How the fitness industry is failing women – and how it needs to change

The fitness industry has changed over the course of the pandemic – but it’s clear that gym culture still needs to improve. Here, four women explain what they want the future of exercise to look like. 

Lockdown changed everything we knew about fitness, including how, where and why we exercise. Now that we’re back to gyms, studios and classes, it’s easy to fall back into the old ways of doing things – but rather than chase the old gym culture, let’s remember that the fitness industry we left behind in 2020 wasn’t perfect.

There’s no better time to change that. From giving more financial freedom to women who want to workout to diversifying the definition of what it means to be ‘strong’, demands for the ’new normal’ aren’t small. But they’re worth it. To celebrate National Fitness Day, we asked four women to explain the changes they want and need from the fitness industry.  

“Disabled women need to be strong – let’s normalise seeing them in fitness spaces”

Sophie Butler, fitness influencer and activist

“In the short time that things opened up between lockdown 1 and 2, my gym had a 15-minute per piece of equipment rule. It made total sense – people were only meant to be in there for an hour, so it was a fair way of ensuring everyone got to go on what they wanted. Except, as a disabled woman, I can only use a few pieces of kit in the whole gym.

There was one day I was on the cable machine and a man was hovering by so I told him I’d move, but could he please let me know when he was done so I could hop back on? He seemed annoyed about it, which made me uncomfortable, and when he did eventually finish he left the cable at a height I couldn’t reach from my wheelchair and he muttered that I was hogging equipment for too long. 

His ignorance was frustrating, but this is the real problem: gyms aren’t designed with disabled women in mind. Whether it’s the type of kit they have, the layout of the gym floor or the other users who leave their kit lying around or stack the plates heaviest first so that I can’t get to what I need.

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Disabled people are either seen as totally incapable and unfit or inspirational Paralympians – there’s no in between. But the reality is that you have to be strong to be a wheelchair user. When I get in the car I have to pull my wheelchair over me to fit into the passenger seat, but I also have to have upper-body endurance. Yet I’ve heard people ask why a sports centre even needs disabled parking because no one with a disability works out. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we don’t go to the gym because we know we’ll struggle to navigate it, which means we’re even less visible in the fitness space.

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Lockdown has made people realise how difficult it is to not leave your homes, to feel isolated and restricted. What they don’t realise is that this is how disabled people have always felt. People are now saying that ‘fitness has never been so accessible’, yet lockdown has made workouts so much harder for those with disabilities. I can’t exercise from home because I can’t put a cable machine in my lounge, and in my small village the pavements are narrow and uneven so I can’t go for my daily exercise in my wheelchair like everyone else can head out for their walks.

The only way to include disabled women is by granting physical access but also changing the narrative around training. I don’t expect to have every workout tailored to me, but it’s disheartening when I see a workout that ‘everyone’ can do, yet it includes squats and burpees which are really not for me. More than that, we need to normalise seeing disabled bodies training. I hope to do that on my platform, but I’m still an anomaly.”

“I want the freedom to listen to my body”

Simone Charles, influencer and body liberalist

“The first thing I did when coronavirus started spreading was cancel my gym membership. I didn’t feel comfortable surrounded by that many people and an unused gym membership is very, very expensive. As I was really into group workouts before, I had to take some time to think about what I really wanted from my home training. Like many people, I realised that the answer was more flexibility.

Before lockdown, so many of us were working out on auto-pilot, never really stopping to think about how exercise was making us feel, whether our sessions were energising or draining us. We were doing more reps because that’s what the signs in the gym said to do, we were running faster because that’s what the person next to us was doing. Now, there are no more external cues, and I think that people are more focused on what feels good for them rather than simply being tied into having to go to the gym over and over again. 

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In October, I suffered a back injury, meaning I again had to change my approach to workouts. I’m still on a journey of learning what my body likes and what I can stick to. It further proves that we can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future, so the idea of being tied down to a contract for one particular gym where you can only do one particular training style is starting to feel a bit archaic and outdated.

Gyms and fitness establishments do need to give us time to think about whether our memberships are right for us. I want to see month to month contracts, virtual and real life training options, but also be given the choice to slow down if that’s what I need.” 

“We need to make fitness more playful”

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Beckie Stanion, chief marketing officer for Sports Direct

“I think it’s key that women understand the real benefits of fitness and why moving is so important at every stage in life. We need to be given access to more information and the right equipment, from what sports bra to wear for running to what type of workout to do when you have your period. We need to show that no matter your age, size, ethnicity, social background, there is something you can do to keep yourself fit and healthy.

We can do that by making fitness more about play. If we learn from a young age that moving our body will make us feel better – if not amazing – then we are half way there. Fitness is about so much more than just looking good, and it can be about every day, enjoyable movement.

After the last year of such uncertainty, people’s daily habits changed, getting outside became their only release. We need to harness the power of this and encourage people to make it a daily habit, but most of all we need to make it fun.

As a retailer, we need to bring visibility to women and put them front and centre of our campaigns. We need to support them on their journey whether that’s as an elite athlete or as someone who goes for a jog once a week. It all counts. It’s all fitness.”

“Self-hatred shouldn’t be a marketing tool”

Shazia Hossen, personal trainer and online coach

“I no longer want people to come to me as a personal trainer and say “I’m here because I hate myself and my body”. Unfortunately, the way the fitness industry gets people to invest in it is to make them hate themselves and their bodies, and I’ve seen that highly amplified since the first lockdown. It was all about getting rid of your lockdown ‘weight gain’ and now that gyms are reopening it’s the same sort of messaging. While that might be helpful for some people, for the majority of people it can be very triggering and I don’t think it’s necessary as a sales tactic.

Body image issues, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia are things that many of us struggle with. Even I end up talking a lot of crap about myself and my body, and then I open up my phone and see more of that language directed at me. I’m prepared for it, in a way, but I know that there are many people who aren’t able to control their intake of that information and they then internalise this negative messaging. 

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The way I see it is if we can help people feel better about themselves while still encouraging them to keep working out, they’re way better off. This needs to come from individual PTs, but big corporations definitely have a responsibility in their language. The same brands who are talking about getting rid of lock down weight gain and whatever other slogans they’re coming up with are also the ones campaigning for gyms to reopen due to mental health, and it’s very counterproductive to be sending both of these messages.

When exercise is something that can bring so much empowerment and positivity, it’s such a shame that it becomes tainted with such awful language and negative motivations. I encourage women to get strong and take control of their health as a means of honouring their bodies; rewarding their vessel for carrying them as far as it has until now.” 

Read more from Fighting Fit: Lockdown Lessons While WOFH (working out from home)

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