Body Positivity and How Microgym Owners Killed the Fitness Dinosaurs

A large, muscled bodybuilder in a white tank top glares at the camera.

It blows my mind that some gyms aren’t welcoming to people of all sizes.

Yet Jill Barker, writing in the Montreal Gazette, recently suggested that “gym equality” is the exception rather than the norm in the fitness industry:

“In a society that increasingly promotes inclusiveness and body positivity, gyms are late adopters.”

I disagree, at least with regard to microgyms—including yours.

You’re way, way ahead of the curve.

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

The grammatically incorrect and badly punctuated headline applied to Barker’s June 19 article is the definition of stating the obvious: “Fitness: Gyms Should Welcome People of all Sizes, not Just One-Size-Fits All.”

Uh, yeah.

I’m not sure which ancient, old-school gyms Barker is writing about, but she’s taking the oh-so-timely approach of painting everyone with the same brush and passing on actual research in an attempt to criticize the greatest number of people in the shortest time.

Another quote: “Most gyms fall short of creating a welcoming atmosphere for people of all shapes and sizes.”

“Most”? I doubt that. “Some” might be a more accurate but less inflammatory term.

Here’s more: “Each individual can have the same health and fitness goals as anyone else who buys a gym membership, despite the association of exercise with thinness. Yet researchers revealed these exercisers feel judged, scrutinized and negatively compared with others while exercising.”

I’m not sure which research revealed that. The article isn’t clear. No study is named or linked to. I did some digging, and I believe it’s this one, which was published in 2016. As in, more than six years ago.

That timeline might explain why it seems like Barker picked up a 1983 copy of Muscle and Fitness and decided to criticize gyms of that era.


What Actually Happens in Microgyms


I’ve run a fitness business for 13 years. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “thin.” I haven’t heard it from the thousands of coaches I’ve interacted with, either.

And I’ve never once met with an overweight person and thought, “I don’t want this person in my gym.” The actual thought: “I’m so glad this person is here. I can’t wait to help them in any way I can.”

Barker goes on to detail a list of body-inclusive conditions produced by George Cunningham and Andrew Pickett from the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University. (Again, I think these are the authors of the study I linked to above.)

Let me summarize for you:

1. Leadership from owners and diversity in staffing.
2. Accommodating physical spaces.
3. Inclusive language.
4. A sense of community.

Since 2009, I have yet to walk into a microgym that lacks these elements. I’ve never yet met a microgym owner who would turn away, judge or abuse an overweight client. If such an owner existed, their gym has no doubt gone under. And good riddance.

In microgyms, prescriptions are highly personalized, trainers specialize in movement modification, and free weights ensure a person’s size is never an issue. We’ve had community in place since Day 1. It’s not optional in a microgym. It’s essential.

Here’s the common sense: In the microgym segment of the gym world, every single owner and coach knows that it’s bad business to treat any people badly. Microgyms exist to help clients of all shapes and sizes live happier, healthier lives.


Our Focus: Accomplishing Clients’ Goals

One of Barker’s closing shots: “Focusing on outcomes like improved strength, stamina and mobility instead of weight loss ensures success for all.”

Doesn’t that sound like the approach common in every single microgym since 2005 or so?  

Perhaps traditional gyms created a culture where an overweight person might feel shame while rippling, oiled-up people in unitards and Zubaz pants pumped iron on machines and judged others. That culture might still exist in a few places, but it’s been ruthlessly hunted down and stomped out in microgyms for years. Maybe decades.

I think Barker’s article is generic, overly broad in scope and missing a lot of detail. But it does signal an opportunity for microgym owners and coaches:

If any segment of the public actually feels like the fitness industry is not welcoming to people of any size, you just found a target market.

All you have to do is show and tell people who might feel intimidated that you’ve always been set up to help them, you’ll never judge them, and you’ll help them find the quickest route to their own personal goals—whatever they are.

Get the message out to the public. Tell people you’ll welcome them, meet with them, offer them a prescription for success, coach them and build a long-term relationship with them so they can achieve their goals.

Then get them into your gym and change their lives.

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