8 Fitness Pros Making the Workout World More Inclusive—and Why That's Really Important
It would be a massive understatement to say that I was intimidated when I got involved with fitness for the first time in my adult life. Just walking into the gym was scary for me. I saw an abundance of incredibly fit-looking people and felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had no idea what I was doing and didn't feel totally comfortable navigating the gym. I didn't see any employees or trainers that looked even remotely like me, and to be honest, I wasn't quite sure if I belonged there or if anyone could relate to my experiences.
My first experience with a trainer was a free session I was gifted for joining the gym. I remember that session vividly. Just picture me—someone who'd never been to a gym in their entire adult life—engaging in the most brutal training session you can imagine. I'm talking burpees, push-ups, lunges, jump squats, and everything in between—all in 30 mins, with very little rest. By the end of the session, I was light-headed and shaking, almost to the point of passing out. The trainer mildly freaked out and brought me sugar packets to revive me.
After a few minutes of rest, the trainer explained that I did great job and he would have me in good shape and down 30 pounds in no time. One really big problem with this: not once had the trainer asked me about my goals. In fact, we hadn't discussed anything prior to the session. He just made the assumption that I wanted to lose 30 pounds. He went on to explain that, as a black woman, I needed to manage my weight because I was at a bigger risk for diabetes and heart disease.
I walked away from that first introductory session feeling defeated, unseen, unworthy of being in that space, utterly out of shape, (specifically) thirty pounds overweight, and ready to run away and never return to the gym for the rest of my life. I didn't look the part, I had been embarrassed in front of multiple trainers and other patrons, and it didn't feel like a welcoming space for a fitness newbie like myself.
For individuals with marginalized identities, whether it be members of the LGBTQIA community, people of color, older adults, individuals with disabilities, or individuals in larger bodies, walking into a gym can feel terrifying. Having access to trainers of diverse backgrounds goes a long way in allowing individuals to feel more comfortable. A person's unique set of varying identities impacts the way they see and experience the world. Having the ability to train with someone who shares some of these identities can allow individuals to feel more comfortable in a gym setting and also more comfortable opening up about any fears or hesitations about the gym. It also leads to an overall feeling of safety.
Additionally, incorporating simple practices such as gender-neutral or single-stall changing rooms and bathroom facilities, asking individuals their pronouns, having a diverse and representative staff, refusing to make assumptions about people's fitness or weight loss goals, and being wheelchair accessible, among others, goes a long way toward creating a more inclusive workout world...and world, period. (Related: Bethany Meyers Shares Their Non-Binary Journey and Why Inclusivity Is So Damn Important)
Fitness isn't just for individuals of a particular size, gender, ability status, shape, age, or ethnicity. You don't need to look a certain way to have a 'fit' body, nor do you need to possess any particular aesthetic characteristics to engage in physical activity of any form. The benefits of movement extend to every single human being and allow you to feel energized, whole, empowered, and nourished in your body, in addition to reduced stress levels, better sleep, and increased physical strength.
Everyone deserves access to the transformative power of strength in environments that feel welcoming and comfortable. Strength is for everybody and individuals from all backgrounds deserve to feel seen, respected, affirmed, and celebrated in fitness spaces. Seeing other trainers with similar backgrounds, who are also championing to make fitness more inclusive for everyone, fosters the ability to feel like you belong in a space and that all of your health and fitness goals—whether weight loss-related or not—are valid and important.
Here are ten trainers doing who not only understand the importance of making the workout world more inclusive but also embody it in their practices:
1. Lauren Leavell (@laurenleavellfitness)
Lauren Leavell is a Philadelphia-based motivational coach and certified personal trainer, who keeps inclusive fitness at the core of her practice. "Being outside of a traditionally 'fit' body archetype can be a double-edged sword," says Leavell. "In some ways, my body makes people who are also not traditionally accepted as 'fit' feel welcome. That is everything I want from this career….just because I don't have a six-pack, long, lean ballerina legs, or literally any other interpretation of a fit body that does not mean I am not capable. I don't assign moves at random. I have the knowledge and skills to build a safe and challenging workout." Not only does Leavell use her platform to educate the world that a trainer's body is not correlated to their ability to train clients, but she also embodies true authenticity, frequently posting pictures of herself unposed, unflexed, and unfiltered, stating "I have a belly and that is OKAY," reminding the world that being "fit" is not a "look".
