learn in a live group of learners whereas online workouts can remain abstract and distant. Following the pragmatist education researcher John Dewey, we learn by doing, by experiencing bodily movement together in live interaction.
3. Personalized instruction: While online training can be led by well-educated leaders, a live class offers personalized time with a professional teacher who is passionate about fitness and who can answer one’s questions right then and there.
4. Networking: with live interactions, one can make friends and also get followers in social media platforms. Nothing prevents exercisers to share their experiences through social media.
5. Fun: It is fun! One can sense the collective energy and also have a possibility to workout with live music.
Many gyms now market themselves as locales for live exercise and also as accessible safe, inclusive, and empowering spaces for women (Fisher, Berbary & Misener, 2018). But do they live up to their marketing promises? Do women find gyms energizing and inviting?
Although gyms can offer women excellent opportunities to be physically active, previous research has demonstrated that they are also gendered spaces. In her early research in the United States, Sheri Dworkin (2003) discovered that women populated treadmills and other cardiovascular equipment, but avoided weight training, particularly the free weight areas, which they deemed as a men’s space. Many women exercisers were also more concerned with weight loss than building muscle. In their Australian study, Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann (2005) found the gym endorsing a narrowly defined ideal feminine body with its full lengths mirrors that enabled constant comparisons between exercisers who are to strive for the ideal body depicted in the posters aligning the gym walls. They summarized that this set up exposed women exercisers in their revealing aerobics clothing to both men and women observers. Such surveillance increased the pressure to build an ideal body and the researchers concluded, had a negative impact on women exercisers who experienced a high level of self-objectification: they learned to habitually monitor their outward appearance and compare it to the ideal. Prichard and Tiggemann cautioned that constant comparison to others can lead to appearance anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and eventually lead to eating disorders.
Prichard and Tiggemann focused on group fitness participants and their instructors. Other researchers have indicated that women negotiated the gendered gym space by choosing to attend only group exercise classes that are typically dominated by women and as such, should be devoid of the gazing males mentioned by Prichard and Tiggemann. Nevertheless, these spaces, usually lined with mirrors, appeared to reinforce the comparisons between women participants and emphasized the focus on appearance over other fitness benefits (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998; Mansfield, 2011; Markula, 1995).
This was the gym several decades ago. Where are we now? Do women continue to negotiate the gym space? Are women now encouraged to build muscles instead of the thin and toned feminine body? Recent research demonstrates that many women continue to have contradictory feelings about working out in gyms.
In their study, Mary Fisher, Lisbeth Berbary, and Katie Misener (2018) interviewed women who had worked out 5-10 years in two mixed-gendered gyms in Canada. The participants came from different fitness levels, body shapes, ethnicities, and social positions (yet all could afford a gym membership) with a typical age range from the mid-20s to 30s.
These women were obviously experienced gym goers, but they did not particularly enjoy their workouts that, as they indicated, were often boring. Then why continue to attend the gym? Because, the researchers concluded, the women viewed exercise “as a necessary means of obtaining the ideal body and not necessarily a pursuit that is determined by pleasure” (p. 484).
The gym space, the women exercisers felt, encouraged others—and also themselves—to continually critique their skills and abilities as well as their appearance. This was facilitated by full-length mirrors and by machines and weights that were placed in close proximity of each other. In addition, the women continued to feel that men gazed directly upon them.
These gendering aspects of the gym have obviously not changed much over the decades. Thus, the pressures to build an ideal thin feminine body have also remained the same. Indeed, many exercisers perceived their gym primarily promoting weight loss and the strive for bodily perfection. According to Fisher, Berbary, and Misener (2018), “This messaging tended to attract a certain kind of clientele; women who were young, thin, and fit” (p. 484). While the participants in this study were in their 20s and 30s, they did not feel that they matched the criteria for the ideal body and often felt inferior around the others in the gym. This continued to create self-consciousness and body image issues. Negative body feelings were elevated in the gym as many women already “had issues related to poor body image prior to outside of the gym context” (p. 484).
Pridgeon and Grogan’s (2012) findings from the UK illustrate similar pressures with the body ideal. They interviewed both women who continued to use their gym and women who dropped their gym membership. While some women who continued to workout in the gym found seeing fit participants motivating, even more motivating—and a high-pressure goal—was to obtain a thin body for a holiday. For the non-adhering participants, comparisons to the fitter participants had a devastating effect on their self-esteem and also led to drop out. As one woman explained: “They’re all so much skinnier than me and then when all the skinny girls walk in it’s like ‘oh my God I don’t wanna be here’ so I walk out” (p. 388).
Fisher, Berbary, and Misener (2018) further found that the negative body feelings limited what activities women were willing to try in their gym. Because they already thought negatively of themselves, they did not want to attempt, for example, weight training that was new to them. Feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, and fearing ridicule, they stuck with familiar and safe, yet boring routines or chose equipment that was easy to use. Similarly, most women exercisers who Pridgeon and Grogan (2012) interviewed used exclusively cardiovascular equipment.
Obviously, the perceived focus on appearance and the resulting body consciousness limited women’s overall exercise experience in the gym. The gym in Fisher, Berbary, and Misener’s study (2018) included also women-only sections. These spaces were essential for women exercisers’ continued participation in the gym: they did not feel equal pressure to workout for bodily perfection. They were freer to try different equipment without judgment and ridicule by other gym-goers. The only criticism the participants had was that when women withdrew to the women-only spaces, men were left free to take over the co-ed spaces. This made it even more difficult for women participants to engage with equipment in the shared areas of the gym. In any case, the women exercisers believed that “the women-only space, while not helping to change the larger culture of the gym, did allow women to participate in activities they would not have participated in within the larger, mixed-gender spaces” (p. 485).
