The world of fitness can be incredibly intimidating.
From the outside, it can appear to be an exclusive club of strict regimes, impossibly flat stomachs and tiny Lycra outfits, while fitness brands sport slogans like ‘elevators are for wimps’ and ‘what’s your excuse?’ This kind of language and imagery is especially widespread at this time of year, as companies scramble to cash in on our New Year’s resolutions. It is broadcast carelessly, without any thought for the damage that it could do for those who struggle to access fitness because of chronic illness or disability.
Messaging that shames those who are not able to work out in the same way as able-bodied pain-free fitness devotees can be very isolating and, ironically, demotivating for those that struggle with accessibility. On top of this, for those who can get past the off-putting and unapproachable messaging, a huge number of gyms and fitness studios – and even online fitness services – are lacking in accessible facilities.
This kind of bias in the fitness industry runs deep, despite the progress being made with representation and the profile of people with disabilities in sport.
As someone who works closely with those with chronic pain and issues with mobility, I find this endlessly frustrating. So many people are made to feel alienated by an industry that does not cater to their needs. But fitness should be for everyone. People who exercise as part of their rehabilitation or pain management are some of the most motivated out there, and for many, regular, tailored exercise regimes can be truly life-changing.
On the very simplest level, I believe that everyone should have the same right to look after their body through exercise.
We need to accept that some people do have excuses. Good ones. And some people can’t take the stairs. It doesn’t make them lazy, and it certainly doesn’t make them ‘wimps’.
As members of the fitness community, we need to have compassion and understand that not everyone has the same range of movement, not everyone has the same levels of energy and that there should be no single set of expectations about how the human body ‘should’ perform.
It’s about time we made fitness more inclusive.
For a start, we need to get rid of the intimidating slogans and unchanging visuals. We need to change the emphasis from competition to be the strongest, the fastest, or the leanest, and champion individual fitness goals and achievements. For someone who struggles with depression, for example, just making it to the gym could be an achievement worth celebrating. For someone with chronic pain, doing just one more rep of their exercise than yesterday could be a milestone. The language we use about fitness should confirm this, not undermine it.
However, changing the language and visuals around fitness needs to go hand-in-hand with real steps towards accessibility. Leisure centres, gyms and studios should be wheelchair accessible; there should be accessible equipment, or equipment that can be modified. We need gyms that cater to those with specific sensory requirements. Some instructors use microphones; but for those who cannot hear at all, having an instructor with a basic understanding of sign-language is often a necessary requirement for getting the full benefit of a class.
We have the power to make a difference – we should support the fitness providers, influencers and services that are accessible, and ask the others why they aren’t. If you’re a part of a gym or club, or follow an instructor online, ask them to take action towards becoming accessible – even if it won’t benefit you, you it could make all the difference to someone else.
For fitness practitioners, like myself, it’s time we showed compassion, support and understanding, and took the time to educate ourselves.
Fitness needs its own New Year’s resolution, and that resolution should be accessibility. For everyone.