Is the Fitness Industry really for the Black community too?

This piece was written by the wonderful Oli from @wellwitholi on Instagram. She is a qualified Nutritionist and Personal Trainer and works to increase inclusivity and diversity in wellness spaces. Oli puts out incredible content, with references, well thought out arguments and inclusive mindset. I also promised to use my platform to amplify voices that deserve to be amplified 1000x over. Go and give her a follow on Instagram!

 

Spoiler alert: the answer is an unequivocal – yes! However, as social media has helped highlight especially over the last two weeks, a lot of fitness brands, gyms and health magazines have a long way to go in assuring racial equality throughout their companies.
For most White people who are active in the fitness world, racial inequality might not be something that is often considered, if at all. As with many things, unless it directly affects you, it can be easy to overlook the significance.

My earliest memory of fitness outside of compulsory P.E. lessons was when I signed up to my first gym membership in my first year of college. Although I went to a gym with predominantly White people, and this definitely did feel alienating at times, this was a reality that mirrored the area I grew up in just outside of Brighton. At the time, I put my head down and got on with it. However, when I moved to London, a city commonly praised for its diversity, I was surprised to find myself in similar scenarios – particularly when going to ‘boutique’ or ’higher-end’ gyms.

Even outside of the gym, whether I’m scrolling through Instagram, flicking through a women’s health magazine or online shopping for some new gym clothes, there is a perpetuating image that lean, White women with ‘perfectly perked’ glutes constitute what is considered the ‘body ideal’ for fitness. If you fall outside of this, especially if you are Black, this space can start to feel very unwelcoming.

You may be thinking, what does race have to do with fitness? Why is it important?

In this post, I’m going to explain some of the racial inequalities that are interlaced throughout the industry. Beyond just over-priced green juices and 5K run challenges, the fitness industry should be one that aims to improve and support the physical wellbeing of everyone, right? I don’t believe we can continue to move forward with this narrative until we address its racial disparities.

It’s no secret that in recent years, the fitness industry has gone from strength to strength. In 2019 gym memberships in the U.K. grew by 4.7% to 104 million, whilst in the same year, the fitness industry was estimated to be worth £5-billion. With this considered, it continues to surprise me that an industry that is thriving – both economically and through popularity – continues to lack diversity and inclusivity.

 

  1. Accessibility

Undoubtedly, one of the key influences of these inequalities is cost.

On average, a gym membership costs £40. In London, where prices of everything are inflated and ‘boutique’ gym memberships are more common, gym memberships can cost as much as £92, with some over £350 per month.

In the UK, Black people make up 55% of the 2 lowest income quintiles. This is reflective of pay gaps between ethnic groups where Black people who were born in the UK are paid on average 7.7% less than white counterparts who were also born in the UK. Similarly, Black people who were born outside of the UK are paid on average 15.3% less than white counterparts also born outside of the UK. To gain an understanding of the reasoning behind these figures, I recommend doing further research on employment gaps and race inequality. However, with these statistics considered, it can be more difficult for Black people to gain access to a gym, especially those that are higher priced. Notably, the latter are typically fitted with better equipment and sometimes have extra perks (e.g. spa facilities).

Research highlights other barriers that can block Black people from having fair access to gyms, including transport difficulties. When looking at which ethnicities are most likely to live in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods, Black people took the lead at 19.6%, indicating minimal disposable income for this group. If these statistics are readily available on the British government website, could gym branches be doing more in terms of research to ensure they are including more gym facilities in economically deprived areas? Moreover, what’s stopping them from doing so already?

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Figures from Gov.uk 

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was suggesting ways fitness branches could be doing more to accommodate the communities they enter. For example, take an area like Hackney, that through gentrification is considered to be ‘up and coming’. According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG),in 2019 Hackney was reported to be in the top 10 most deprived authorities in the U.K. Harmonious with statistics previously shown, a 2011 census shared approximately 40% of this community is made up of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, with 20% of the BME community being Black. That is, despite gentrification, the community who still lives there reflects income disparities already mentioned. Therefore, it makes no sense why a fitness branch would open a studio in an area such as Hackney, and with all statistics considered, not even try to accommodate to the surrounding community. It continues to push the same narrative that Black people are not welcome in fitness spaces. One idea we shared was the idea of having a ‘community rate’. This would work similarly to a student discount; however, you’d just need to show proof you lived in the area/postcode and you could have your class at a cheaper price.