Pridgeon and Grogan (2012) further emphasized the importance of social support between women exercisers. In their study, many women exercised with a woman friend to find mutual support to first go to the gym and second, to adhere to the exercise routine. As one participant described: “Days…where I feel tired and I can’t be bothered to go I do feel like I want somebody there saying ‘come on Leah, just do it, carry on’” (p. 397). Once in the gym, social support added confidence when women felt self-conscious about their appearance and fitness level and then helped to complete the workouts. As one participant explained: “When you’re by yourself you can think I can’t be bothered to do this or, some of the people that are doing all the weights, you just think they’re staring at you or something…‘You still, know that they [the friend] are there.’” Losing social support was also the main reason for dropping out of exercise that was too intimidating without a partner. The exercises became too self-conscious and concerned about others gazing at them at the gym.
The exercises in Prichard and Tiggemann’s (2005) earlier study felt that the tight fitting aerobics clothing added to women exercisers’ body pressures in gym settings. Fisher, Berbary, and Misener (2018), instead, discovered that women in their study did not necessarily want to wear baggy clothing or anything that “made them look out of place, frumpy, or unfeminine” (p. 485). They wanted to be comfortable and this was best achieved in carefully chosen, close fitting “gym outfits” (p. 485).
Although health benefits were now more openly emphasized in the gym environment, appearance was tightly intertwined with health messaging. The ideal feminine body continued to be displayed on the walls of the gyms and was reinforced during the orientation sessions with goals that were achievable “if women simply ‘tried harder’ or ‘pushed themselves’” (Fisher, Berbary & Misener, 2018, p. 488). This messaging might also help explain the failure of many gyms to attract middle-aged and/or overweight participants. When “youthful and beautiful populations dominate the gym space,” the researchers concluded, the gym becomes “a space for only those who meet the societal standards of the feminine ideal” (p. 488) and can afford services to obtain it.
Although fitness clubs and gyms are a part of the service industry, many women exercisers felt that their gyms had turned into “a depersonalized environment” that did not recognize their individual needs (p. 488). If the participant in Fisher, Berbary, and Misener's study did not purchase a personal training package, the subsequent introduction to the facility, the women felt, was inadequate. There was even less support, once they became regular members. It was as if the gym no longer cared about them once they had joined. More particularly, if they needed help from the staff in such areas of the gym as the weight training sections that were unfamiliar and even intimidating to many participants, there was no staff member available.
Based on the recent research, then, the gym continues to be a gendered space where women, feeling self-conscious about their appearance and their abilities, resort to familiar, but boring exercise routines and spaces where they are not exposed to perceived ridicule by other exercises. The pressure to build an ideal body that is now also a healthy body continues to be strong. In this sense, live exercise is not always an energizing, supportive learning space, but can also be a source of low self-esteem and body anxieties and devoid of personalized instruction.
Fisher, Berbary, and Misener’s (2018) study focused on a limited number of gyms and there can be many other excellent facilities where women have adequate assistance to enjoy their workouts. In any case, Fisher, Berbary, and Misener (2018) illuminated some factors that limit women’s experiences in the gyms and their potential to attract new groups of women. They also provided a number of clear recommendations for more women-friendly live exercise environments.
First, gyms should consider a stronger support system that provides members with easily accessible help in various gym spaces and their equipment. The women in Fisher, Berbary, and Misener’s (2018) study looked for more gym staff who were visibly present on the gym floor to assist anyone in need instead of having to purchase personal training packages. This, the women believed, could also create a sense of community and belonging and show that the gyms actually care about their members’ wellbeing. “Instead of feeling isolated and alone at the gym,” the researchers concluded, “members can then feel part of something and cared for as individuals within a community” (p. 491).
Second, the gyms should consider designating a safe space for beginners where they can learn how to use all areas of the gym.
Third, the researchers recommended that gyms avoid “communication strategies which assume that health and bodily appearance are one and the same” (p. 491). Instead of promoting the feminine body ideal, the gyms can attract a broader client base through a more inclusive depiction of healthy bodies of all ages, shapes, and backgrounds. This, the researchers concluded, “may, in turn, begin to broaden the ideas of what a healthy female body looks like” (pp. 491).
Personalized instruction and human interaction can energize us to exercise, but we also need a safe and supportive environment free from body pressures to find the fun in exercise.
Dworkin, S. (2003). A woman's place is in the…cardiovascular room? Gender relations, the body, and the gym. In A. Bolin & J. Granskog (Eds.),Athletic intruders: Ethnographic research on women, culture, and exercise (131-158). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Fisher, M. J. R., Berbary, L. A., & Misener, K. E. (2018). Narratives of negotiation and transformation: Women's experiences within a mixed-gendered gym. Leisure Sciences, 40(6), 477-493.
Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). "No-body is perfect:" Women, aerobics, and the body beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109-137.
Mansfield, L. (2011). Fit, fat and feminine? The stigmatization of fat women in fitness gyms. In E. Kennedy & P. Markula (Eds.), Women and exercise: The body, health and consumerism(pp. 81-100). New York, NY: Routledge.
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Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2005). Objectification in fitness centers: Self-objectification, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating in aerobic instructors and aerobic participants. Sex Roles, 53(1–2), 19–28.