American Council on Exercise by American Council on Exercise

June is Pride Month, and ACE celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community and its fight for equal rights. Health coaches and exercise professionals can play a small role in this celebration by creating welcoming and empowering environments in fitness facilities and beyond that let members of the LGBTQIA+ community know that they are a valued part of the larger community you are trying to build in your daily work as a professional in the fitness industry. 

One key element of building a caring and task-involving climate, which emphasizes individual effort and improvement, camaraderie among peers, and mutual respect and kindness, is the use of inclusive language. It’s important to own your words and understand that you must have accountability for the things you say to your clients, guests and coworkers.  

Inclusive language, which is a core element of ACE’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), is defined by the Linguistic Society of America as “language that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” 

It’s important to highlight that using non-inclusive language extends beyond things like misgendering or misidentifying people, or the use of incorrect pronouns. 

“When we think about dominant culture, language can reinforce biases that we have,” explains Rory James, MPH, an EDI consultant who works closely with ACE. “This is very insidious because it can also creep into things like professions, the jobs that we work and the roles that we have.” 

For example, calling a person a “male nurse” is genderizing a profession for no reason. Similarly, calling someone a “girl boss,” even it’s a bit tongue in cheek, sends a message you may not be intending to send. A male nurse is simply a nurse; a girl boss is simply a boss.  

To bring this a bit closer to the fitness industry, think about “girl push-ups,” a term once commonly used to describe a modified push-up where the exerciser is on their knees rather than their toes. The issue here is that “girl” is being equated with a lesser version of the exercise, where a person is too weak to do a “real” push-up. Fortunately, that term has largely been eradicated from most fitness spaces, but it’s a great example of how biases work their way into language and become part of the vernacular. 

The disappearance of “girl push-ups” is also a prime example of how language is constantly evolving. The use of “they” and “their” as singular pronouns has existed for hundreds of years, but has become increasingly commonplace in recent years as people became more aware of the preferences of transgender and non-binary individuals. Simply using “they” when discussing or describing someone whose preferences you don’t know ensures that you’re being inclusive. 

What can you do to be more inclusive in the language you use? 

The first step is to understand what inclusive language entails: 

  • Gender-neutral language means being inclusive in the way you refer to individuals and groups (e.g., “welcome everyone, let’s get moving” vs. “hey guys, let’s get started”). 

  • Gender-neutral pronouns refer to people in general rather than a person’s sex or gender (e.g., they vs. he or she). 

Here are some additional tips to for ensure the space where you are delivering your classes or client sessions are affirming for LGBTQIA+ individuals: 

  • Choose spaces (when possible) with gender-neutral restrooms or locker rooms as an option for your clients. 

  • Consider taking your classes or clients outside where they can show up as their authentic selves.  

  • Volunteer your time by working with known LGBTQIA+ organizations.  

  • Collaborate with known LGBTQIA+ health coaches and exercise professionals to create culturally aware programing.  

Another important step is to educate yourself on cultural competence, which is the ability to communicate and work effectively with people from different cultures, along with other elements of the EDI discussion. A great place to start is the ACE course entitled Taking Action with ACE: Practicing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as a Health and Exercise Professional, in which you’ll learn about not only inclusive language, but also social determinants of health, implicit biases and how to demonstrate empathy and understanding when working with clients and participants of various backgrounds. 

Avoid the use of coded language, which involves the substitution of terms related to identity and culture with seemingly neutral terms that actually disguise one’s biases. For example, consider a job candidate who is well qualified but described as “maybe not the right fit for our company.” That seemingly innocuous language begs the question: What is it about that person makes them not the right fit? Is it that they look or act differently than others on the team? Are they from a different ethnic background or are they less educated than others? Is their sexuality or gender identity a concern for the person making that statement?  

In addition to using inclusive language, another important step is to interrupt or confront coded language, gender bias and other forms of exclusivity when you encounter them. Simply asking, “What do you mean when you say they’re not the right fit?” can initiate an important conversation about bias in your organization.  

Finally, it’s important to understand that these conversations can be difficult for all involved and that everyone, no matter how much experience they have using inclusive language or building inclusive environments, will make mistakes. They may slip up and misgender someone or inadvertently say something that insults a coworker or client. So, give yourself and others grace as they embrace the changes taking place in our everyday language.  

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