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March 2012

Women in the Fitness Industry: Leaders or Eye Candy?

By Karen Asp

If you were asked to name two or three pioneers of the fitness industry, you might first think of Jack LaLanne or Dr. Kenneth Cooper. Yet, dig a little deeper and you’ll find many women lurking in those history pages.

Join the Conversation!

What do you think is the status of women within the fitness industry? Are they perceived as serious professionals making important contributions, or are too many women viewed as little more than eye candy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Take, for instance, Jacki Sorensen, who began offering some of the first dance-aerobic classes in the country in the 1970s, and Jane Fonda, who became a household name in 1982 when she launched her first fitness video. And who can forget Judi Shepherd Missett for starting the craze known as Jazzercise in 1969, or Gin Miller for launching step training, which revolutionized group fitness classes around the world, about 20 years later?

Turns out, women have been some of the main movers and shakers in the fitness industry. In fact, some might argue that women essentially created the fitness industry as we know it today. Yet, don’t tell that to ESPN columnist Leslie Goldman who, in writing about her experience at the Club Industry Show 2011, described women as “eye candy.”

According to Goldman, male vendors dominated the show, and if women were there to represent the companies, they were usually clad in Spandex. “So basically, even though [women are] the ones flocking to the gym, men are responsible for making the major purchasing decisions, leaving [women] to dress up in our sexy gym rat Halloween costumes.” She ended her column by requesting that women be allowed to make some decisions.

Kathie Davis, executive director, IDEA Health and Fitness Association


Janet Frenkel, chief operating officer, American Council on Exercise

Chris Freytag, chair of the ACE Board of Directors, Minnesota-based personal trainer and group fitness instructor, and creator of numerous fitness DVDs

Gwen Hyatt, president, Desert Southwest Fitness, Inc., Center for Continuing Education


Judi Sheppard Missett, founder and CEO, Jazzercise

Beth Shaw, founder and president, YogaFit Training Systems

Of course, this column caught our attention and made us wonder: How are women doing in the fitness industry? Are women really just eye candy or are they continuing their tradition of making a positive impact on this industry? We posed those questions to some of the most successful female fitness leaders (see box, right). Below, they reveal their insights.

ACE: What do you think of Goldman’s depiction of women at this trade show?

Davis: I disagree with this depiction of women in fitness. Unfortunately, though, women who are fitness professionals can be stereotyped this way. Often at trade shows, fitness models are hired to portray a certain image that is rarely representative of women fitness professionals. In my mind, there is a clear distinction between fitness models and fitness professionals.

Freytag: I put some of this back on women themselves. This is an industry where you do wear Spandex, but you decide how much of your body you want to show. You have to ask yourself if you want to be eye candy or simply an attractive woman who has brains as well as beauty.

Missett: There are lots of beautiful women in tiny outfits at trade shows, and if a woman wants to be depicted like that, that’s up to her. Yet if you want to be seen as a professional, you have to make that choice and do the right thing.

ACE: Do you think women are well represented in today’s fitness industry?

Davis: Women have always played a strong role in the fitness industry and continue to be well represented today. It might be true that big box clubs are still male-dominated, but the fitness industry is surprisingly a women’s business by number and influence. In fact, 75 percent of IDEA’s members, which include personal trainers, group fitness instructors, program directors and business owners, are women. Women are the ones, after all, designing a lot of the smaller, more versatile pieces of equipment and creating programs like Pilates, Stroller Strides and MELT.

Hyatt: Yes, however, some sectors of the industry—like equipment manufacturers and club owners—seem to be dominated by men. In other sectors, though, like conference promoters, writers, conference and workshop presenters, personal trainers, group exercise instructors, educators and wellness coaches, women have strong roles.

Shaw: Women are well represented in terms of teaching classes and being coordinators and group fitness directors, but at shows for buyers and suppliers, there might be one woman to 100 men. That tells me that even though women are the ones moving the industry forward, men are still the decision-makers. As a result, fitness has become a female industry led by men, which can be frustrating at times because I’d like to have more say in what’s going on.