 

  1. Representation

Pretty much every gym and fitness company has a catchy slogan that pushes the idea they welcome ‘fitness for everyone‘. However, when you consider the actual advertisements these companies show, particularly the ‘boutique’ brands, is it really everyone who is represented? Sometimes Black people are not even included and if they are, it’s often not at the same inclusive ratio as non-Black counterparts. On countless occasions, I’ve seen brands include one ‘token’ Black person in their promotion and pass this off as being ‘inclusive’.

It’s not just advertisements that can lack representation of Black people though. Health magazines and newspaper articles can be just as guilty for pushing the ‘diversity’ narrative, but not actually following through. This includes the lack of diversity on magazine covers. In just one example, following its first launch in the U.K. in 2013, one of the leading women’s health magazines has only included Black women in 4 out of 73 magazine covers thus far. Only… four. There are definitely more than four Black women in the fitness industry, so why the lack of inclusivity?
A figure I think is also important to highlight here is that in 2016 it was reported that 94% of the British journalism industry was made up of White people.

Screenshot 2020-06-15 at 11.25.53

There have been only 4 Black women on the cover of Women’s Health magazine out of 73 issues. For comparison, Kayla Itsines has also been on it 4 times. 

When you look even further, lack of representation of Black people can prevail within gyms as well. This could echo the fact that Black people have the highest unemployment rate out of all ethnic groups in the U.K. at 9% (research employment inequalities & race); or, it could be harmonious with the notion that these spaces aren’t particularly targeted for Black customers, therefore the desire for Black personal trainers isn’t there either. I share the same experience as some of my Black friends that on several occasions I have been the only Black woman to attend a class full of only White women, maybe one or two other POC, but almost always instructed by a White person. Being in this situation can be daunting. I have sometimes felt a certain responsibility to not take up too much space, be quiet and almost set a good enough impression of myself to ensure that other Black women (as we are often seen as a monolith for each other) will still have access to the space. Whilst I’m not saying it’s imperative that I am surrounded by Black staff or members to have an effective workout, the lack of inclusion does give the message that these spaces are not created with ethnic inclusivity in mind.

 

  1. Fitness Influencers

I’m sure we can all agree Social Media is a powerhouse full of influencers telling us the things we should buying, how we should be eating, and the next best workout plan we should be following. Unsurprisingly, the same lack of representation of Black people exists here too.

For YouTube alone, there are no Black people in the Top 10 paid Forbes list and only 2 POC, whilst on the Top 10 Fitness Influencers list also published by Forbes, there is only 1 Black person and 1 other POC. I’m not trying to dismiss the merit and amount of hard work each non-black individual has put into their niche to achieve these top spots; however, I think it’s really important to challenge the statistics and ask, why are they so imbalanced?

I strongly believe the lack of diversity of fitness bloggers who are at the ‘top of their game’ reflects the same reality that fuels the lack of diversity offline. That is, fitness brands recruit who they consider being the most desirable consumer by endorsing fitness bloggers who mirror that image (think, White skin, washboard abs and perfectly toned bum). The fitness industry as a whole has then gone on to make this an almost elitist standard. It fuels the same narrative that if you don’t fit this image, and God forbid you have Black skin too, then you’re unwelcome. Of course, some fitness bloggers do go out of their way to challenge these ideologies by actively promoting more body and skin colour diversity, however, the fact these bloggers even exist further highlights there is a big representation problem within the industry.

In 2019 it was found 62.3% of adults 18+ were either overweight or obese in the UK and of that figure, 73.6% were Black adults – the highest percentage out of all ethnic groups. With these statistics considered, isn’t it the purpose of the health industry to help improve the health of everyone, but especially those who might need it most? So why, when beyond just anecdotes there’s published social research highlighting the fact that some Black people feel too intimidated to start fitness because of lack of representation, they continue to be so underrepresented?

