A Gym Culture Shift: Stop Shaming and Start Welcoming
With the new year approaching, the inevitable crowds will begin to show up at gyms. No elliptical or ab machine is safe. In March, things will be back to normal. Why does this happen?
I believe the main reason people fail is because they do not feel welcome. Whether it is a gym or a diet group, they don’t fit in, and the gym never becomes a habit.
Remember When You Were a Beginner
My first gym experience was so amazing that I still enjoy lifting fifteen years later. The gym didn’t have the best equipment, and if five people were there, it was a crowded day. But it had the most powerful thing a gym can have: I felt welcome.
Mark and Al were the gym owners, and they both looked like they could be Justin Bieber’s bodyguards. I could have easily been intimidated, lasted one day, and never come back. But right from the start I could tell they genuinely cared about seeing me succeed. When I was trying to put the trap bar over my head, they would kindly come over and suggest it may be better lifting it from the floor. When I started to see results, they would notice how much I was changing.
Sadly, too many people have the opposite experience.
Shaming Is a Socially Learned Behavior
Let’s say an overweight woman walks into a gym. She can tell by looking at the faces of most of the regulars that she isn’t welcome, and she probably feels this is due to her weight. The first thing she does is bolt for the cardio machine. She does her thirty minutes and gets out quickly. Diet pills and unethical fat-loss programs also rely on this vulnerability to make sales.
"If someone shows up in a gym, they want to get better. Unfortunately, 98 percent of the time this doesn’t happen."
And the sad thing is, it doesn’t just happen with adults at the gym. A study in New Zealand showed that toddlers as young as 32 months displayed anti-fat prejudice.1 The mother’s attitude toward obese people was a strong predictor of how the toddler reacted. This shows us what we already knew in older children and adults: fat shaming is a socially learned behavior.
Be a Champion of Change
Overweight people know they are being judged, whether it is direct or not. A gym is simply a more concentrated setting for this to happen. But we can change this. Here’s how:
- Pay It Forward: When you see someone who looks lost, help them instead of acting annoyed or ignoring them. Do it in a way that lets them know that you were the same when you started, and it won’t take long to start learning some of the basics. Remember the people who helped you.
- Relate to Others: When someone asks you what diet you are currently on, don’t write down a list of every lean protein and broccoli. Explain that it takes a while to get it all right but when you started, there were just a few things you focused on. You must relate your reply to their current situation to make a difference.
- Be a Teacher: If you see someone go directly for the cardio machines day in and day out, spark a conversation. Tell them that cardio is great, but for you, the results really came when you learned how to lift. Teach them, instead of posting snarky comments on Facebook.
Our Entire Culture Must Shift
None of this is ground-breaking or complicated, but it’s easy to forget. If someone shows up in a gym, they want to get better. Unfortunately, 98 percent of the time this doesn’t happen.
Our entire culture has to shift from shaming to welcoming. Even if that person you encouraged or said hello to quits in a week, he or she still had a positive experience. Maybe on their third try it will become a habit. We have to do everything in our power to give those around us the opportunity to succeed.
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1. T Ruffman, KS. O’Brien, M Taumoepeau, JD Latner, and JA Hunter. "Toddlers' Bias to Look at Average versus Obese Figures Relates to Maternal Anti-fat Prejudice." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 142 (2015): 195-202.
Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.