Have you ever felt like you want to start exercising, but stepping through the doorway seems too intimidating?
Well, I can tell you, you’re not alone.
If you’re someone who is looking for a gym where you’ll feel comfortable no matter what size you are, I know how hard that struggle is. Believe me, I know, when your body size is perceived as outside the cultural “norm,” entering a gym can be that much more daunting, especially because words like inclusive and body positive are trendy these days, while actually living up to those marketing phrases is a whole different story. So, if you’re on the hunt for a size-friendly gym, try asking yourself these questions to separate the potentially inclusive ones from the not so much.
And just a note: Of course there’s no way to guarantee that any of these phrases indicate true inclusivity (there are plenty of gyms that call themselves inclusive or body positive but may not have training in competently serving a diverse clientele). This is when it’s helpful to use a free trial period to give you a chance to experience the place for yourself. And beyond that, we all have different needs, cultures, and lifestyles, and while one size-inclusive gym may be great for one person, I’m not suggesting it would be for everyone else. Whatever your specific needs are, your voice should be heard. You are the CEO of your life, and I encourage you to interview gyms and trainers thoroughly, just like any CEO would.
1. What kinds of classes does it offer?
A gym’s class schedule can tell you a fair amount about whether size inclusivity is something the gym has on its agenda. I recommend looking for key phrases in the class descriptions, like “body positive,” “fitness for everyone,” or “fitness for every body.” If you’re new to working out, I’d also look for words like beginner or intro. Oftentimes a nod toward being friendly to beginners or people of all fitness levels indicates a more welcoming overall tone.
2. How do the group instructors talk to their classes?
It’s not just about the class offerings. It’s also really important to know how an instructor cues their students and leads the class. First of all, you don’t want to be in a class where the instructor uses shame-based cues (“Keep this up and you’ll hardly recognize yourself in a few months” or “Let’s work hard, ladies, bikini season’s coming”). Beyond that, we all want to work out with trainers who genuinely motivate us! For a lot of people, motivational cues around weight loss and making your body better/tighter/smaller can be really problematic, especially if you’re a plus-size person who often already feels like you don’t measure up or belong in a fitness space as is. For size inclusivity, verbal cuing or motivation should be health- and fitness-related, not about appearance or weight loss.
3. What kind of equipment does the gym have and how is it laid out?
Ideally the gym is stocked with treadmills and cardio machines that don’t have weight restrictions, as some do. That’s one thing to ask about.
And it’s not just about the equipment the gym offers but also about its placement. Some things to check are: Is the equipment easy to maneuver around? Does the space surrounding each piece of equipment make it easy to get in and out of each machine? Sometimes gym spaces can feel cramped and don’t offer the space certain body sizes need.
4. If it sells branded merch, does it offer inclusive sizing?
Many gyms have merchandise available as part of their business model. If the gym is accepting your money as a customer, it should also consider you when placing orders for the gym store. I’ve been a member of many gyms where the merchandise didn’t fit and it definitely leaves me feeling excluded. I understand sourcing merchandise in a variety of sizing can be difficult and takes extra work, but if your money is good for the membership, you should be good to go on the merchandise as well. Check out what they’re offering, and hopefully, gym management will be open to hearing your request for larger sizing.
5. Do you see yourself represented in its marketing?
A truly size-inclusive gym will represent diversity in its marketing message, and this means featuring a range of sizes, ages, genders, races, and so on, to be reflective of the population it’s seeking to serve. I sometimes hear that gyms’ marketing materials feature only thin people because customers want to see the “end result,” not the current state. That in of itself isn’t size-inclusive because the main objective in that statement is to transform the body to a smaller size.
6. Are its trainers experienced working with size-diverse clientele?
Size inclusivity in the fitness industry isn’t necessarily taught by common certification bodies. It often depends on whether a trainer has educated themselves on how to competently train people with bigger bodies. When joining a gym, it’s good to ask questions such as, “Do your trainers have experience with size-diverse clients?” If so, “can you give me some examples of how they work with size-diverse clients?” If they can respond quickly with sound answers that satisfy your needs, it’s a sign you could be in good hands. I would also caution here too: Although the gym owner is invested in size diversity, make sure you also talk to the trainer you will be working with.
7. Is management open to feedback?
Some gyms may be doing a great job in some areas pertaining to size inclusivity yet may need feedback in other areas. A size-inclusive gym is led by management who is open to hearing the feedback from all paying customers and who can empathize that getting active and fit can come with many barriers for certain demographics. An empathetic and invested management team dedicated to the success of all clients can be the driving force needed in a size-inclusive gym culture. Pay close attention to how the gym responds to requests and feedback.
8. Is there size diversity among members and trainers?
The most common way to see whether a gym is size-inclusive is to book an appointment for a tour and check out the vibe and community of the gym. During your visit you can see the other gymgoers, and get to look at the equipment layout and the merchandise in the pro shop. A size-inclusive gym may also demonstrate diversity by its training staff, so that’s something to look out for too.
Louise Green is a plus-size trainer, founder of the fitness program Body Exchange, and author of Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have. Follow: Instagram @LouiseGreen_BigFitGirl, Twitter @Bigfitgirl, Facebook @louisegreen.bigfitgirl
The content of each Big Fit Girl column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.