Hear Our Voices: Speaking To The Fitness Industry’s Inclusivity Problem

People of color are not represented in the fitness industry at all levels to the same extent as they are exist in the general population. (Photo by wildpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.)

This series on diversity, equity and inclusion is brought to you in collaboration with BLAQUE. For more on this series, read our introduction story here

When you look around most health club spaces, whether it be a large club chain, a small boutique studio, a YMCA or a parks and rec facility, you may or may not find it easy to spot trainers, group exercise instructors or front desk staff who are people of color, but finding people of color represented at mid-management, upper management and ownership levels at these facilities is more difficult.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break down employment in the fitness industry by race. No other organization seems to do so either. But anecdotally, when you look through club companies’ staff and management pages on their websites, sit in on virtual webinars, attend conferences or speak to people in the industry, you see that the fitness space, particularly higher up the ladder, does not reflect the racial breakdown of the overall U.S. population, which is 40 percent non-white. To say the fitness industry has an inclusivity problem isn’t hyperbole.

In this first entry in the Hear Our Voices portion of Club Industry’s series on diversity, equity and inclusion, Black members of the fitness community speak to the industry’s inclusivity problem. This is the first of six question these individuals will answer during the next six weeks. After they speak, other people of color in the fitness industry will share their voices on questions of diversity and inclusion.  

Q: The fitness industry has an inclusivity problem. Can you expand upon this in your own words?

A: Where to even begin? Unfortunately, as engaging, open and welcoming as many fitness spaces present themselves to be, for many people, these spaces don’t feel safe. People of color are often unseen, unheard and not a significant part of the ethos of these spaces. This goes from the lack of diversity within management, to the dearth of representation across the board for fitness instructors, to the choices that are made about who works front desk/hospitality/cleaning/etc., not to mention the way these spaces are advertised, the attire that is sold, the events/holidays that are celebrated—the list goes on and on. Many are realizing the significant level of intersectional microaggressions that these spaces often present.

Ariana Stowe, Personal Trainer and 305 Fitness Instructor

A: Inclusivity is the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those with physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups. 

I don't think there's an inclusivity issue in the fitness industry; I think there is a lack of awareness from minority fitness professionals about what opportunities exist for them and then a lack of outreach/interest in the industry to have more diverse representation. 

It's like black people don't see themselves represented so they think it's a closed door, and those in the industry don't actively seek the talent so the connections aren't being made. 

I experienced this firsthand as an attendee at a fitness conference in Arizona last fall. Out of roughly 400 participants, I could count on one hand the number of Black women in the room and the number of women of any color in the room. I was actually drawn to the event after seeing an ad where there was not a single Black woman on the cover of any of the magazines shown, which made me think to myself there might be an opportunity here. I should go and learn more, and so I did.

I stood out in a sea of fit Caucasian women.

I learned a ton and was able to shake hands with the editors of Oxygen and Strong Fitness magazines. One year later, I am now featured along with five other Black women in their July/August 2020 issue. This opportunity came to fruition through a series of events that I know some of my fellow Black colleagues would have been turned off from by not seeing enough people of color represented in the first place.

Inclusivity matters, even if it doesn't move the needle instantly. We are still watching.  

Jessica, Personal Trainer, Equinox (last name withheld upon request)

A: I have worked in the fitness industry for more than 10 years and in different markets. At first, I thought that I was one of the very few Black people in the room because of where I lived. When I moved to New York City, I noticed that there were a few more brown faces, but not in the upper echelon of the company. I work in a luxury gym in Manhattan, and although I see Black trainers being hired, I do not see them being supported in the same way as their white counterparts. The managers at the gym I work at tend to hire trainers on a regular basis—they throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. It’s generally a sink or swim situation. What I have noticed, though, is that while numerous Black trainers fall through the cracks, many young, inexperienced white trainers receive management’s full support in the form of not only leads but also clients who already have purchased sessions in their accounts. When Black trainers are struggling with their business, they are given a scripted response encouraging them to work the gym floor and prospect for new clients. Meanwhile, white trainers are often taken under management’s wing and handed a business that they didn’t earn. 

As a Black female trainer, I feel like I am constantly having to prove myself whereas much less experienced and capable white trainers (both male and female) are given what I have to fight for. This is not an issue with just one manager. I have seen this happen with several managers who have been in charge both at my current gym and my previous gym.

Another area of the fitness industry where I notice lack of inclusion of people of color is education. I have taken many workshops, certification courses and attended numerous conferences over the course of my career. The majority of the presenters are often white men. I can’t speak to why that is, though it is not lost on me that the people who are paid to be in positions of authority are often white men (and some white women).

