One place you should always feel included — and that should welcome everyone and every body — is the spot where you choose to move your body.
"I know what it's like to walk in somewhere and have someone give you this look of like, 'Why are you here?'" says Teresa R. Ellis, founder of Pilates Barre and Jams in Oakland, California. That's never how you should feel when you walk into your gym. "Inclusivity in fitness means that you are seen for who you are, acknowledged for who you are, respected for who you are," she says.
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First off, this is the respect everyone deserves. And, second, how you feel in the gym and during your workouts has an enormous effect on your fitness as well as emotional and mental health. "It's really important that you feel safe, motivated and accepted," says Courtney Anderson, co-founder and co-owner of cycling studio and shop Vibe Ride.
To find a gym that fits you, follow these strategies from gym owners who promote inclusion in every aspect of their spaces.
Scrolling through specific hashtags on social media is a helpful place to start looking for an inclusive fitness space, says Molly Galbraith, CSCS, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong and author of Strong Women Lift Each Other Up. Here are some things to look for as you scroll.
- Hashtags such as #AllBodiesAreWelcome, #QTBIPOC, #InclusiveFitness, #QueerFitness, #TransFitness and #BlackOwnedGym.
- A history of diversity. Social media is also a great place to find out if a studio has long supported diversity, says Ife Obi, creator and founder of The Fit In in Brooklyn. "A lot of people are doing performative acts right now to call themselves diverse," she says. "But it really has to come from the core of the people who have created the brand and, in my opinion, from the beginning." Take a dive into the gym's archive to get a feel for their long-term mission.
- Photos that show they work with more than one type of person, Obi says.
- Charity classes. Many studios do charity classes, too, which can offer insight into the organizations they support and where their priorities lie, Anderson says. Check their schedules to see if they have any non-profit partners and what causes they support.
2. Read Reviews
Morit Summer, CPT, owner of Form Fitness in Brooklyn says she and her team often ask their clients to post reviews, which you can find on Google, Yelp, Mindbody and more. And while sometimes reviews can be limited, they can still give you sense of what's going on in any given gym.
Obi agrees, saying that reading what other people say about a gym or studio is a huge piece of finding out how inclusive they are. You can also see if they have more accessible pricing or sliding scale options that make these gyms or studios more financially accessible.
3. Ask Questions
Chatting with people who work at the gym you're interested in going to, or people you know who already go, will provide some key insight into what it's like to become a member, Summers says.
Don't be afraid to ask the instructors or owners of the gym why they work at the studio. Obi opened The Fit In out of a genuine interest in helping her neighbors, especially those in communities of color, gain access to a fitness space. She made sure each instructor she hired was also on a mission to help others.
"It starts at the top," she says, mentioning that many fitness spaces don't have people of color in leadership roles, which reflects in the instructors and, subsequently, the clientele. Look for ones that do. Anderson also makes sure she hires instructors who focus on inclusion and have diverse backgrounds.
Logan Aldridge, co-founder and training director at the Adaptive Training Academy (ATA), says the ATA can put adaptive athletes in touch with local gyms and personal trainers that are ATA-certified. That means the facility is not only compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), offering a physically accommodating space, but that at least one person on staff is trained in creating a more supportive environment, particularly for adaptive athletes.
Ellis suggests talking to instructors about your injuries and physical limitations. If you don't want to talk to them in person, send an email. She recommends asking questions like, "This is my body. Do you know how to serve me?"
"You have the autonomy and the power to say to someone, 'You can't serve me, and so you should not get my money,'" she says. "You want to know that they are willing to do a little bit extra and say, 'Here are all the options on the basic exercise, find the one that works for you.'"
There's no one way of doing something, Ellis says, and an inclusive fitness space knows that and will embrace it.
4. Trust Your First Impression
Ellis says your initial interaction with a studio sets the tone for every interaction that will follow. Something as simple as making sure the gym staff calls you by your first name, even if it's tricky for them to pronounce (it's all about trying and asking how to say it) goes a long way in making someone feel welcome, Obi says.
