Dear Fitness Industry

Dear Fitness Industry,

Am I invisible? Every day I see your ads online, on TV, and in the street, but none of them seem to be for me. I can see you, can you see me? I know you are a big industry with lots of opportunities to make money, but I think you are missing out on a huge market — people like me.

To be fair, I work in the fitness business, and I know all the reasons the industry functions like it does. It’s an industry full of truly amazing personal trainers and nutrition professionals who get up every day motivated to change the lives of their clients. It’s also in an industry (like most) where the largest fitness companies are often driven more by profit than by people. They design marketing and sales campaigns based more on what sells than what actually helps people.

And here’s the thing, I get it.

As a business owner, I understand the need for a business to actually make money. The industry is full of good people who are put in the tough position of balancing the need to give clients what they want (what will sell) with the need to give clients what they need (what will get results).

So, let’s start with that understanding. I don’t think you are evil, dear Fitness Industry. In fact, I think your work is vital and important, and mostly being done by incredible humans trying to make a difference in the lives of their clients. However, when I put my aside my knowledge of the industry and experience running a fitness business, my personal relationship with you feels very different.

Personally, I feel like most of you don’t see me or speak to my needs at all. And if I’m being honest, it kinda hurts. As a gay man in late 30’s who was never an athlete (I chose ballet slippers over soccer cleats), I’m not sure where I fit in. Big box gyms just bore me. CrossFit-type-stuff just feels way too hardcore. I’m too old to be enticed by all the trendy shit, but adventurous enough to want more than a series of staid personal training sessions. Sure, I’ve found some places that work for me, but why is it so hard? Why–in such a huge industry–are there so few fitness companies speaking to people like me?

What did I do to deserve to be cast to the sidelines?

Let me tell you a little about what things look like from my perspective.

I see tons of fitness companies that want to help me achieve elite levels of fitness and performance. But what the f*ck do I need that for? I’m not an athlete. I don’t need to jump really high or run a six minute mile. In fact, I kinda hate sports. They remind me of all the jocks who were jerks to me in high school because I was a theater geek. I’m old enough now to have gotten over that shit (mostly), but still, the fitness companies that only talk about sports and performance tell me instantly that I do not belong. That is not my tribe.

I see tons of fitness companies that want to help me get a six pack. Apparently having a six pack is the holy grail of human aesthetics. Who decided that? I honestly don’t give a shit about having washboard abs. I’ve just never wanted to look like that. Thin, yes. But ripped? No. Let’s just say for a second I did want a six pack. I’ve been in this industry enough to know that, for my body type, the kind of lifestyle I’d have to live to obtain and maintain visible abdominal muscles is not appealing to me in the slightest. Whenever I see fitness professionals promising crazy ripped abs it tells me instantly that they don’t understand what’s important to me. That is not my tribe.

I see tons of fitness companies who seem obsessed with wanting to teach me about their unique approach to fitness. They want to explain to me (in excruciating detail) why they do the type of exercises they do or all the science-y minutia about how they designed my particular workout. I hear phrases like High Intensity Interval Training, Muscle Confusion, and Intermittent Fasting. And on one hand, that’s amazing. I want my fitness professionals to be well educated and up-to-date on all the latest tools and techniques. But on the other hand, I’m sorry, I don’t give a crap about learning all of that. Teach me what I need to know to get results and nothing more. If I wanted an education in exercise science or nutrition I’d go back to college or read a few dozen books.

I’m also not interested in the latest bullshit fad or trend. I’m smart enough to know that most of industry agrees on 80% of the exercise strategies that are proven to get results, so save your cleverly branded, focus-grouped, split-tested, fitness strategies for someone else. Give me the meat and potatoes workout please. Ultimately, when a fitness company seems obsessed with cramming fitness and nutrition knowledge down my throat it tells me that they are more interested in educating me than listening to me. That’s not my tribe.

I see tons of fitness companies that appear to care more about getting me laid than getting me results. When I see ads for these places I literally laugh out loud. You know who you are. Your marketing always features barely-clothed fitness models who are ridiculously tanned, glistening, and posed in a way that says “you know you wanna f*ck me, so what are you waiting for?” Now, I like a sex as much as the next person, but why does my gym have to be a thinly veiled hook-up club? Shockingly, I’m not looking for my next one-night-stand at my gym. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at this point in my life I’m just not. In fact, the vibe created by all that cruising and posturing makes me feel like I’m on display — like I’m a slab of beef hanging in some meat market. Again, that environment is probably preferred by lots of folks, but it doesn’t work for me. That’s not my tribe.