ACE: Compare being a woman in the industry today versus when you began your career. What changes have you seen, and do you think it’s easier for women to enter this industry now versus then?

Frenkel: In any industry, it’s easier for women today versus several years ago. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not about being a man or woman; it’s about a fresh set of eyes, new perspective and diverse approaches. That’s what makes organizations competitive, relevant and successful in today’s marketplace. As long as you can contribute, innovate and execute, you are a valuable asset to your organization, no matter what your gender.

Freytag: Fitness has become a more viable option for women as a career, especially personal training, which is an equal-opportunity field and is a good option for women, as it gives them flexibility in their hours. However, I think there’s a little bit of a glass ceiling in all fitness companies where women only progress so far, and men wind up getting the big jobs.

Shaw: I think women have lots of opportunities, just as they did several years ago. If there is one change I’ve noticed, though, it’s that people running the industry are listening to women a little more, which has been a positive change.

ACE: What do you think women bring to the fitness industry that’s unique or different than what men might offer?

Hyatt: Women in fitness are excellent role models for other women. They exemplify vitality, health, fitness and aging with grace and vigor. Women also have an enhanced sensitivity for others who are trying to make positive behavior changes and an understanding of how difficult it is to juggle life’s challenges. In the end, I think women can better relate to female consumers in terms of weight and body image.

Shaw: Women have their fingers on the pulse of new trends, especially when it comes to mind-body fitness. While men have more of a business approach to certain things, women bring a sense of compassion, sensitivity and awareness for the consumer, and at the end of the day, fitness is still a people business.

Freytag: From the standpoint of personal training, I think women can train women better. That’s not an absolute, but as a woman, I can identify with female clients who gain baby weight and want to take off 10 pounds or who have started menopause and are gaining weight as a result of fluctuating hormones. Plus, I know first-hand how to create a physique that helps women look toned, but not bulky.

Missett: Women bring energy, creativity and an artistic flair to fitness. They also have an emotional touch that allows them to reach out to consumers and motivate them. Not that men don’t do that, too, but women by nature are nurturing individuals, and that’s evident when we work with consumers.

ACE: What do you think are the advantages of being a woman in the fitness industry? Has being a woman given you any type of leg up in the industry?

Hyatt: I don’t know that being a woman has offered any advantages, nor has it been a detriment. I’ve worked diligently and continuously to be successful and make a contribution to the industry. Perhaps, though, timing played a small role in starting my business and its success, as the aerobic movement was just beginning to evolve and gain momentum in the early 1980s, and I was in the right place at the right time with the right academic background, passion and insight to make it all happen.

Frenkel: I wouldn’t say being a woman has given me a leg up, but at the same time, it hasn’t hurt my career. Success is much more about your drive, education and experience—not your gender—and all of that works to your advantage in any industry.

Shaw: I think being a woman has helped me, especially since 95 percent of the clients who come to YogaFit are women. There are many men who have tried to start other yoga ventures, but they haven’t succeeded in the way that we have.

ACE: What about the disadvantages? Are there any drawbacks to being a woman in this industry?

Hyatt: The biggest challenge women in this industry face relates to credibility. I’ve worked diligently to reframe being called a PE teacher or a jock teaching gym to being viewed as an individual who is a professional physical educator teaching physical education. Through the 1990s, there was a strong movement toward professionalism to replace the image of the aerobics instructor wearing thong leotards, headbands, leg warmers and busty, low-cut tops to a more professional image, and I think women have since made remarkable progress in improving their worth, credibility and professional status in the industry.

Finding Success in the Fitness Industry

Getting your foot in the door is always the toughest part about starting a new career. Want some free advice? We turned to our experts for their insights into how women can launch a career in the fitness industry.

