There’s a sexual undercurrent that threads its way through just about every aspect of the fitness world. Trainers rightfully promote the message that lifting weights is a ticket to empowerment and longevity, but we all know that most people just want to look good in a bathing suit. Then there’s the act itself – the grunting, the sweating; the hormones, the adrenalin. Am I talking about working out or getting lucky?
But of course, exercise is not sex. Gyms are not shooting galleries for lonely pickup artists in training.
Toxic gym culture manifests itself in all sorts of way, though it can be tough to identify unless you’re the target. Bullying and sexual harassment are the most obvious examples, but by no means are they the only ones. Ageism, ableism, sexism, racism, fat-shaming, homophobia – if you train at a standard big-box gym, there’s a good chance this stuff is happening all around you.
I’ve been spending time at gyms for more than 20 years; it wasn’t until I became a personal trainer and gained an insider’s view that I realized how pervasive this sort of bad behaviour is in commercial gyms. Or, it could be that as a young, straight, and confident white man, this sort of thing was happening around me all along, I was just blind to the reality of the situation.
A major part of what I do as a trainer is to build my clients’ confidence so they can take care of business on their own. Mara Nesrallah, a Toronto-based musician and music teacher who recently started working with me in private training sessions, explained how working out solo in a public gym presents a much different vibe than our private sessions.
“I regularly overhear discussions of sexual conquests and opinions on bodies,” she said. “Being in an environment where men are perpetuating the narratives that caused me to have a bad relationship with my body in the first place is disheartening and destructive.”
Boorish behaviour is often rationalized in the moment as being harmless, when the exact opposite is true. As Ms. Nesrallah pointed out in our conversation, in order for gyms to be truly inclusive spaces, members need to be aware of how their words and actions can have an impact on everyone around them.
Ultimately, the onus for creating a safe and inclusive environment falls on a gym’s staff. HR policies can set the tone, but as Geoff Girvitz, founder and head coach at Bang Fitness in Toronto, says engaging members in a positive manner is the key.
“The biggest issue is not about a few bad people but more about a whole lot of decent people being complacent – disapproving but not taking any real action,” said Girvitz. "We treat every single interaction as an opportunity to build the kind of relationships we want to have and to practice being the kind of humans that we want to be. So, even though we have a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behaviour, we’ve rarely had to enforce it.”
Trainers have to take the time to examine their own behaviour and figure out how they can make fitness culture less harmful and more welcoming not only to women, but also to everyone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a jacked-and-tan gym-goer.
My professional code of ethics is simple and shared by many: I never touch a client without first getting their permission; I never flirt with clients; I never date clients (it helps that I’m married, but this would also be my stance if I was single); and I call out lewd or bullying behaviour on the gym floor when I see it.
For those who frequent the gym in a non-professional manner, the rules are simple. According to Sarah Daly, a veteran personal trainer who I’ve worked with the last three years, it’s all about basic courtesy.
“Be respectful. Don’t stare, ogle or leer [at women]. Don’t be afraid to say hi or engage in conversation, but give us space. Share equipment, ask to work in with us or ask if we need to work in you, just don’t tell us what to do or how to work out if we don’t ask. And if we’re sending clear signs that we’re not interested in talking, wish us a good workout and leave us to it.”
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. Follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.