So, that’s where I’m at.

I’m like most Americans: overweight, overstressed, and under-inspired by the fitness industry.

Geez, that sounds pretty grim. Sorry, I don’t mean to be a negative Nancy. But that’s what it feels like from my perspective, and I know that I’m not alone.

Here’s the thing, Fitness Industry. I want to help you. I want to help you help people like me. So listen up.

I don’t care about elite performance, but I do care tremendously about living long enough to know my grandchildren. I care deeply about having a solid quality of life and aging gracefully. I want my later years of life to be filled with beautiful memories of close friends and family, and not full of doctors visits, endless bottles of pills, and long hospital stays. I want to take long walks on the beach when I’m 80 holding hands with my husband without being afraid of falling down. I want a tribe who cares about that.

I don’t care about having six pack abs, but I want to feel comfortable in my clothes. When I go shopping for new pants I don’t want to worry if each store will actually carry sizes big enough to fit me. When I sit down I don’t want my belly to hang over my belt and leave a red mark that stares at me in the mirror when I take off my clothes at the end of a day. I want to know that if I happen to be running somewhere without my shirt on people aren’t going to be disgusted by seeing all my fat jiggling. When I fly on a plane, I don’t want to be that big fat guy that takes up too much room. I want a tribe who understands that.

I don’t care about bullshit fads or super science-y fitness jargon, but I do like learning new things. When I’m introduced to a new exercise it feels great when I can learn it quickly and have some success on the first few tries. So, skip the super advanced stuff you just learned last weekend and feel free to never teach me anything that requires more than a three-step learning process. Let me learn by doing rather than talking me through every painful detail of proper biomechanics. I promise I’ll get better at it, just let me get started. I want a tribe who teaches and learns like that.

I don’t care about getting laid and working out with super hot fitness models, but I do value being part of a community. I have a strong desire to feel supported and to feel like I belong. Instead of creating an environment where I’m judged by how I look, create space where I can feel included and celebrated for my efforts. Cheer me on when I show up and nudge me to come back if I don’t. I want a space where I can fail and someone will be there to help me try again, and remind me that failure is a part of this process. I want to be surrounded by fitness professionals who demonstrate empathy and lead by their own example of caring and kindness. I want a tribe who makes me feel like I belong.

So Fitness Industry, is that too much to ask?

I don’t want to sound greedy, but those things feel like reasonable requests. I know I might not get everything I want, and I’ll be okay with that. I know neither of us have all the answers, and I’m also okay with that. I know that you are a big, diverse industry that couldn’t possible change overnight, and I’m okay with that.

But really, all I’m asking is please see me. Please don’t forget about me. I need your help too.

 

Thanks for listening,

Michael

Speaker Images_MichaelB4U Signature (MK)

27 thoughts on “Dear Fitness Industry

  1. Wow! Amazing! Great writing. You have just opened my eyes up to the majority of my clients. Having a background in gymnastics, I would have never not thought about someone not wanting to be an “elite” performer. I am so thankful for this honest& open letter. I think it will help me to dial down my volume knobs; in regards to things I obsessively mention when interacting with clients & people in general. This blog post is going in my brain Rolodex and I thank you! Side note: i read every word you write and look forward to getting these post. So much so that I plan on signing up for the coach in consultant program you guys offer!

    Cheers!

    1. Thanks for much for sharing Alyssa! I’m glad to know my experience resonated with you and could help you in building better relationships with your clients. So excited to work with you on some coaching — let’s do it! 🙂

  2. I have so many FEELINGS and thoughts summed up so perfectly in this post.

    I have always felt that as a curvy (also strong/badass) lady entering a new class, I am met one of two ways:
    1 – “Let’s ignore the chubby girl in the back row who has probably never been in a gym before.” (false)
    2 – “OMG! YOU ARE SO BRAVE TO BE HERE, SWEETHEART!! YOU ARE SO WEAK RIGHT NOW BUT WHAT A **NOBLE** THING YOU ARE DOING BY TRYING TO TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE, FATTY!” (ew, gross, don’t talk to me like that and I’m not weak)

    Basically, I am met with being completely ignored or completely patronized, and that SUCKS. Of COURSE I’m at the gym to try to get better/healthier/hotter/whatever I want…that’s why we’re all there! I wish more gyms would just see the people walking in the door as *people*, ask what *their* goals are instead of making assumptions, and don’t ignore the people who are working their asses off but aren’t “elite” (like you said so beautifully).