Dr. Antonio Williams, Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair, Indiana University School of Public Health

A: The fitness space is very homogeneous. The typical member is white, upper-middle class, fit, able-bodied and under 50. The employees, management and ownership often reflect the consumer base. Therefore, the opinions, values and culture often reflect that of those in control of the space, thus the lack of inclusivity. For minorities in the industry, having access to the space doesn’t mean that it’s inclusive. In order for the industry to be truly inclusive, it must start at the top. Industry executives must implement strategies for creating a multicultural environment for minority fitness professionals to feel comfortable bringing their culture and authentic selves into the space. Doing so will enhance the industry culture and allow the professional to better serve a diverse group of members.

Venus Davis, Founder, The Strong Academy

A: As an employee at the most popular local chain gym, which was named Best of D.C. by the Washington City Paper, it is incredibly sad to see there are no Black women in leadership positions. My mom always taught me and my sister that as Black women, we would always have to work three times harder to even have the same opportunities as our white counterparts. As I entered the industry, I wanted to quickly attain the knowledge necessary to grow and develop myself for career advancement. I bonded with a colleague that gave me the rundown, telling me: “Venus, you need to get FML and additional certifications so you can get promoted to master trainer.” Me being the competitive-natured person I am, I set out to meet these requirements. It has been two years since I met these requirements; yet I see no advancement. Through dialogues and observations, I quickly discovered that this type of professional ceiling was common for Black trainers in our company.

 

David Rachal III, Founder and CEO, HEALTHEFIT

A: In 1892 when Black people were barred from membership in any organizations of that era, Anthony Bowen decided that a Black YMCA was needed and established one in Washington, D.C. Fast forward to 2001 when I entered the fitness industry under Bally Total Fitness in Washington, D.C. There was one Black general manager within the 12 clubs in the metropolitan area, yet 11 of the fitness managers that reported to them were Black.

Jana Stewart, Health And Lifestyle Accountability Coach And Lifestyle Consultant

A: It's actually a little out of my comfort zone to even discuss or address this because I've been in the fitness industry for several years and have become accustomed to the way things go, and I just deal with it. But the issue is that there's been one basic look, and there was a time when diversity was just never an option. Years ago when I lived in Las Vegas, a good friend of mine was the CEO of a nutrition company. And even though the person loved my fit, healthy look, they said that they could not sponsor me because their audience would not want to see a Black woman promoting a nutrition product. They said sales would go down. And judging from the lack of diversity (at that time) with most nutrition companies, I'm guessing most of them felt that way. Now I know things have changed a bit these days, but there's still an issue.

Ianthe Mellors, Head of Fitness and Dance, FitXR

A: I’ve had a lot of conversations with fitness professionals and companies that had not taken the time to fully examine their products and classes and address inclusivity. Products, promotions and marketing are geared toward one type of person. Price points and location mean a lot of classes, services and products are unattainable for a lot of people.

Kurt Gillon, General Manager, LifeStart

A: I want to start off with that statement of inclusivity as a problem. I can say as a fitness professional that I have never been, to my knowledge, not included in any facet of fitness solely because of my ethnicity. Having said that, I see where there is not more ethnicities reflected in fitness professionals on every level in the industry. This fitness industry—from high-end clubs, equipment manufacturers, virtual and fitness apps—does not have much ethnic representation. If you just focus on personal training, group fitness, the instructors or educators, there should be more inclusivity. But to say inclusivity is a problem would mean, for me, a deliberate plan to exclude people of color.

Mike Z. Robinson, Owner, MZR Fitness

A: Fitness is one of those things that everyone can benefit from no matter what your background is. So with that said, I just believe that everyone needs to be intentional with their approach if they truly would like to see change in the industry and in the world. Everyone and all of these companies need to just stop talking about creating diversity and just make it happen—and not just for commercial purposes. It’s not enough to just post social media messages and attend Black Lives Matter rallies. Effect change on a daily basis by expanding your network and learning from one another.

 

Cheryl McCarver, Executive Director, Cooper Street YMCA

A: Wherever people have options to join an organization for their services, I believe there will always be inclusivity problems because that business model was designed for a particular consumer base that the owner believed would have a need for their services. The leadership works to capture that customer base, and in some cases, the approach to gain that customer base does not signal to all through the use of photos, words, etc., that the organization is inclusive. One of the wonderful things that I experienced early in my 25-year career with the YMCA movement is that the values of the Y are the same values that I live by daily: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility not to mention a welcoming environment or, as we say, "for all." With these as my personal guide and the guide of my organization, it is second nature for me to own how I care for others, the honesty I present to all in a vulnerable and genuine way, in addition to my behavior that validates that I am respectful and responsible for how welcoming that all feel at my YMCA. As an executive director, I have a goal to model service at its highest level by making sure my team knows my expectations of them by how I treat and include them. This sets the tone for the culture at our Y that is inclusive to all, young, old, brown, beige, gay, straight. In this industry, there will always be a culture that the top leadership does not represent, look like, think like the staff or the membership, which makes it difficult for leadership to ensure the practices, policies, unspoken expectations represent the whole because the whole is not around the table co-creating those policies and practices. 

 

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