Daniel  J. Green by Daniel J. Green

When discussing diversity in the fitness industry—or any industry, for that matter—it’s essential to differentiate among the many segments and levels that exist within the big picture. For example, a fitness facility may have diversity among its clientele and its floor staff, but not among those in positions of leadership. A large equipment manufacturer may display diversity in its advertising but fail to consider unique perspectives when building that marketing campaign.

In addition, it’s always vital to recognize that diversity does not necessarily equate to inclusion and equity. Stated simply, people can be invited into the room, but if they’re not welcomed, valued and appreciated, then inclusion and equity cannot truly exist. 

Last week, the second installment of ACE’s Black History Month Dialogue Series was hosted by Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, FACSM, ACE president and chief science officer. While the first installment focused on health equity, public health and physical activity during COVID-19, this conversation centered on the importance of diversity and inclusion in the fitness industry. Joining him were Ewunike Akpan, owner of Maryland-based LOTUS Fitness and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer since 1999, and Alex McLean, an international presenter who has been an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor since 2008.

The conversation kicked off with McLean offering a metaphor for the fitness industry—a tall building. On the first floor, there is a lot of traffic and a number of entry points. But, getting upstairs gets tougher with each flight of stairs. The entry level, as represented by this ground floor, is diverse, but each floor above, as you move through managerial roles, brand education teams and corporate positions, grows less and less so. “When we look at the industry from a broad perspective,” he explains, “it does appear to be diverse. But as we start to narrow the focus, we see that some segments are more diverse than others.”

That said, Akpan has seen progress in her 20-plus years in the industry. “The makeup of the industry today is a lot more diverse than it ever has been,” she says, recalling a fitness conference she attended after first getting certified where she felt “like one of a handful of Black people” out of the thousands of attendees and presenters at the event. “Since that time, I have seen a serious change, not only in the participants, but also among those who are presenting at conferences.”

McLean and Akpan agree that there is still much work to be done. Getting back to the building metaphor, McLean explains, “We need to think about how to increase diversity on the ground floor by increasing the access or by decreasing the barriers of entry.” He continues: “To get to the top floors, we need avenues that allow for that upward mobility, so that we can increase diversity in those more senior-level and upper management–type roles.”

Potential steps identified by the panelists that companies and organizations might take to create those avenues include:

  • Creating task forces of employees and outside experts to evaluate the situation, create a plan and, more importantly, act on that plan
  • Being more intentional in their hiring processes in order to lower the barriers of entry
  • Offering scholarships to cover the costs of certification and continuing education
  • Offering career-development plans and job-placement programs
  • Building mentorship programs
  • Choosing people of color as subject matter experts for events and programs, especially in areas they are traditionally not a part of, including business building, brand development and scientific development

The Value of Representation

The fact that Akpan is seeing increasing numbers of people of color among those presenting at industry events is important, in that it is an example of representation among those who lead in the fitness industry, and who educate others to become future leaders. “As a participant in fitness, a fitness enthusiast, as well as a trainer and instructor,” she explains, “whenever I walk into a room and see [a person of color] presenting to me, I immediately feel that much more empowered to connect with the information, to learn the information.”

As an industry, it’s essential that we start to elevate people of color to have opportunities to take on those roles. As more people of color enter the fitness industry and then move into leadership positions—whether in the board room or in the group fitness room at a convention—the industry will become more welcoming and relevant to more potential customers who may not currently see a place for them in their local gym.

This need carries across all segments of the industry. As Akpan explains, “We need to have more representation in the wellness industries, in yoga, in Pilates. I’ve always felt—and I do not teach those formats, but I practice them—that I am somewhat out of my lane even just being in a studio.” If that is felt by a 20-plus year veteran of the industry, imagine how a newcomer to exercise might feel walking into a facility that is not reflective of them and their experiences.

McLean agrees, saying that representation is valuable from all viewpoints. From the corporate perspective, fitness is a business, and having more diverse viewpoints at decision-making levels often allows a business to thrive. From an employee standpoint, morale is a lot higher, they’re more engaged and they bring unique experiences to the table, and those experiences spark creativity and innovation that might never happen if people of color didn’t have a seat at the table. And from the customer/end user viewpoint, McLean says, “People love to support and interact with businesses that employ people who look just like them. It’s a great way to build customer loyalty and customer support and is also going to positively impact the brand.”

Recognizing Subtle and Blatant Forms of Racism

There’s no doubt that racism and stereotypes of varying degrees have certainly filtered into the fitness industry. During this far-reaching conversation, McLean and Akpan both shared stories that people of color are all too familiar with, and of which others are becoming increasingly aware. They ranged from McLean being called racial slurs on the fitness floor, seeing less experienced people make more money than him and being told “we don’t listen to rap” by a group fitness participant he’d never met before to Akpan being referred to by club members as “that Black instructor” and being asked to show credentials that her white counterparts were never asked to produce. Akpan pointed out with a knowing laugh that if customers can call someone “that Black instructor” and everyone knows who they are referring to, that’s a sure sign that you don’t have enough diversity among your staff.

Among the countless reasons why these stories are so upsetting is the fact that they run counter to those things that lie at the very heart of what health coaches and exercise professional do each and every day—build trust, rapport, relationships, community and connection.

As Akpan points out, exercise professionals always arrive ready to learn. They work with clients with different levels of fitness, goals and injuries and they are open to learning as much as possible about how to help each individual client. The encounters described above represent a tremendous barrier from the first moment of the first meeting, which she believes stems from a lack of trust, without having taken a look at her experience level or what she brings to the table, or even giving it a try. Trust is vital, and she wasn’t even given the chance to begin to develop trust and rapport.

McLean offered a helpful suggestion on how to navigate these awkward situations. Faced with whether to let it go or lash out, he suggests asking questions to prompt reflection on the part of the offender. “People will get defensive if you attack them,” he says. “As a person of color, when that microaggression comes to you, one, you’re in shock. Asking questions helps the person to reframe and question what bias prompted them to behave or speak the way they did.”

 In Conclusion

Despite the stories recounted above, McLean and Akpan remain hopeful, as they both see progress being made throughout the industry.

McLean, who is also a Master Trainer for some of the largest brands in the industry, including Schwinn, BOSU and Stairmaster, says that all brands, in and out of the fitness space, seem to be focusing on how to approach the diversity issue and present themselves in the best light. This is reflected most visibly in marketing campaigns that are growing increasingly diverse and representative.

But, are they making changes in the less visible parts of their businesses? Over the past year, countless companies have made promises via social media and other avenues to be a part of the solution moving forward, to address the issues surrounding social justice, equity and inclusion head on. Now, as Akpan points out, it’s time for them to follow through on something they themselves declared to be important. “I’m waiting for those commitments to come to fruition,” she says.

Dr. Bryant says that this all comes down to two things: intentionality, which involves being mindful and purposeful in taking actions necessary to bring about needed change, and commitment. “Both are required,” he says, “if we are going to see meaningful, consistent progress when you talk about equity diversity and inclusion…. It’s easy to make a statement and to make a donation, however eloquent that statement might be, but it requires some real intention and commitment to truly make a change.”