There have been stories in the news the past couple weeks about gyms who are restricting membership to overweight people, with the main argument being that it will make the gym a less intimidating place than when it is full of a bunch of thin people. I'm generalizing it, so if you want to go read more, here's one of the articles about the topic.
This is a topic I wrote about on the ENELL blog this week where I gave tips on how to overcome “gym-timidation”, however I wanted to say more about it after seeing this video from the Bex from BexLife.com this morning asking for feedback on the subject. Bex is a fitness and yoga instructor who is wildly popular on YouTube and has a body that most of us would envy. She works hard for it, and I admire her a lot:
At the beginning of my journey, I was “super morbidly obese,” 455 pounds, and could barely walk, let alone find activewear to fit me. The thought of entering a gym at that size and fitness level was near panic-attack-inducing. I judged myself so harshly that I automatically assumed everyone in a gym would do the same. The thought of people seeing me try to work out was nearly unbearable.
I lost 55 pounds with diet changes only, then literally used this blog to say “hello world, will anybody — somebody, help me figure out what to do from here?” (Seriously, I still have the video and I can't believe at that point I had the balls to do it.) I wanted someone, or multiple people, to hold my hand and say “you're welcome here. You're okay. We'll do this together.” I told friends about it, and was so fortunate to have a local gym and a personal trainer sign on for the challenge. I literally met with the gym management and told them what I was looking for, and they believed in me. From then on, walking into the gym meant I had employees who said “hello” to me when I walked in. In working with my trainer, I had him guiding me through the intimidating process of learning how I needed to adapt things for my size. I met some of his other clients, and regularly interacted with other trainers and other gym-goers. As soon as faces became familiar, I learned to lift my head up from staring at my feet to smile at those offering a “good morning.” They saw how hard I was working, and I started to believe that I belonged there. This led to the 5K's and half-marathon. With each step, I was able to tune out the voices in my head that had convinced me earlier that everyone was staring at me and judging me.
This is one of my first videos in the gym. I tried to film some workouts so people would see that it's possible to break through barriers when you feel like everything is against you.
Me in June 2010
My thoughts on these “plus-size” gyms? If it will get more people to exercise, I'm all for it. More than that, however, I want more gyms and fitness professionals to work hard on creating an inviting, inclusive atmosphere for people of all ages, sizes, and activity levels.
Some random ideas:
- Diversify who appears in your advertising
- Offer classes and activities that include both thorough descriptions as well as fitness level definitions (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and encourage anyone with questions or special needs to come to class early to discuss one-on-one with the instructor
- Encourage staff members to say hello and offer a smile to all members upon check-in, while cleaning equipment, etc.
- Have someone on staff at all times who is available to give individual member orientations on equipment, and promote that there is always someone to help if needed
- If you want to make certain populations feel more comfortable, create separate areas for them to use. For example, many gyms now have “women's fitness areas” with weights so they aren't intimidated by the boys in the “normal” weight room. This doesn't mean that women can't use the other part, it just means that there seemed to be enough of a need to eliminate the perceived intimidation.
- Introduce an optional “gym buddy” program where you can pair members up with others who want to opt-into the service to have an accountability partner or to say hello to every once in a while. Or, create new-member mixers or other events to get people introduced to one another.
- Recognize members milestones: self-reported in a “brag box” members can use, or automated such as “5 days in a row” acknowledged upon check-in.
- Create events that encourage new things. Think: “Zumba for Men” or “Weights for Women” or “Salsa for Seniors.” Open them up to the public if desired.
Think about the popularity of Richard Simmons workout tapes in years past, and even in his classes now (which seriously, you should watch the videos on YouTube – I REALLY want to go). They were (and are) popular because of the environment that he created: one with people of all sizes and all ages, where you didn't have to dance really well or do super fancy moves to complete. You moved, you sweated, you had fun. This is just one example of how you can include people to break down barriers – not exclude them. And hey, Richard Simmons isn't everyone's cup of tea – this is why it's so wonderful to have choices!
My advice to anyone: Push yourself to get into new environments to try them out. Give those you think are “meatheads” a chance. Ask questions. If you don't feel comfortable, try someplace else. In the end, you have to feel like you're in the proper environment to thrive.