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Why Making Your Gym More Inclusive Is Good for Business

Broadening your club’s reach and including people of all ages and abilities in your programming benefits both your club and your community.

Updated September 22, 2020

As an industry, we want people to encourage each other to be more active. Not just people who are already healthy, but all people—the young, old, healthy, chronically ill, and those with and without disabilities.

"Inclusivity is everything," says Tiphany Adams of Freemotion and a wheelchair user. "We can do everything that anyone else does. We just do it slightly differently."

Did you know that 25% of the world's population is affected by a disability, either directly or indirectly?

Right now, 1.5 billion people live with a disability, 61 million live in the U.S. alone, and 13.9 million in the U.K. People with disabilities want to exercise in your club, but—like everyone else—they face barriers to exercising that can include:

  • time,
  • cost,
  • transportation,
  • feeling nervous or unwelcome,
  • lack of social support, or
  • low self-efficacy for exercise.

Creating a culture of inclusion in the fitness industry is the right thing to do—from a business and a moral perspective—says IHRSA's senior manager of health promotion & health policy, Alex Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN.

"Prior to COVID-19, people with disabilities were more likely to be insufficiently active compared to peers without disabilities," says Larcom. "Since stay-at-home orders were broadly implemented in the spring, physical activity levels have declined dramatically.”

At the same time, social isolation, depression, and anxiety have increased. A CDC survey of 5,412 U.S. adults found that almost 41% of participants reported struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic. Measures put in place to contain the pandemic—like stay-at-home orders—were among the reasons cited.

Many clubs can resume operations, but is there a demand for physical activity and health, as well as social interaction and support—even at an appropriate distance? Larcom says there is, and that fitness centers can safely meet these demands.

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How Can We Make an Inclusive Fitness Industry?

Larcom says an inclusive fitness industry is one in which the majority of fitness facilities actively welcome and include people of all abilities.

“Those who make their services and facilities more welcoming and inclusive to all people are providing an important service to a large market that has been previously underserved," says Larcom.

To make the gyms more inclusive, Larcom says there are two concepts we all need to familiarize ourselves with:

  1. Mainstream diversity, and
  2. Universal inclusion.

To mainstream diversity, we can’t just create separate areas or programming. For example, if you offer programming designed to help people who are wheelchair users be more active, that is awesome, and we want to know about it. However, mainstreaming diversity means those members also feel empowered to use your club outside of those classes.

As for universal inclusion, Larcom says this is crucial to the success of making a more inclusive fitness industry. She says, “Achieving universal inclusion means the greatest amount of people will be able to access health clubs without needing extra accommodations.”

For example, can a person with vision impairment or neurological issues walk into your club and use it without needing to ask if your facility can accommodate them?

“As we continue to grapple with COVID-19, we may start to see a demand for fitness among people across a wide spectrum of age and ability level. People who are deconditioned but motivated to improve their health to better fight COVID-19, people who are recovering from COVID-19 dealing with cardiovascular or respiratory issues, and people with chronic health conditions or disabilities who want to maintain or improve their health through exercise,” says Larcom. “Be it in person or virtually, it is essential that clubs are prepared to serve these customers when they come through your doors.”

Larcom says the industry is moving in the right direction, but also that there is still work to do. From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, policymakers widely viewed fitness centers as non-essential while planning business closures and reopenings, despite the physical and mental health benefits of exercise. What helped the few exceptions stay open was being known in their communities for serving people who medically require exercise.

Clubs alone cannot address every barrier that a person living with a chronic health condition or disability may face in using a fitness facility, but she believes they do have the power to create an industry that is inclusive and welcoming.

Why Making Your Gym More Inclusive Is Good for Business

A National Business and Disability Council survey shows that disability inclusion is a priority for consumers. In fact, in a recent UNESCO chair study of health clubs that were inclusive to people with disabilities, 72% of fitness managers reported increased customer loyalty, and 51% saw their revenues increase.

Health clubs that make sure people with disabilities feel welcome and included also provide a valuable service. They help that group see the many mental and physical health benefits of exercise in a way that works for them.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 25.6% of people with disabilities are inactive. If you then consider, as mentioned above, that 61 million people in the U.S. live with a disability, then that's over 15.6 million people that U.S. health clubs could potentially reach. Since COVID-19 has increased the demand for virtual exercise options, clubs have even greater opportunities to meet people where they are—both in the gym and at home.

In partnership with UNESCO Chair in Inclusive Physical Education, Sport, Fitness and Recreation, UFIT, and the IHRSA Foundation, Larcom has put together a free resource to help gyms around the world start implementing inclusive practices.

The industry is ready to move toward more universal inclusion, but a few knowledge gaps remain. This e-book is the starting point for closing those knowledge gaps and creating a culture of inclusivity in your club.