You'll pick up on a gym's vibe as soon as you walk in. You just have to give it a go when you're ready. If you don't feel safe, respected or comfortable when you walk into a studio, it's A-OK to walk right back out.
5. Take Note of Language
Lauren and Jason Pak, founders of Achieve Fitness, have a clear, accepting message written on the walls of their gym: "You belong here" and "Every body welcome." They take other steps in making sure they're using inclusive language , like asking for preferred pronouns and avoiding diet-culture talk (no "bikini bodies").
Jason says this approach also comes across in what trainers celebrate with clients. For example, instead of pushing the message that people have to "burn off their calories," they praise people when they're consistent with their workouts.
Lauren adds that they honor people who use exercise modifications, too, because that shows that they're accepting where their bodies are in that moment. "We want to make people feel comfortable for choosing what works for their bodies."
Not everyone wants to lose weight or strives for a six-pack, and a good instructor doesn't assume you do. Galbraith says it's important to find a trainer who doesn't push a weight-loss goal on you if that's not what you're after. If you sign up for a session with a trainer, and they start with a body-fat scan, but fat loss isn't a goal of yours, you'll know what their focus is, and maybe that's a sign to move on.
"Make sure they're asking you questions and they're not assuming what your goals are — they should listen to you and work with you to come up with a plan that fits into your actual real life and objectives," she says.
For example, the Girls Gone Strong Academy intake form, asks new clients what topics they are and aren't OK talking about, Galbraith says. For example, sleep, nutrition, stress and menstrual cycles can all influence a person's health and physical performance, but they aren't topics everyone is comfortable talking about.
6. Look for Exercise Variations
Classes and trainers that are truly inclusive always provide a few options for exercises so people can pick the one that feels best to them. "All bodies move differently, and we just make sure that everybody has an option for them," Summers says. "No matter the person, they should be able to find one of our variations that works for them."
Finding smaller classes also helps with this. Obi's The Fit In has small in-person classes and caps their virtual options at 15 people, so the instructor can see everyone on-screen and offer adjustments when necessary.
Aldridge also notes the importance of creating a fitness experience that allows people of all different backgrounds — former pro athletes, people with amputated or prosthetic limbs, teenagers recovering from an injury, exercise newbies — to exercise together and not feel like they're getting separate workouts.
"It's hard to show up and have no prior [fitness] experience and knowledge, which is where intimidation and fear comes in," he says. But with a trainer who creates an experience that includes everyone and meets everyone where they are without making someone feel like they're doing something less, "that's really empowering to the psychology of the individual, because they get to be a part of something collectively," he says.
7. Find a Community
At Achieve Fitness, the Paks also promote inclusivity by promoting community. They make sure people don't form cliques, and they send gratitude emails to existing members who reach out and help to welcome new members.
"That spirals into people wanting to do that more and wanting to help someone else because somebody did that for them when they first came in," Lauren says. "I think noticing how other people in the space interact with each other and how they interact with a new person is definitely a very good indication of what to expect."
One of the best benefits of belonging to a gym or studio is that it can offer a group of like-minded individuals who can keep you accountable. Aldridge recognizes the benefits of these group settings and says that's what the Adaptive Training Academy tries to relay to its students.
"What's really important to us is having no difference between someone with a physical limitation participating in a fitness activity or class and able-bodied individuals," he says. "Community is beneficial to mental health — being a part of something that makes you feel included."
In addition to a team atmosphere, Ellis suggests looking for the person who seems the most like you or the one who seems to have a little more joy or compassion when you go to a new studio. Team up with them (if they're up for it) and it might bring you a sense of belonging, too.
8. Push for Evolution
The world is constantly changing, and your gym should too. Finding new ways to include more people or updating policies that seem outdated is important for continuing to progress and welcoming new people, Lauren says.
If you've been at your gym for a while and revel in the atmosphere, but notice it could use a few updates to make it even more welcoming, speak up. Creating a safe space where all people feel welcome takes a robust community that shares these same ideals.