2. Morit Summers (@moritsummers)
Morit Summers, owner of Brooklyn's Form Fitness BK, is (in her words), "on a mission to prove to you that you can do it too." Summers recreates popular (and often very challenging) workout videos created by other fitness influencers and trainers on Instagram, modifying the movements to make them more accessible for the everyday gym-goer, emphasizing that modifications don't make you less capable. Besides being a complete badass in the gym—partaking in everything from powerlifting and Olympic lifting to completing a Spartan race—she frequently reminds followers not to "judge a body by its cover," proudly showcasing her strong and capable body across social media.
3. Ilya Parker (@decolonizingfitness)
Ilya Parker, founder of Decolonizing Fitness, is a black, non-binary transmasculine trainer, writer, educator, and champion of creating a more inclusive workout world. Frequently discussing issues of fatphobia, gender dysmorphia, trans identity, and ageism among others, Parker encourages the fitness community to "hire those of us who exist at the intersections, who have the depth to educate you and your staff if you're someone who wants to open a body-positive gym or movement center." From creating transmasculine training programs, educating the fitness community via their Patreon account and podcast, and taking their Affirming Spaces workshops across the country, Parker "unpacks toxic fitness culture and redefines it in ways that are more supportive to all bodies."
4. Karen Preene (@deadlifts_and_redlips)
Karen Preene, a UK-based fitness instructor and personal trainer, offers her clients a "non-diet, weight-inclusive approach to fitness." Through her social media platforms, she reminds her followers that "it's possible to pursue health without the pursuit of intentional weight loss" and encourages her fellow fitness professionals to recognize that "not everyone who wants to exercise wants to lose weight and your assumption of this, plus the aggressive promotion and marketing towards weight loss, creates barriers for people wanting to access fitness."
5. Dr. Lady Velez (@ladybug_11)
Lady Velez, M.D., director of operations and coach at Brooklyn-based gym, Strength for All, decided on a career in fitness after finishing medical school in 2018 because she felt that being a coach was more conducive to helping people find actual health and wellness than practicing medicine. (!!!) As a queer woman of color, Dr. Velez coaches and trains clients in weight lifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit, helping them find their own personal power and strength. Dr. Velez says she particularly enjoys training at Strength For All, an inclusive, sliding-scale gym, because "although I have often felt welcome in other spaces, specifically CrossFit, I never realized how many other people didn't feel welcome in fitness spaces. What I love about what we do is that it's a place where queer, gay, trans individuals, and people of color can come and feel comfortable, seen, and understood." Her passion is evident; just check out her Instagram where she's constantly showcasing the clients she feels privileged to work with.
6. Tasheon Chillous (@chilltash)
Tasheon Chillous, a plus-sized, Tacoma, Washington-based coach and personal trainer, is the creator of #BOPOMO, a body-positive movement class based on a sliding-scale that's focused on "moving your body for joy and empowerment." Her love of movement is evident via her Instagram page, where she shares highlights of her strength training, hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking. For Chillous, the gym "is about making my everyday and weekend activities easier, pain-free, safe, and enjoyable. From walking my dog to climbing mountains while carrying a 30lb pack to dancing the night away. I believe moving your body should be joyful and also get you outside of your comfort zone."
7. Sonja Herbert (@commandofitnesscollective)
Sonja Herbert noticed the lack of representation of women of color in fitness and took matters into her own hands, founding Black Girls Pilates, a fitness collective highlighting, uplifting, and celebrating black and brown women in Pilates. "When you rarely see anyone who looks like you, it can be disheartening, lonely, and oftentimes frustrating," she says. She created Black Girl Pilates as a "safe space for black women to come together and help each other through shared experiences." As a Pilates instructor, powerlifter, writer, and speaker, she uses her platform to discuss the importance of and need for more inclusion in fitness, while also discussing other important topics such as ageism and racism within fitness, as well as her own personal struggles with mental health as a fitness professional.
8. Asher Freeman (@nonnormativebodyclub)
Asher Freeman is the founder of Nonnormative Body Club, which offers a sliding scale queer and trans group fitness class. Freeman is, their words, "a trans personal trainer determined to smash racist, fatphobic, cisnormative, and ableist myths about our bodies." In addition to training and providing tips on how to create a successful sliding-scale system in order to ensure fitness is financially accessible, Freeman hosts a variety of classes and workshops educating the fitness community about concrete ways to practice inclusivity, including "Chest Binding 101, a Webinar for Fitness Professional to Better Service Clients who Bind."