ACE: What first steps should women take when they’re beginning a career in the fitness industry?

Freytag: If you’re heading to college, earn a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, exercise science, physical education or a similar field. Next, pursue fitness certifications. If, though, you’re out of college or don’t have a degree, get the proper—and necessary—certifications, stay on top of continuing education, and gain hands-on experience through an internship or part-time job. Most importantly, present yourself as a professional.

Hyatt: Always be professional, genuine and authentic. Develop your communication and relationship skills. Maintain a sense of humor. Become a decision-maker. Be a lifelong learner. Network, network, network.

ACE: Are there any pitfalls women should avoid?

Freytag: Realize that very few things happen from luck and that success occurs when preparation meets opportunity. You can’t wait for work to come your way. You need to seek it out, work hard, prove yourself and continue to grow with education.

Hyatt: Stay focused on key priorities. It’s easy to get distracted with small projects and lots of exciting new ideas. Think before you respond. Then respond with actions that will make a positive difference.

Davis: Always be 100 percent professional, especially since the industry is a small place and people advance and change positions all the time. And treat others as you want to be treated. After all, the same people you meet on the way up, you meet on the way down.

Davis:I don’t see many disadvantages, or if they are there, I’ve never experienced any of them. The only drawback I do see is that if women want to get in on the business side of the fitness industry, but don’t have a business background, they could be at a disadvantage. That’s why it’s important that women who do want to enter the business side have some type of training, whether through a degree or courses they’ve taken.

Missett: I can think of one distinct moment when I did have a slight disadvantage being a woman. Even though I’d never needed a loan, I was applying for a credit line in case of an emergency. This was in the mid 1980s, and Jazzercise was already well established. Yet the loan officer, who was a man, told me my business was a fly-by-night operation, and there was no way the bank could fund anything like this, even though I was incredibly solvent. Now I look back and laugh because we’ve been going strong for 42 years and that bank is out of business.

ACE: What role do you think women will play in the fitness industry five or 10 years from now?

Frenkel: I’m meeting lots of bright, forward-thinking women and men in the fitness industry. Since a large segment of the industry’s target market is women, it’s important that women have a seat at the table to lead organizations in meeting the needs of both women and men. Again, diversity is critically important to any organization seeking to remain relevant in today’s marketplace. Different types of people—male and female included—bring different and unique perspectives to an organization. Those perspectives are important because we all have blind spots. A leader’s challenge is to ensure a diverse leadership team is in place, giving the organization the best opportunity to avoid those blind spots and achieve success.

Freytag: Women’s roles in the industry will continue to grow. After all, from the consumer side, women are the ones buying the health-club memberships and fitness equipment, so it’s critical that the fitness industry continue to appeal to those female consumers, and female fitness professionals are well poised to help carry out that mission.

Shaw: As more women start their own businesses, female representation in the industry will grow. Yet we always need more positive female role models, and I hope that women’s roles in this industry will be celebrated and publicized even more.

Hyatt: Just as we’ve done in the past with step, Pilates, yoga, aquatic exercise, rehabilitation, physical activity for older adults and disease-specific conditions, and many other areas, women will continue to set trends in different types of physical-activity programs for all ages.

Davis: Women have had a huge impact on the modern-day fitness industry and will keep evolving the model. When you look at the types of programs, new businesses and smaller pieces of equipment, women have been leaders in those areas. There are so many gifted women in this business who continue to create these new forms and methods of exercise. Overall, it’s an exciting time to be in fitness, especially if you’re a woman.

Karen Asp, journalist and ACE-certified Fitness Professional, is a contributing editor for Woman’s Day and co-author of Understanding Your Food Allergies and Intolerances (St. Martins, May 2012). She also writes for numerous other publications, including Self, Glamour, Better Homes and Gardens, O, Family Circle, Natural Health, Real Simple, Prevention, Redbook and Men’s Fitness. Follow her on Twitter (@karenaspwriter).

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