Barriers to Fitness: How Gyms Around the Country are Increasing Access to Strength Training

 

By Shannon Kim Wagner, Executive Director

 

Strength training, sport, and fitness have the ability to build confidence and self-efficacy, while creating a deep sense of community and purpose for participants around the world. Women’s Strength Coalition (WSC) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, dedicated to expanding access to fitness infrastructure and its associated mental and physical benefits for all people. Our mission is rooted in equity and access, because we envision a world where everyone has equal opportunity to express their voice and embrace their power.

 

One of WSC’s core values is the creation of meaningful partnerships. Since our January 2017 inception, we’ve worked to build a network of like minded professionals and affiliate gyms, in order to strengthen efforts on a larger scale. This year, we are launching our Affiliate Gym Program, a national community of safe and inclusive facilities, dedicated to increasing access to fitness, sport, and strength training. The new commitment builds on our previous efforts to increase access; such as our advocacy for trans inclusion in sports, international sporting events, sliding scale personal training services and gym memberships, and scholarship programs for athletes in need. The Affiliate Gym Program focuses on creating a tangible way for our community members to find safe spaces to train, and gives select gym owners and staff members the opportunity to share their expertise, building on our global network’s capacity to meet the evolving needs of fitness enthusiasts. 

 

We spoke to some of the gym owners featured on the Affiliate Gym Map, as well as members of Women’s Strength Coalition, to uplift the work they’re doing in our communities and illustrate what makes these facilities so exceptional.

 

“The systemic inequities present in any aspect of life are seen just as strongly in the fitness and wellness industry,” says Sayeeda Chowdhury, Women’s Strength Coalition Advisory Board Member and Program Director for WSC’s Brooklyn gym, Strength For All

Chowdhury began lifting shortly after the 2016 election cycle, at a time when the political landscape was heightening hateful rhetoric and violence against Muslim-Americans. Strength training showed her how innately strong and powerful she was, and helped ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression associated with the recent death of a loved one and the stresses of medical school. She saw few Muslim women at the gym, or participating in strength sports, and made it her mission to increase access to fitness for more diverse populations. Through her classes at Strength For All, she strives to create a world where all people recognize, and believe in, their own physical and mental strength. “If more people can access that mentality, we will create something worthwhile and truly game-changing.”

 

Chrissy King, Vice President of Women’s Strength Coalition, agrees that strength training can be transformative for individuals and credits lifting with changing the trajectory of her life. Strength training showed her that the narrative she’d always believed in, one in which she was a “weak person”, was false.

 “If the narrative about being weak wasn’t true, what other narratives had I been telling myself that weren’t true?”

When she became stronger, she found she was more equipped to step into her power in every area of her life. Further, it changed her relationship with her body, and she “stopped seeing physical activity only as a means to shrink.” Like Chowdhury, King’s direct experiences with lifting inform her drive to make the fitness industry more inclusive and accessible. “Strength is for everyBODY,” she believes, “and everyone deserves to feel welcome, seen, respected, affirmed, and celebrated.” 

 

King also echoes Chowdhury’s assertion that the fitness and wellness industries are microcosms of society as a whole, and thus carry its elitist, unrealistic, standards of the “ideal” body (read: thin, white, able-bodied, cisgendered) into the vast majority of the ways it represents itself in gyms and marketing. “As a result,” says King, “the fitness industry is usually oblivious to issues of access, diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality.” According to King, if fitness studios truly seek to be “inclusive”, owners must first acknowledge their own limitations, and actively work to uncover their internal biases. “It’s imperative that individuals take an intersectional approach, and embrace conversations about racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, fatphobia, among other things, and how it affects clients and plays a role in the current state of the fitness industry.”

 

In Oakland, gym owner Lindsey Page is addressing these issues head on, stating: “As a queer woman of color who doesn’t fit the fitness industry’s expectations of what a trainer should look like, I have dealt with my fair share of body shaming.” Her facility, Radically Fit, centers the needs of those who are often marginalized in society and fitness: queer, trans, people of color, and bigger bodied folks, through services that specifically cater to these underrepresented populations.  In addition to the typical introductory classes commonly seen at other studios, Radically Fit offers community-focused options such as Trans/GNC Mind Body Alignment, BBQ: Black and Brown Queerz, and PHAT Ballet


Radically Fit’s slogan, “Fit is not a body type,” is written in large letters inside their space, under a graphic displaying bodies rarely seen adorning the walls of most fitness facilities. “Healthy bodies come in every size and shape,” says Page, “but in today’s world ‘thinness’ often gets conflated with ‘fitness.’ Most mainstream gyms and fitness centers perpetuate certain beauty and fitness standards.”


Kim Gould of Autonomy Movement, a gym opening in Austin this year, believes that one of the biggest barriers to fitness is the way that it has been inextricably linked to the harmful practices of diet cultureThe fitness industry has long prospered off of the manufacturing of insecurities related to our physical appearance, that they can then sell us the “solutions” for. Most often, these solutions come in the form of gym memberships, exercise programs, and diet plans. Many gyms that choose to operate within this capitalist framework reinforce the fitness industry’s narrow definitions of health, beauty, and wellness, in order to increase sales.  “Most gyms and fitness studio treat people in fat bodies with the assumption that they need to be changed in order to be acceptable.” At Automonomy Movement, Gould says, they focus instead on helping clients find movement practices that “inspire joy, comfort, and connection to their physical bodies,” as opposed to exercising in order to be more in line with society’s mandated ideals. 

