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The fitness industry needs to be more accessible and inclusive. What you can do about it

The fitness industry has an accessibility problem. What can professionals do about it?

I was 24 when I first got into fitness. I was working as a freelance writer and living in an area of New York City that I’d picked primarily because the rent was low. The tradeoff for affordable housing was a lack of amenities in my neighborhood, gyms included.

This was before fitness software made high-quality workouts widely accessible from home. So, if I wanted to take a workout class, I had to commute to a different part of the city, which often took an hour, one way, on public transportation. My commutes for fitness classes were often longer because I was looking for donation-based or community classes, as the going rate for boutique fitness workouts (about $40 per session) was outside my budget. New York is a fitness smorgasbord…but only for a certain demographic, primarily those with disposable income.

Despite the obstacles, the travel time felt worth it because of how fitness made me feel: connected to both my body and a larger community, even if I didn’t always feel represented by that community being a person of color. I didn’t see it as an accessibility issue the way I do now, after spending the past several years covering fitness for some of the top women’s wellness magazines and websites in the U.S. (Related reading: How personal trainers can help with the mental health crisis)

Once I started working in the industry, I realized that boutique fitness can be a scene, and that’s an understatement. Memberships range from $300 to $1,000 a month, and in this world, trendy workout clothes and shoes serve as status symbols. Even with many people exercising virtually now, accessibility continues to be an industry issue on several levels, not just cost.

Build affordable services for your community

Doing my part as a fitness professional

In part, this is why, when I got double certified as a personal trainer and Pilates instructor, I wanted to offer free community classes in the neighborhood where I used to live.

Not much had changed in that part of Brooklyn in the decade since I’d left, especially when it came to exercise offerings. Residents still had limited access to fitness studios and gyms, the same way they did grocery stores. I partnered with a local community theater organization and social justice nonprofit based in the neighborhood to establish a free, weekly mat Pilates class focused on functional movement for the community, which is largely made up of BIPOC and Hispanic members.

While this felt like a good start, it became clear early on that I still had a lot to learn about genuinely making fitness welcoming to the broadest audience possible—starting with figuring out how I, as a fitness professional, could make the industry more accessible on both macro and micro levels.

What top fitness organizations are doing

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has a portal dedicated to advocacy that encourages trainers to become more involved in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The organization also works directly with legislators to inform future policies that increase access to exercise and physical activity services. ACE is currently calling for more transparent guidelines that make it possible for certified fitness professionals to host classes in public spaces like parks (some require permits while others don’t). ACE is also advocating for policies that’d make it easier to engage in physical activity in or around workplaces.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), which has certified or recertified over 190,000 personal trainers in the last 10 years, is now in the process of integrating Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines into their new and existing training materials, which means a more accessible curriculum for trainers. NASM also makes one of the largest hurdles to becoming a fitness professional—cost—less of an obstacle by offering no-fee payment plans for those who qualify. They also include unconscious bias training as part of their Wellness Coach Certification (NASM-CWC), a stand-alone course that qualifies as a continued education unit for NASM-CPTs.

As an individual instructor, there are a few things you can do on a daily basis to make your business more accessible and inclusive, starting here:

Make progress personal

Learn more about the daily life of the people in your community, so you can set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals with them, then advertise offerings that meet their needs. Take into account the real struggles people are facing, especially now, in finding time (and energy) to exercise. Reflect this recognition in your outreach efforts and training sessions.

Example: You could program shorter workouts that can be “stacked” together by someone who can only spare 10 minutes at a time. (This is also one of the top fitness trends right now.)

Also keep in mind that not everyone wants to run a marathon or lift their body weight, which is why it’s important to never assume objectives for your clients, either in your sessions or in your marketing materials. Think of your marketing as an invitation to your community.

Lead with gender-neutral language

Part of your job as a fitness professional is to cheer people on, and it’s common to use gendered language when grouping people together. See: “You’ve got this, ladies” or “Great job, guys!” Gender-specific language like this excludes non-binary people, so swap in neutral terms like “folks” or “everyone” when addressing a group collectively to be more inclusive.

Hire a diverse staff of trainers and instructors, and listen to them

Currently, 77 percent of trainers in the United States are white, according to a recent research summary on the fitness industry that pulled demographic information from sources like the latest Census—only about 10 percent identify as LGBTQ+, 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino, less than 6 percent are Black and only 4 percent are Asian. Meanwhile, 81 percent of those with disabilities feel left out of the fitness industry, based on Lakeshore Foundation research. If you operate a fitness center, gym or studio, expand your talent pool to include more diversity amongst your trainers and instructors, and truly listen to everyone's point of view.

Ensure your cues are both verbally and visually clear

As a test, try following along with your workout videos with your eyes closed, then again with the volume muted. The objective should be that someone who can’t see you can still perform the entire workout based on your auditory instructions alone. Similarly, someone who can’t hear you should be able to follow along visually. (Captions help here, too.) Strong visuals also come in handy if English isn’t someone’s primary language.

Offer a sliding payment scale

Cost continues to be one of the biggest barriers to physical activity, according to the CDC. While the pay-what-you-can practice isn’t new (plenty of yoga studios have offered classes this way for years), it’s being applied in different ways today.

Case in point: The pandemic led to a rise in donation-based classes on social media offered by trainers who found themselves out of work when their gyms and studios closed. Now that trainers have more tools at their disposal to offer services in-person and remotely with less overhead (called hybrid fitness), it’s becoming more common to offer a range of pricing options depending on the form of interaction, rather than one set hourly rate. (Read more: The new rules of training clients during a pandemic)

Some ways to expand your offerings for different socio-economic levels:

Stop measuring fitness based on BMI and weight

Created in the early 19th century, the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measurement of health obtained by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. It’s long been used to determine if a person is underweight, healthy, overweight or obese.

But it’s a deeply flawed measure that’s especially misleading for members of the BIPOC community, as well as women in general, since all the subjects assessed to determine BMI were white males. BMI puts an overemphasis on weight as an indicator of health and fails to take body type into consideration.

The bottom line

The fitness industry needs to be more accessible and inclusive, and lasting change will start with professionals at all levels and disciplines. So, whether you’re a gym owner, yoga teacher or Pilates instructor like I am, it’s helpful to understand that barriers to entry can exclude people from all communities, ethnicities, sizes, genders and walks of life. True inclusivity and accessibility make everyone feel welcome.

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