"It is easy for businesses to overestimate what they have to do to be inclusive," says Larcom. "They assume to be truly inclusive, they have to buy all new equipment or renovate their entire facility, but that isn't true.”

She also points out that many of the new protocols implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the club may also make it easier for people with disabilities to fully use the facility. For example, wider spaces between machines to facilitate social distancing also make the area easier for a wheelchair user or someone on crutches to navigate.

However, she also sees many businesses that think they are already inclusive because they comply with all federal regulations on disability access.

"Likely, many clubs feel that of course they are inclusive," says Larcom. "Because to them, everyone is welcome at their club." However, she says few may realize the subconscious barriers that could be in place, preventing people with disabilities from feeling completely welcomed or included.

This e-book was designed to help make the concept of inclusivity less opaque, and feel more doable in the short term.

What Your Club Can Do to Start Being More Inclusive Today

Making your club inclusive isn't a matter of making one or two simple changes. Instead, Larcom says it reflects a long-term culture change involving all levels of staff.

That being said, there are things your club can start doing today to show your commitment to a more inclusive fitness sector by ensuring the spaces, equipment, programs, and classes you offer cater to a wide range of people.

You can convey to those with limitations that they're welcome in your community with only a few thoughtful changes. Merely moving machines to make walkways wider or including instructions for equipment in braille can make all the difference.

As clubs consider maintaining virtual classes and programming for the long term, consider offering programming specifically for people with mobility limitations, or who may be at a lower fitness level. As many people emerge from stay-at-home orders, even those keeping up with Zoom classes at home may not be where they were back in March.

Also, consider how to make your videos as inclusive as possible. Do you provide clear verbal cues, so the videos are accessible to people with vision impairments, or closed captioning and clear demos for the hearing impaired?

Using clear language and demonstrations can also increase accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities, those who are new to fitness, or those who may be more comfortable speaking a different language.

Use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) checklist and audit guide to help your business:

  • identify barriers,
  • develop solutions for removing these barriers, and
  • set priorities for implementing improvements.

For clubs outside the U.S., the ADA checklist can still be a helpful resource.

Another thing you can do is make sure your marketing materials include images that reflect all types of people. Your club may say it is welcoming to all—and mean it—only to be betrayed by your marketing materials.

Using photographs of people of different races, weights, body types, and skills can make more people feel welcome. Make it clear that physical activity is both beneficial—and accessible—for everyone.

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A 2017 survey by the National Business and Disability Council found that 66% of consumers will purchase goods and services from businesses that feature persons with disabilities in their advertising. That number jumped to 78% if that business takes steps to ensure easy access for individuals with disabilities at their physical locations.

For more ideas on how your club can start to be more inclusive in your space, marketing, and values, download the Creating an Inclusive Fitness Club and Sector e-book.

Larcom says she wanted to create this e-book to provide a deeper dive into how to make fitness facilities more inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities so that no one ever approaches a health club and thinks it isn't the right place for them.

Accessible Versus Inclusive

Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, health clubs have had guidance—both from regulations and IHRSA—on how to make their clubs more accessible. Although, like many other industries, the fitness industry has had few resources to help them make their facilities more welcoming and inclusive.

Which Larcom argues is different from making them accessible. "Accessibility refers to whether or not a person can physically get to a location or utilize a service," she says. "Inclusivity refers more to whether that person feels welcome, comfortable, and at home in that location or using that service."

The fitness industry—your health club—has a renewed opportunity to create a dramatic culture change and improve the lives of billions of people, and this can be achieved one step at a time.

Together, we can make sure no one is ever told or made to feel like they aren't able or welcome to work out in a health club. Let's not drop the metaphoric kettlebell on this one.

Take the First Step in Making Your Club and the Fitness Industry More Inclusive—Sign the Get Active for All Pledge

In 2020, IHRSA launched the Get Active for All Pledge to inspire the industry to empower and support adults and children of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to be more active.

When you sign the Get Active for All Pledge, you commit to the global goal of an inclusive fitness industry. You also pledge to join your colleagues to innovate and adapt practices to further the participation of people of all abilities in fitness and sport.

After signing the pledge, we’ll send you introductory resources to help accomplish the goals outlined in the pledge, including the Creating an Inclusive Fitness Club and Sector e-book.

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Author avatar

Kaitlynn Anderson Fernandez @IHRSA_Advocate

Kaitlynn Anderson Fernandez is IHRSA's Advocacy Content Manager. She uses her experience as a multimedia journalist to tell the story of IHRSA's advocacy and public policy efforts. Kaitlynn spends her free time watching sci-fi movies, boxing, or working towards her goal of being able to do five pull-ups (a skill that would come in handy in the event of a sci-fi-like apocalypse).