Just this International Women’s Day 2020, one of Europe’s leading sport’s nutrition brands failed to include ANY Black women in their Instagram feed press photos for their event… zero! (N.b. Whether or not any Black women were even invited is still unclear).

 

So, what does this mean?

The momentum we’ve seen in people supporting the Black Lives Matter movement over the past couple of weeks will go down in history books – it’s a given. But we must continue to challenge and keep the same energy as we continue to fight against racial injustices. As much as I wish these two weeks of trending #BlackLivesMatter now means that racism is eradicated, that just isn’t the case. To be quite honest with you, this is only just the beginning.

It makes me angry that because of the colour of their skin, an individual might not feel welcomed to exercise.

If that doesn’t make you just as angry, I’d have to question your integrity in an industry that should be focusing on the wellbeing for all.

The information highlighted throughout this post wasn’t tucked away in a secret archive. This is information that is readily available to the public and I would recommend everyone in the fitness industry to continue to do your own research.

 

To fitness brands: What are you doing to make sure Black people are equally included? Do you have Black people throughout your team that can challenge racial disparities? Are you making sure you actually represent Black people within your brand, and aren’t just including one ‘token’ Black person?

To fitness branches: are your gyms equally dispersed into lower economic areas? Do prices reflect the general economic status of the community you’re in? What could you be doing to make sure Black people feel just as welcome in your gym/studio as non-Black people?

To consumers: Are you also supporting Black fitness bloggers online? (following someone is free, by the way!). Are you challenging your favourite companies who have been silent regarding the Black Lives Matter movement? Are there conversations you could be having with the owners of the gyms/studios you go to?

Every voice matters and can be used to initiate positive change. Don’t let yours go to waste.

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Ways Black people can experience inequality in the Fitness Industry. (UK based) ~~~ I hope this post can help highlight how systematic racial inequities can have a snowball-effect impact that can block Black from getting some of the same opportunities as non-black people. Just today I had a comment under a post where I had questioned why a specific sports nutrition brand hadn’t included ANY Black women in their International Women’s Day event that said “…maybe pick the bigger battle right now” … I literally: 🤦🏽‍♀️. It’s been BEAUTIFUL and encouraging and inspiring to see so many people (finally) listening more to #blacklivesmatter and taking note. However, I feel like I really want to make clear here that racism and racial inequality isn’t just a thing/object that once you’ve ‘beaten’ it it’s gone. It’s woven throughout society and something we’ll need to continue to challenge daily. When you make a cake you need to get each individual ingredient, weigh them out, mix them together, bake the cake, cool it and then ice it. A lot goes into it right? It’s the same with racism – a LOT goes into it, therefore it’s going to take a LOT of work to even begin undoing it. That is why my reply to the comment mentioned above was “challenging lack of diversity in big brands is part of the ‘battle’”. It’s part of the ‘undoing’. The words ‘educate yourself’ have been seen a lot the past week+ and it’s really important that you (and I) continue to do that. Sometimes even I can find myself baffled by ignorance or racist words that I am actually lost for words. That’s why it’s important to build up a catalogue of knowledge that you can articulate well in response to challenge what you see/hear. #themarathoncontinues . 👇🏽Let me know if you have experienced any other inequalities in the fitness industry. I LOVE healthy discussions & HATE racism so leave it out of my comments ☺️ #shareblackstories

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Cutting without counting: my top tips

The argument of macro-counting vs intuitive eating continues. But I’m not sure why it should be an argument – what works for one person may not work for another, either in terms of results or just everyday life. Some people love taking the guesswork out of leaning up, and for them macro counting is ideal. For others like myself, macro counting just doesn’t work.

Without knowing portion sizes, intuitive eating is difficult. A benefit of macro counting is that it is easy to overeat when trying to visually assess how much is right for ‘maintenance’ or ‘cutting’. Intuitive eating may not be suitable for you if you just don’t know what is a good amount to eat – examples might be if you’re recovering from any sort of eating disorder and/or need to re-learn what a ‘normal’ portion size is. Relying on hunger cues doesn’t work if you’ve spent a long time ignoring them.