According to Gould, most people don’t feel comfortable in the majority of fitness studios, because of intentionally diminishing “weight loss challenges”, or the use of diet language in classes. 

 

Autonomy Movement is unique in that “providing any type of dietary education is limited to Registered Dietitians educated in eating disorders.” This means that you’re average “fit pro” with a one-off personal training certification isn’t permitted to engage in conversation about dieting with gym-goers. Further, staff members are mandated to take a Body Diversity Fitness Competency training in order to provide education on intuitive eating, intuitive movement, eating disorder fundamentals, the Health at Every Size and Body Positive movements, instructor privilege, trauma-informed movement, and more. “Autonomy exists to provide a safe space for clients to learn to explore personal definitions of health, and work to restore their current relationships with their bodies and exercise.”

 

For members of the transgender community, access to fitness and wellness spaces becomes more complicated than for their cisgender peers. “Gender based body dysphoria can make exercise challenging,” says Radically Fit’s website, “While fitness can be a tool for building a positive relationship with our body, our body’s predispositions can also create an experience of misalignment between mind and body based on how we identify and want to express our gender.” Hailee Bland-Walsh of City Gym Kansas City created a program to serve two transgender men who were finding it difficult to have their needs met by neighboring facilities. The 45-day class is now an ongoing offering at City Gym Kansas City, and gyms in the area frequently refer community members to Bland-Walsh who they feel unequipped to serve.

 

Bland-Walsh believes that in order to truly serve various populations, facilities shouldn’t simply assume they understand what they need. “Engage the communities you’d like to serve in a meaningful way. Develop relationships with folks from those communities and then ask them what they want and need.”

 


JayCee Cooper, Women’s Strength Coalition Advisory Board Member, echoes Bland-Walsh’s insistence on the importance of actively engaging with the community. 
To start, take the time to identify where you fall short. Engage the community at your gym and facility about their thoughts and feelings.” Cooper encourages gym owners to include these populations in the decision-making process going forward. Gould agrees, and suggests gym owners remain open to feedback and criticism. “Creating a safe and effective fitness or training program starts with being curious. Be interested in the ways your studio may be engaging in microaggressions, discrimination, and cultural insensitivity. Be open to feedback, and to making necessary changes that will adjust the culture to increase safety and accessibility to all bodies.”

 

Gyms and fitness facilities looking to increase access to fitness, sport, and strength training, must start with educating themselves, and listening to their community’s needs. “Read, listen, and learn about what being in the gym, in the body of any race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and/or ability is like, and then construct your policies, programs, and facilities around those needs,” advises Chowdhury, of Strength For All. “When there is adaptive strength training, gender-neutral bathrooms, a zero tolerance policy for discrimination or harassment, diverse (in every way) staff, and so much more, there is the thought that the space that was created with all in mind. This makes it welcoming for all to join.”

 


The future of the Affiliate Gym Program lays in education for other facilities, through certifications, articles, and workshops, co-created by the gym owners themselves, in partnership with Women’s Strength Coalition. Creating a culture of acceptance and safety in fitness facilities is paramount to individuals’ overall wellness and quality of life. All people deserve equal access to movement practices that put them in touch with their inner strength and resilience. As the industry becomes more able to meet the needs of the larger population, more people will have the opportunity to thrive.


Do you own an inclusive fitness facility? Apply to become a Women’s Strength Coalition Affiliate.

Shannon Kim Wagner Shannon Kim Wagner is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Yoga instructor with seven years experience working in multiple facets of the fitness industry.

Her drive to use her sphere of influence to create positive social change led to her to found Women’s Strength Coalition in 2017. 
Barbell training radically altered Shannon’s view of herself, her body, and her role in society. Learning how to lift weights solely for the act of increasing her personal strength and power was to eschew diet culture and its insistence that exercise was for the purpose of getting smaller. For her, this was the first step in unlearning a lifetime of harmful messaging perpetuaded by media and cultural norms. Instead of spending her life shrinking herself, she shifted her focus to taking up more space, both literally and figuratively. Shannon believes that all people deserve to attain this level of safety in their own body, and that the mental strength and resillience that accompanies many forms of physical activity can be essential to one’s ability to advocate for themselves. “It’s time to stop making exercise and movement synonymous with dieting and shrinking. Let’s revolutionize the fitness industry together and use the strength we build in the gym, on the streets.”

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We are building a network of community leaders, like-minded fitness professionals, and affiliate gyms, to unify and strengthen efforts on a larger scale.

Women’s Strength Coalition is a 501c3 nonprofit, dedicated to building stronger communities through increased access to strength training. We envision a world where everyone has equal opportunity to express their voice and embrace their power.

Founded in 2017, our organization is an international network, designed to bring likeminded fitness professionals, affiliate gyms, and athletes together, so that we can use our collective strength to impact the world in a meaningful way.

Your monthly contribution directly supports our nonprofit’s ability to make more fitness available to all people.

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