    We all have our own Everest, and all of our goals are valid.

    I also can’t stand fitness professionals, organizations, gyms, whatever who don’t take into account that fact that people are HUMAN. That we will all screw up, we will all eat the cupcake, we will ALL drink a full bottle of wine while we watch Netflix, and we will all have days when getting to the gym feels next to impossible. I think a major failing of so much of the fitness world is that it *looks* perfect. When you don’t acknowledge the fact that there will always be slip ups and little mistakes and setbacks, your clients feel like total failures when they happen and they don’t feel like they’re worthy of your time.

    Instead of focusing on the perfection, welcome the vulnerability. Welcome the idea that we will all need help getting to where we’re going. Acknowledge that there will be days that are really, really hard!! But that they won’t *all* be that hard, and that one bad day doesn’t destroy your goals.

    I guess all I’m asking is that the fitness industry challenge itself to ask more questions and actually listen to the answers instead of making assumptions.

    1. Thanks for sharing so beautifully Maggie. It sounds like we share some common experiences. Working on ourselves physically and emotionally can be tough, and it’s really valuable when you can find a group of people who support you without judgement. We can all use more of that 🙂

  3. Thanks for this post, the transparency, and the reminder. I’m coming to the same realization after attending BFU (that’s business for unicorns, not butt f*ck uranus), and observing those around me everyday. The majority of us don’t want to be athletes, we just want to feel good (whatever that is).

    In fairness though, I do believe there is also an issue with perception of the fitness industry. For the most part, an employee of the fitness world has to LOOK like an athlete all the time or they’re just not taken seriously – yes I know that’s not case overall. As a result, it’s hard not to get sucked into pushing that mindset, or to be perceived as pushing it. I’m in the middle of reading “Ignite the Fire” on Coaching (recommended by MF) and it throws that reality at you right in the beginning.

    1. John, thanks so much for posting. I agree 100%. Trainers are held to an understandable, but unfair standard. Often clients pick a trainer because they want look like them. The thinking is something like “that trainer is super ripped, so they can help me get ripped too.” It makes sense that clients feel that way, but we both know there are better criteria for choosing the best personal trainer. This is probably fodder for another post entirely because there is so much to talk about, but in the short… I suggest that trainers work hard to let potential clients really know who they are and why they chose a career in fitness. In addition to a hot trainer, clients also want someone they can TRUST. So work hard sharing your thoughts and ideas with clients so they can learn to TRUST you. Ultimately, they make even start to pick trainers for their BRAINS over their bodies 🙂

  4. The same goes for fashion and beauty industries. Dumb childlike marketing. Lowest common denominator, lets not bother thinking through our customers eyes, just make something pretty and they will be hypnotised , marketing. But like horny pavlovs dogs people follow. I always wonder this about fitness advertising (also junk food):

    Do people follow this sh*t because it speaks to their base immature desires even though it’s unrealistic OR Do they follow this sh*t because it’s the only thing there?? Everyone always says “sex sells” or such like as a post-justification for lazy marketing. But everyone’s doing sexy/cool/airbrushed, it’s everywhere, it sells because it’s there.
    If marketers grew up, would the market grow up?

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I love to here the opinion of potential clients. One of my goals as a fitness professional is to listen to what the client needs. For a long time I would plan a workout and system before even understanding what the individual was looking for. Now I create and collaborate with the client and make a program that fits them. Even if that means sending them to another tribe.

    1. Awesome post James! Thanks for sharing. Your approach shows so clearly how much integrity you have in your work. Keep it up!

  6. This is fantastic. I agree, the fitness industry has gone from the big “we have everything” boxes to the super niche “we count your arm hairs” studios. I think there is a lot of pressure in the industry to go down the super niche path; because you know, “the riches are in the niches”. Great post!