However, having come from a background of obsessive calorie counting, I HATE counting macros. I have tried it and I understand the appeal, but for my mental health at least (not to mention I’m lazy), it’s not for me. After visiting my nutritionist, Rhiannon, I realised that it’s just not necessary to count to keep healthy and not even necessary if you’d like to lose weight.

My position right now: losing fat through intuitive eating, and it’s going really well. I have no doubt I could lose more fat through macro counting but I’m just not about that life. Last night I had ice cream, and delicious foods keep me sane and on track. I don’t view them as ‘muck ups’ or becoming ‘derailed’, I view them as breaks from what is 80% of the time a nutrient dense, vegetable rich diet.

 

Problems with counting:

1. As mentioned in some depth in one of Rhiannon’s facebook lives, calorie counting is a very rudimentary method of figuring out how much you are eating. The amount of energy you get from your food depends on the food’s composition and how it is broken down by your body, which then also depends on what your body requires at the time of consumption and how you’re built. For example, sugar is immediately available to your body for use (read about simple carbs) and so you will extract all the calories from that. However, a measure of a fibrous food will have plenty of energy in it that is unavailable to our bodies and therefore will not be used.

2. Macro counting reduces the inaccuracies found in calorie counting but still doesn’t address many issues with counting in general. We all know that eggs are better than snickers, but the problem with macro counting is that is doesn’t separate quality and quantity. Zero sugar protein bars with a million ingredients are super easy to fit into your macros for the day, but a handful of nuts or nut butter may not be, despite the fact that ‘real’ food is frequently better than processed substitutes. Macro counting ignores the intricacies and importance of getting enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and counting itself does not encourage this. Low-carb/low-fat/no sugar cookies are not ‘real’ food, and I think macro counting can ignore health at the expense of ‘perfect macros’. This isn’t to say that everyone who counts macros eats like this, but sadly I know plenty of people who do.

3. Macro counting may also encourage you to ignore your natural body signals. Sometimes, these need to be retrained – if, for example, you eat either way too much or way too little, your body can get used to this state of being, and counting can be a good tool to get yourself to a place where you are eating what is normal and right for your body. However, counting the perfect macros can leave your body in a state of near constant hunger, and ignoring this may lead to problems down the line. Years of ignoring my body’s signals have led to a messed up hunger-satiety system. Up until about a month ago, I very rarely felt hungry, but also never really felt full, which stems from my weekly restricting and fortnightly binges some years ago. I would spend the week starving only to eat thousands of calories in one sitting, meaning that now my body is messed up in regards to signals. After years of re-learning how to eat, I am finally rewiring my body, but I can tell you: it is not an easy process once it has gone wrong.

4. Sustainability is also a problem with macro (and calorie) counting. As someone who often eats out, on the move and at friends’ houses, I would find it impossible to accurately count anything, and trying would take a lot of time, effort and stress. In my opinion (and this is just my opinion), for health eating to be a sustainable lifestyle change, it needs to be manageable and fun. I understand that some training athletes or bikini competitors may require very specific macros and calories to achieve their goals, but I ask you: in the long run, how sustainable is it? Are you enjoying yourself? Can you see yourself doing this in 10 years/if you had kids? Would you want your kids to do the same? I understand that for many people macro counting is a temporary tool to a bigger goal, but if it is your only means of eating right and you become fearful of food without that control, then start to run into problems, both physical and mental. In my opinion I have so many better things to use my mental bandwidth on.

 

Realistically only YOU can know whether macro counting is in your best interest and really working for you. If counting macros is working for you, great – but if you don’t like it or you’re not keen to try, then this article is for you!

 

My top tips for cutting without counting:

  1. Know your portion sizes
  2. Ditch the diet
  3. Pay attention
  4. Ignore the scales
  5. Drink up
  6. Increase movement
  7. Track your progress (but not how you’d think)

Know your portion sizes:

You need to know what ‘one portion’ is. Your morning bowl of granola can be upwards of 100g, which, when you consider some of the ingredients, is slightly terrifying. Know your approximate portion sizes for grains, vegetables, meats and fats and you’re less likely to over eat any one food.

