As health and exercise professionals, we have the knowledge and skill to coach and mentor our clients and participants toward better health. As leaders who aim to serve our respective communities, we also have a responsibility to understand how equity, diversity and inclusion impact individuals in health and fitness spaces (online and offline), and then to use that information to make our environments, such as classes, studios and health clubs, welcoming to everyone. This article examines what diversity, equity and inclusion mean for our industry and how you can help level the playing field and create environments that foster a sense of belonging for your clients and participants.
First, a few definitions:
- Equity: The quality of being fair and impartial
- Inclusion: The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or mental disabilities or belonging to other marginalized groups
- Diversity: The practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.
In other words, equity is giving everyone in a given space the same voice and ability to use it, diversity is being invited into a space, and inclusivity is ensuring that everyone in that given space is able to be present and 100% authentic to their truest selves.
Illustration Courtesy of the Interaction Institute for Social Change
Why Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fitness?
When we look at these definitions in the context of the health and fitness industry, it is important to recognize that much of what is done to perpetuate healthier outcomes may not be accessible to all. For example:
- Certain social factors are determinants of health, such as poverty, childhood upbringing, food security, poor health conditions and accessibility.
- Social issues stemming from systemic racism and reduced access have created a burden for many individuals in this country, leading to chronic physical and mental illness at an epigenetic level (i.e., past trauma carried down into subsequent generations).
- Biases that ostracize groups of individuals create feelings of exclusion, especially in the wellness and fitness space. Studies show that 50% of individuals (surveyed within a gym environment, which leaves out anyone who was not in that population) feel intimidated or left out of the overall scope of fitness trends and advertising.
Equity: The quality of being fair and impartial
It differs from equality in that while equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances. The process is ongoing, requiring us to identify and overcome intentional and unintentional barriers arising from bias or systemic policies and structures.
Diversity: Embracing a variety of individuals
To increase diversity as a health and exercise professional, start by looking at the demographics of your immediate circle of influence, and then expand that circle to create a more diversified influence. Doing so increases understanding and enhances empathy as you consider a wider range of viewpoints and life experiences.
Inclusion: Ensuring a sense of belonging
Whether we acknowledge them or not, we all have unconscious internal biases that have been formed by the influence of societal and social “norms,” and it can be really challenging to recognize these biases and overcome them. However, it is possible to create environments that serve to foster a sense of authentic belonging, even as we acknowledge and honor our differences. Bodies of all shapes, sizes and shades should be welcomed into spaces of health and fitness education, and wellness spaces should aim to focus less on performative goals and milestones and instead seek to create unity and community connectedness. Members of these communities can then be empowered to look out for one another and take time to empathize genuinely in return.
Start by Looking Within
The work truly begins with breaking down biases. All of us have subconscious and conscious tendencies and opinions that impact the decisions we make. Biases are simply preferences or opinions we may have about various groups of people who we perceive to be more or like ourselves. It’s up to us as health and exercise professionals to recognize our personal biases and adjust our thinking, as needed, to remain inclusive. Within our industry, weight bias, racial bias and generational bias need to be addressed and reconciled so we can improve the experiences of those seeking belonging. Take time to understand the impact you have as a fitness leader and consider ways to enhance the diversification of your circles of influence. Doing so can help start the process for more diversity as a collective. Diversification leads to mutual understanding, which leads to empathy.
Begin the process of understanding personal biases and opinions, as they can have a profound impact on your interactions with others. Recognizing that we need to start with our own biases and beliefs can be an impactful first step toward a more equitable existence in the health and fitness industry.