Fitness: Gyms should welcome people of all sizes, not just one-size-fits all

Amanda Gerla

Championing body diversity starts at the top, with gym managers and owners setting the tone.

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In a society that increasingly promotes inclusiveness and body positivity, gyms are late adopters.

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Long associated with weight-centric ideals that promote the attainment of the “perfect body,” most gyms fall short of creating a welcoming atmosphere for people of all shapes and sizes.

A strong connection with weight loss, thin muscular bodies and tight clothing make gyms the type of place where people with excess weight feel uncomfortable. The feeling is especially prevalent among women, who are more deeply affected by weight stigma. But the benefits of exercise aren’t limited to individuals of a certain body type. Nor is fitness calculated with a measuring tape or scale.

Each individual can have the same health and fitness goals as anyone else who buys a gym membership, despite the association of exercise with thinness. Yet researchers revealed these exercisers feel judged, scrutinized and negatively compared with others while exercising. So unwelcoming are gyms to those who wear plus-size clothing, they often choose to work out in the privacy of their own home or forgo regular exercise altogether.

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What can gyms do to discourage weight stigma and attract a more diverse clientele? George Cunningham and Andrew Pickett from the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University created a series of conditions designed to change gyms into body-inclusive spaces. But it’s not just up to gym management to set the right tone. Gym members are a key component in making all exercisers feel welcome.

Find a gym where your exercise goals are celebrated and the community supportive. Walking into the gym should feel like home, not a cause of social anxiety, with exercise a source of enjoyment and accomplishment.

Use the following checklist to find a body-inclusive facility.

Culture of inclusion

American psychologist Bernardo Ferdman defines inclusion as fully connecting with, engaging and utilizing people, no matter their differences. That means making individuals feel valuable and comfortable in their uniqueness and making accommodations without being asked. Gyms with a zero-tolerance policy for actions or words that counter efforts to be inclusive and who employ staff dedicated to improving the health and wellness of all exercisers are examples of gyms worthy of your membership dues.

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Authentic leadership

Championing body diversity starts at the top, with gym managers and owners setting the tone by mandating and modeling the type of interactions that go on in their gym. Also important is for staff to reflect the type of diversity the gym owners claim to value. Hiring instructors, trainers and support staff of different sizes makes it easier for all members to fit in. Representation matters.

Accommodating physical spaces

Ensuring there is a selection of equipment appropriate and comfortable for all bodies makes working out more enjoyable. Weight-inclusive practices include stationary bikes with wider seats and treadmills built to withstand heavier walkers and runners. Locker rooms with privacy to change into gym clothes and fewer mirrors are welcomed by anyone struggling with body-image issues.

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Inclusive language

Language is a powerful tool when it comes to feeling included, which is why establishing a vocabulary that is accepting of all shapes and sizes is important. More than just discarding words like “fat” or “overweight,” inclusive language includes not making assumptions that large-bodied individuals are out of shape, new to exercise or can only tolerate certain types of workouts. Setting attainable ambitious goals is the cornerstone of becoming fitter and healthier, no matter your size or shape. From bootcamp to yoga, plus-size exercisers should leave a workout feeling stronger, fitter, more energized and accomplished.

Sense of community

All gym members deserve feeling like they belong, which can be tough when entering a gym where few people are of similar size. Staff who go out of their way to ease that anxiety by chatting, smiling and introducing new members to exercisers with similar interests can help ease the awkwardness of feeling different. A sense of belonging has been proven to increase exercise commitment, which is good for more than just exercisers. A gym with a welcoming community is a gym with a healthy bottom line.

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Focus on health, not size

It’s time to end the association between gyms, exercise and weight loss. Linking success in the gym to the number of kilograms lost is an outdated concept, especially since we know that exercise alone isn’t a particularly effective weight-loss tool. Focusing on outcomes like improved strength, stamina and mobility instead of weight loss ensures success for all.

It’s also important for gym staff to reconsider the type of images used to promote their business, which generally feature slim, fit individuals. Promotional tools should better reflect our wider communities, with people of all ages, shapes, sizes and skin tones, as well as promoting the attainment of a variety of exercise-related goals, including better physical and mental health and wellbeing.

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