 

Ditch the diet:

Find peace with food. Without letting go of that constant ‘must lose weight’ mentality you will never be able to eat intuitively and, ironically, you may end up being at a higher weight than intuitive eating would leave you at. This is because ‘banning’ certain foods (gluten, sugar, dairy etc) leaves you craving or thinking about those foods a lot. Forget about banning foods – you can eat whatever you like. I know a lot of people feel like they would go out of control and eat everything in sight, and maybe you would, at least initially. But after eating whatever you like for a while, you’ll get bored of it – there’s a certain allure of ‘forbidden’ foods, and once that rule has gone, the foods lose their power over you. Whilst dieting, more types of food are appealing to us than when not dieting. Sooner or later, you’ll learn to self-regulate unhealthy and healthy foods. Unhealthy foods make us feel horrible after a while. Trusting our bodies to self regulate by ditching diets is a key step towards being able to lose fat without counting or banning whole food groups. This will prevent those restriction-binge cycles, which are not just harmful physically but are also SO mentally damaging. ‘Failing’ at a diet is damaging enough to our brains, meaning that we have reduced self worth, end up gaining weight in the long run and entering the whole diet, binge, restrict cycle again. Break the cycle – the long-term results are far more rewarding, both mentally and physically.

 

Pay attention:

Put down your technology and concentrate on your food. Enjoy the taste of it and savour every bite by chewing a lot, rather than eating as quickly as possible. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get full when you eat mindfully!

 

Ignore the scales:

‘Losing weight’ is a REALLY unhelpful term. As we all know, muscle weighs more than fat but takes up less space, making us look slimmer. Instead of focussing on how much weight you’re losing everyday, focus on how you feel, and the types of food you eat. There is absolutely no problem in wanting to cut for aesthetic purposes but longer-term results come when weight is not the primary focus. Eating better foods and treating my body like a machine that needs fuelling well encourages me to eat healthier foods.

Sure, diet coke tastes good and has no calories (so would work well in people’s macros) but realistically what good is it doing your body? What nutrients are provided? When my entire focus was on losing weight, I would stop drinking water at night so that I would weigh less the next day: it’s easy to see how counterproductive the scales are. Focus on feeding yourself nutritious, wholesome ingredients when you need them and the results will follow.

 

Drink up:

This is a classic tip, but I always have water before and with a meal – it means that when I eat I know that I’m not actually just thirsty. I drink around 4l of water a day.

 

Increase movement:

To lose fat you have to be in a calorie deficit, but this doesn’t have to just come from eating less. Working out/moving more can make up part of that deficit. When I’m cutting I walk as often as I can – I’ll walk around London and rack up between 12,000 and 20,000 steps a day, which definitely has an impact on fat loss. This sort of low intensity exercise is also the best for fat burning. What matters is not that you fit in 20,000 steps a day, it’s that you do more than you do when you’re not cutting. If walking everywhere isn’t feasible, get in your steps at the gym – I like to put on a film/podcast/episode and watch that if I’m in the gym. For iPhone users you can keep track of your steps in the health app.

 

Track your progress (but not how you’d think):

To track my progress I tried to avoid scales and measurements. I focussed on how I felt on a day-to-day basis, including energy, focus, cravings etc, because to me, these things are just as important as how I look (if not more important). I focussed on filling my body with food that was going to do it good, and found that progress followed soon after. I have lost 2.5kgs slowly, and whilst this is not a large amount, I feel healthier, more energetic, crave unhealthy foods less and am stronger rather than weaker than before my cut.

 

These are points that have helped me this summer, but of course I am always learning! One of my biggest changes has not been in my body, but in my mind. Looking at physical results alone, my biggest ‘success’ was losing huge amounts of weight quickly at the start of my eating disorder. But when you look at health (mental and physical), this last year has been the best of my life. There is no quick fix to health or happiness, but it is easy to make steps everyday to increase your happiness, get stronger and look amazing at the same time!

 

Please let me know if you’ve found this article helpful – I know it’s a long one but it’s an important topic with lots of nooks and crannies! Do you eat intuitively or have you been focussing on macro counting? I’d love to know your thoughts and opinions 🙂

 

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