How you feel in the gym matters. It’s a matter of social justice.

By Stephanie E. Coen, University of Nottingham, UK

We are bombarded with messages to ‘move more.’ Physical activity is good for us, we’re told. In the right doses, yes, meeting minimum levels of activity reduces our risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and depression, plus it helps with stress and our general quality of life.

It seems often forgotten, however, that ‘moving more’ usually means going somewhere. For many of us, that place is the gym. And gyms can be more, or less, inviting.

The gender effect

A recent review of 33 studies found that a major reason why people didn’t stick with exercise prescribed by health practitioners is because they find gym environments intimidating or uncomfortable. Industry has even started to take note. A survey commissioned by Sure Women (yes, the deodorant), found that 1 in 4 women in the UK are intimidated by gyms. In Canada, a poll sponsored by GoodLife Fitness, reported that 50% of women and 28% of men feel intimidated working out in gyms. Women and men can therefore both experience ‘gymtimidation,’ but more women do. This matters!

The same physical activity guidelines apply to women and men, but around the world women are less likely to meet them, particularly when it comes to the muscle-strengthening component of these recommendations. This means women are not enjoying the health benefits of physical activity to the same extent as men.

The disparities are even starker when we consider intersections with other aspects of social difference like race/ethnicity. In the UK, for example, the gender gap in physical activity among Black and South Asian communities is twice as wide as between White British men and women.

The gender gap in physical activity is a social justice issue.

Working out and feeling out of place

Our research, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, uses the gym to understand how this gender gap in physical activity takes place in our everyday lives.

We spoke with 52 women and men gym-goers in a mid-sized Canadian city; 37 of these participants also kept journals for a week documenting the positive and negative aspects of their gym experiences.

Our findings show that emotions—how we feel in the gym—are one way in which gender disparities in physical activity manifest in everyday exercise environments. We identified three emotional processes at play that worked to form boundaries and hierarchies amongst men and women.

Many people in our study described cognitively wrestling with their gendered locations in the gym, a process we called dislocation. One man put it bluntly, saying:

“it’s almost like the public school dance, right. You know, the music’s on, but the guys are on this side, the girls on this side and they’re just too afraid to meet in the middle.”

This analogy captures the tension embedded in a set of placed-based gender relations that polarised women and men. Both women and men experienced an anxious sense of gendered dislocation: that their own sense of femininity or masculinity was incongruent with those perceived to be more dominant or powerful in the gym.

For many women, the masculine nature of certain gym spaces created an emotionally taxing backdrop that they had to work against actively. To minimise discomfort, some women chose not to invest emotional labour and instead simply withdrew from participating as a preventive measure. One woman felt like

“that’s their area and I don’t really feel comfortable entering that area—it’s kind of a high testosterone region maybe.”

The gym could also prompt insecurities and anxieties about being judged negatively by, and in comparison to, others. This was more pronounced among women, with the common sentiment that you have to go looking hot to the gym, if you’re a girl.

Women also expressed a fear of being judged for poor exercise performance, as one woman summed up “I don’t want to look foolish on the playground.” To lessen the emotional risk, some women altered their gym practices to pre-empt making any ‘mistakes,’ like avoiding weights that might be ‘too heavy’ to complete an exercise with. While some men did mention physique concerns, mostly related to muscular development, these evaluative processes disproportionately affected how women engaged with the gym.

Women and men described experiencing the gym as a hetero-sexualised space, but this had different gendered effects—a process we refer to as sexualisation. Many women described experiences of feeling sexualised by men in the gym as an unpleasant by-product of working out. One woman told us:

“I’m not here for you to eye candy me.”

The directionality of the flow of sexualisation, from men to women, added to the gendered asymmetry of women’s sense of legitimacy in the gym by bypassing their consent. Some men also felt that “as a guy it’s always…you’re not perfectly relaxed” due to pressure to be perceived favourably by women. One man told us, “I wouldn’t allow my sweat to splatter all over the place.”

Because many men were aware of women’s negative experiences, several were concerned about the potential for women to perceive them as participating in this sexualisation. In response, some men monitored their proximity to women, even going as far as to consider where they potentially—even inadvertently—intersected women’s eye-lines.

Closing the gap

The key message from our research is that we can improve public health messaging by showing what it feels like to exercise in places like the gym. Such messaging could use first-hand testimonials, like these, to expose gendered anxieties and tensions, thereby challenging and disrupting their routine embeddedness.

We also need to consider emotions in thinking about ways to reimagine exercise environments. A promising starting point would be to focus on non-profit gym spaces, such as community or publicly funded gyms.

By bringing public health interventions in step with the everyday realities of being active in particular places, accounting for emotions can help to close the gender gap.

About the author: Dr Stephanie Coen is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the University of Nottingham. Her research focusses on critical health geographies with a particular interest in how taken-for-granted-and often unquestioned-features of our day-to-day environments become implicated in the production of health outcomes, behaviours, and inequities. Follow her on twitter: @steph_coen.

This blog is based on a recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:

Coen, S. E., Davidson, J., & Rosenberg, M. W. (2019). Towards a critical geography of physical activity: Emotions and the gendered boundary‐making of an everyday exercise environment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 00, 1–17.

The article can be read free here:

*The Cover image by Gaila Rae is from and reproduced under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.*

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