About four years ago, Michigan resident Peggy Preston went through a harrowing medical emergency when a blood clot formed in her leg, leading to an amputation below her left knee.
Up until that point, she'd been very active, but being in a wheelchair for a year and undergoing multiple surgeries led to quite a bit of weight gain, not to mention frustration and discouragement, she says. Once she started walking again with the use of a prosthetic, she made a resolution to get her health back by joining a gym.
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She never expected to be turned away. But three different gyms told her she couldn't come to classes because they didn't think she could do the workouts.
"By the third time, I was pretty mad," she says. "The worst was a gym that made a big deal about how inclusive they are, and yet here they were, unable to accommodate someone with a disability. Obviously, they were using 'inclusive' as a marketing buzzword, not as part of their real mission."
But, happy ending: Fourth time was the charm, when she found Fit Body Boot Camp, a place with trainers highly adept at modifying every exercise so she not only gets a good workout, but also progresses in her abilities. She's down 70 pounds from when she started, but more than that, she feels part of a community.
"There are some workouts where I forget I'm an amputee, I'm just part of the group," Preston says. "That's what inclusive really means, to make everyone feel welcomed, challenged, and encouraged."
Fortunately, inclusive workout classes are popping up all over the country — check out these examples for a burst of feel-good inspiration:
1. The Hot Yoga Spot
When Jessica Fuller decided to start teaching yoga in upstate New York, she was frustrated by the limited options for students who had chronic pain, arthritis, overweight or who were older adults.
So, she started her own studio, The Hot Yoga Spot, which now has nearly 50 instructors and offers a variety of hot yoga classes that are open to all, thanks to her emphasis on teacher training.
"To have an inclusive yoga class, you need a teacher who can work with different injuries as well as those who may have overweight or obesity," she says. "Yoga should be for everyone, so we make sure our teachers have specialized training to modify when needed."
2. CrossFit for the People
The success of her yoga studio led Fuller to open her own box, CrossFit for the People, which comes with the same inclusive focus. CrossFit, in particular, can be very intimidating for people who are just starting on a weight loss journey, have limitations from a disability or injury, or are dealing with chronic conditions.
"CrossFit is not something you do only when you're fit, it's not for some small subset of the population," Fuller says. "Like yoga, everyone can benefit from CrossFit, so we spend time getting to know each person and what they need, so they can be accommodated, but also part of the group."
3. Comfy Fitness
The website for Chicago-based Comfy Fitness features retro exercise photos with the tagline, "Empowering Every Body." It's a mission that owner Kira Macoun takes very seriously, believing that our relationship with our bodies creates freedom and empowerment.
In her classes, Macoun emphasizes movement, mobility and strength, so people can find greater confidence. She's also put a program in place that makes fitness available regardless of someone's economic situation — another major factor for inclusivity, since being low-income can be a barrier to joining a gym or class.
"I think the movement toward being inclusive is really just getting started, but it's gaining momentum quickly," she says. "We are trying to be part of the conversation about what it means to be fit, and why it's important for everyone."
4. Equally Fit
For those who are on the autism spectrum, gyms can be particularly disconcerting, because of the sensory overload of bright lights, loud music, blaring TVs and constant motion. That's why trainer Mark Fleming, who's autistic himself, started Tampa-based Puzzle Piece Fitness in 2016 to train those on the spectrum in a space that makes them feel welcomed and comfortable.
Recently, he switched the name to Equally Fit as a nod toward the breadth of his clients, who include those with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions.
Fleming has a bachelor's degree in exercise science and a master's degree in human performance, as well as several specialty fitness certifications, and he's passionate about encouraging other fitness professionals to get the education they need to work with a range of people.
"It doesn't matter if the trainers are kind, what you need is for them to be credentialed," he says. "Being inclusive isn't just opening up classes and training to everybody, it's also having the education necessary to meet your clients where they are."
5. Form Fitness
Morit Summers began working out at age 14, but even after becoming a trainer and working in corporate gyms, she still didn't feel that she fit into the fitness industry.
"I'm a plus-size woman, and I just didn't feel comfortable or like I belonged in many gym spaces," she says. So she created a body-positive gym in Brooklyn, Form Fitness, in 2018 to ensure that everyone who walks in will feel like they've found their fitness home.
She encourages those in her fitness classes to train for specific activities, rather than making weight loss their primary goal, and it's working beautifully, she says. That gives them a sense of accomplishment that goes beyond what their bodies look like.
"There are many places to work out, but they can be intimidating, especially when you're larger," she says. "We want to provide a place where people can fall in love with fitness."
6. Arenal Fitness
Located in Baltimore, Arenal Fitness offers a functional training class that's scalable based on an individual's age, goals, medical or orthopedic needs and other factors, says to co-owner Donna Pierce.
"Everybody tends to have something that's a limiting factor, whether that's physiological or emotional," she says. "What we do is work with them to progress through that, so they walk away feeling a sense of accomplishment."
One participant may have prosthetic legs while another is struggling with anger management issues, and yet another is 90 years old and dealing with osteoarthritis. Having them working side by side, cheering each other on, is part of being inclusive, says co-owner Lauren Bunney.
"Fitness should build you up, it should help you get past your obstacles and create a greater sense of resilience," she says. "We can all do that and inspire each other at the same time.
Find a Class Near You
As Preston discovered when she tried to find an inclusive gym, it's not always easy to spot the right fit. But the gym owners and trainers interviewed here have a few suggestions as you're comparing different classes:
- Scroll through their social media. Remember not every condition is visible — some people may be struggling with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, arthritis or other issues. But what you should see on social media is encouragement for each other.
- Ask about modifications. This is especially important if you're new to exercise or have physical limitations. If the trainers tell you to sit out instead of offering different options to work the same muscle groups, look elsewhere for your workout.
- Talk about your goals. It can be frustrating if the only goal that's presented is weight loss, Summers says. Even if you do have that as one of your aims, there are other goals as well that are likely meaningful to you, like improving your cardio fitness or getting stronger.
Most of all, go with your gut, Preston says. When you feel like you're in a place where you're seen as member of a fitness community — not as a problem to be solved — then you've found your fit fam.