The fitness market is reportedly the fastest growing business sector in the UK and we know young people, who are increasingly shunning booze and smoking – often in favour of squats, smoothies and trendy exercise studios – are a major contributing factor. Health-wise, this sounds like great news but – and it's a big but – many people feel that the fitness industry, with its peachy posteriors on #fitness Instagram, doesn't represent them and the gym IRL can be an unwelcoming, even hostile place if you don't fit the perfectly coordinated mould.
A recent survey reported a rise in "gymhibition" – with a third of 18-35-year-olds (33%) feeling too self-conscious to join a gym, and almost a quarter admitting to being worried they're "not fit enough" (23%) and that "everyone will look at [them]" (24%). Women often report being approached and harassed by men at the gym (there's a dedicated "gym" tag on the #EverydaySexism website, for instance); the typical male-female setup of classes and changing rooms – not to mention the macho culture on the gym floor – can alienate the LGBTQ+ community; and the lack of diversity in ethnicity, age, sexuality and body types in much fitness marketing can leave others feeling demotivated and undervalued.
However, a new breed of gyms and fitness studios is prioritising diversity, inclusivity and representation, and framing exercise as a feelgood tool that's beneficial for mental health, rather than striving towards unobtainable body standards.
GRL GYM, a studio space in east London's Hackney Wick set up by three womxn – Jessica Redman, Sorcha Harriman-Smith and Kasia Pawlak – opened in March with progressive intentions and strives to be a safe space for those who feel unwelcome in traditional gyms.
"We’d all had many similar experiences, both of how exercise can positively transform your life but equally, of how gym culture can feed into insecurities and misleading belief systems about health, beauty and your body," says 27-year-old Redman, who first started exercising to cope with anxiety. "Inappropriate comments, patronising behaviour and environments that make you more self-conscious are too common in gyms." A personal trainer once steered her down the weight loss path even though she'd expressed no interest in losing weight, while another enquired about Redman's sexuality upon spotting her working out with her girlfriend. After bonding over a shared distaste for "how broken the system was," the trio resolved to create a space in which people of all shapes, sizes, abilities, sexualities and identities see themselves in its marketing and on the gym floor.
We make sure we ask people, 'How do you want to feel?'
Jessica Redman, 27, cofounder of GRL GYM
In practice, this means no weighing scales on the premises, diversity in its marketing, and a focus on the benefits of working out on mental and physical health rather than appearance.
"Personal trainers often focus their attention on how a person wants to look as a goal, mostly because that’s how many view goals around fitness," Redman says, citing the negative influence of both mainstream and social media in how fitness is presented. "At GRL GYM, we make sure we ask people, 'How do you want to feel?' There’s a lot of reading between the lines between what people say they want, and what’s going on inside, and there’s a lot of unlearning and healing to do from our current culture."
You'll find no mention of "summer shredding", selfie mirrors or dubious dietary supplements at GRL GYM. "Many mainstream gyms stock protein shakes that are full of chemicals and very little in regard to nutritional value," adds Redman. "This isn’t about being healthy; it’s about constantly pushing people to want a different body, and not be happy with what they have."
Alyssa Ordu, 28, corporate programmes manager at diversity and inclusion education company Fearless Futures, says she "wasn't a gym person" until she started taking the studio's classes – Tabata (a type of HIIT) is her favourite. Ordu felt mainstream studios were competitive, sexualised spaces. "This is even more so for gyms with pools and saunas, where we are more aware of our bodies and how others interact with them, and feel entitled to observe them. Let me swim – don't bump into me 'accidentally' while doing backstroke."
Ordu also takes issue with the wider fitness industry, but is grateful for pushback from GRL GYM and women like Sanchia Legister of GYAL FLEX, who runs hip-hop yoga. "I'm keenly aware that people like me – mixed-race women, women of colour, chicks with curves – are much less likely to be represented, which is demotivating and frustrating to say the least."
Yagmur Aydogan, 26, a digital media strategist and web designer, attends PT sessions at GRL GYM and says it's worlds away from his bad experiences at many mainstream gyms around the world, which fail to practise the inclusivity and acceptance that they preach. "I've been told that my presence makes people uncomfortable due to my gender expression and that I should use the changing rooms or showers provided for disabled members. Everyone goes to the gym to achieve a certain goal and you want to deal with 'acceptance' while trying to build a habit of working out regularly."
By limiting our gym's reach to 50% of the population, we are actually including a group of people who may be excluded from mixed fitness spaces.
Sarah Hicks, deputy CEO of The Bridge
Of course, money is a big factor in the modern fitness industry, particularly in big cities like London. Either underrepresented groups are priced out of gym memberships completely, or they're forced to sacrifice their fitness as soon as they need to tighten their belts. The rise of gym class culture means many of us feel pressured to spend eye-watering sums on boutique studio memberships and pay-as-you-go sessions just to keep up with our peers (a single HIIT class can cost close to £30 and a monthly membership over £200 at some studios). Happily, though, several gyms are now bucking the trend – in January, Projekt 42 in Edinburgh became the first gym to offer free classes to trans and non-binary people.
Likewise, many classes at The Bridge, a women-only gym in London's Southwark are free and a monthly membership starts at £20.50. "By limiting our gym's reach to 50% of the population, we are actually including a group of people who may be excluded from mixed fitness spaces, such as Muslim women, those who are overweight or obese, those needing confidence or mental wellbeing support, those who have been abused, and a whole host of others," says Sarah Hicks, The Bridge's deputy CEO. In the absence of male gaze, women feel more comfortable in the weights area and less pressure to meet the standards of the fitness aesthetic that prevails online.
We do have a few members who don’t like to be featured on Instagram and we fully respect that.
Ben West, head coach and cofounder of 360Athletic
The rise of gym selfies is well documented, but less discussed is the trend of gyms snapping and filming clients for their social media accounts, very often without their consent. While some gym-goers will be fine with this, others would rather not have the sweaty, red-faced evidence of their workout broadcast online for the world to see. Several gyms around the world – in Sweden and Australia, for instance – now prohibit phones, and the call to have them banned in the UK, in changing rooms especially, appears to be stepping up a gear. A 2015 survey suggested close to half of UK fitness club users backed the idea.
"We've seen an increase of selfies and videos being taken on the gym floors," says Ben West, head coach and cofounder of 360Athletic in Vauxhall, London, which focuses on personal goals and small-group training and doesn't film all its clients for social media ("intimidating vibes and fancy lighting are just not our style", it proclaims proudly). "It’s great if you want to document your training and experiences, but for a lot of women who may not want to be on camera, this can be a little pressurising – especially if individuals are out on the gym floor waving the camera about... Although we love people documenting their journey, we do have a few members who don’t like to be featured on Instagram and we fully respect that by not filming them at all."
A workout can be tough enough as it is, without the added stress of social pressure or unwelcome attention, and it's about time more gyms realised that.