    1. Hey Joe! So glad you brought that up. I didn’t mention that in my letter, but there is absolutely money to be made by listening to and serving individuals who are not currently served by the fitness industry. In fact, I would argue that the (roughly) 80% of Americans without gym memberships are alot like me. They don’t have a gym membership because we’re not speaking to them. We’re not talking about what they care about and we’re not serving them in a way they want to be served. So, while I think it’s fair to treat them like a series of niches, the reality is that they are the majority and the 20% of Americans who are our current clients are the niche 🙂

  7. Thanks Michael for such a refreshing piece of literature. People have a variety goals and your goals can’t be their goals. Building a community where clients are like family and we can all celebrate their different achievements together.

  8. Michael – This article is so beautifully written and has opened my eyes in ways you cannot imagine. I honestly never saw your perspective before until now and I’m frankly…ashamed. To Maggie’s point in her comment above, when I taught fitness, I was definitely that instructor that must have made her feel like this when I didn’t mean to at all…
    This lack of sensitivity has to change. Thank you again for opening my eyes.

    I do think whether you are fit or not, there is definitely still body shaming that we all do to ourselves. I’m thin but I often think I’ve “put on a few pounds”. And I just had a conversation with a woman a few weeks ago (she is also thin and has an eating disorder) who hates herself when she eats anything and asks herself “did I eat too much?” and then when she chooses to skip lunch to “stay thin” she hates herself for starving her body of nutrients.

    Even gyms for thin people are not serving thin people. I’m certainly bored by most gyms too!

    Let’s keep unpacking and thank you for sharing and being so vulnerable.

    You ROCK!!!

    xo
    Radha

    1. Radha, I’m so touched by your comment and I agree that the shame we can all feel about our bodies plays a huge role in our experience of “gym culture.” I’m thrilled that brilliant and compassionate people like you are influencing the fitness industry for the better. There is so much great work we can all do together! xo

  9. We’re out there, Michael! You’re tribe, but we like being outside the box gym! If you’re on Instagram, check out #movnatchallenge to see a whole bunch of differently shaped and differently capable humans doing fun things to be fit.

  10. Michaels letter to the fitness industry really resonates with me. From my perspective as a female coach, working with women, I see the extremes pushed on us on the daily.

    We should all be striving for that perfect ass and six pack that we see on Instagram. (as Michael pointed out, this isn’t our main goal is anyways).

    My clients (including myself) actually want FREEDOM from all these extremes. We want to experience peace with food and not be obsessed about it. We want to be able to still practice self care when life gets hard. We want someone to remind us it’s okay not to be perfect and we want to learn how to release this quest for perfection. We want to stop the all-or-nothing mind games.

    I enjoyed the reminder that I need to keep sharing these teachings and to continue guiding women to find their inner freedom and happiness. In an industry that can be extremely superficial I myself sometimes need the reminder to stay grounded, true to my teachings and that women are craving this tribe I call the Fit Tribe.

  11. I’m also in the fitness business and I couldn’t agree with you more.
    I understand that sex sells, and that the pain of being dissatisfied with your body can be motivating, but at some point I feel like these marketing angles are doing people a disservice.
    For most of us who don’t care about single digit body fat or how much we can bench it makes it difficult to relate.
    Worse it’s lead to an overemphasis on the superficial benefits of fitness.
    Meanwhile we now know that there are measurable psychological and cognitive benefits to exercise. Exercise has even been compared to drugs like Prozac, but I believe that thinking of it as a medicine is the wrong way to look at it.
    Exercise is an essential nutrient for the brain and body–The benefits are only so profound because our modern lives are starved of it.
    So why does the focus remain skin deep when we know that fitness can change lives in far more significant ways?
    It’s our job as industry insiders to help people to understand the power that fitness has to transform them from within. We’ve got to do a better job of making people realize that fitness is more then just a necessary evil for staying thin, and that getting healthy doesn’t have to take the joy out of your life–Getting fit is the key to maximizing it.
    Keep up the struggle!

  12. Inspiring blog and in my opinion, your are 150% correct and right on the money. If you want to make a profound impact with people like you who are in the majority, then hopefully you’ll find our tribe interesting?

    It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, young or old, fit or unfit. When you walk through our door, you’re one of us!

    If we float your boat, make contact and we will find a way to open in your city!

    https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=hitzone%20telford

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