Making fitness more welcoming to marginalized groups? One industry group is working to make that happen

Diana J. Smith

It’s hard to think of an area of our lives that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t touched. While it’s exacerbated systemic issues that were already creating immense disparities, it’s also resulted in the kind of social pushback that has been requiring those with greater access and power to come up with tangible ways to create greater equity. One of those glaring systemic issues revolves around health care and access to health resources, like fitness.

“In order to make meaningful change of systemic inequities, we need to ensure everyone has equitable access to health and fitness resources,” Cedric Bryant, chief science officer and president of the American Council on Exercise, said in a released statement.

In response, ACE has created a course for exercise professionals and health coaches — “Taking Action with ACE: Practicing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as an Exercise Professional” — to create a more inclusive fitness industry.

Jess Jackson is a racial equity strategist at TorranceLearning who collaborated with ACE and other experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion, to help create the “Taking Action with ACE” course. Much of her work is centered around designing workshops and training to create more welcoming spaces, understanding socialization, identity and cycles of oppression, and helping others gain perspective on how aspects of their work intersect with creating welcoming environments for everyone. She took some time to talk about the process for helping to create this kind of course and what kind of difference it could make for fitness professionals and those of us who are just trying to get more exercise. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: You’ve recently collaborated with the American Council on Exercise, and other experts, on creating the “Taking Action with ACE” course for certified fitness professionals to help them increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the fitness industry. How did you become involved in this project, and why was it something you chose to take on?

A: We’ve worked with ACE on a previous project, and we were creating a series of videos called CREWS (Cultivating Racial Equity in the Workplace). Through conversation, and what ACE has identified as their learner needs, they’ve done a lot of scoping to understand their fitness professionals and what some of the gaps in skills are. We identified four big areas: understanding the social determinants of health and health disparities that affect health and fitness resources; implicit bias and how to mitigate and reduce that within interaction, so that you can be more inclusive in providing service to diverse people; using person-centered language and their ACE Mover Method (facilitating healthy lifestyle behaviors through exercise professionals or health coaches practicing empathy, trust, communication, and collaboration, which empowers clients in their personalized fitness journey) to help folks navigate those communication skills; understanding empathy and how to demonstrate empathy as a health coach and exercise professional.

Q: How did you initially approach the creation of “Taking Action with ACE: Practicing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as an Exercise Professional”?

A: I think it was a lot of listening on ACE’s end of what fitness professionals needed and what would be right for their needs. Then we designed some of those big, high-level goals of what would be the learning objectives and mapped out the content that way. It was a highly collaborative process, and we worked with fitness professionals to get their stories and used them to design the scenarios within the course. We worked with thought leaders within diversity, equity and inclusion and in public health and academia. We scripted some of the other content and got a lot of reviews from different perspectives — whether it be some of those thought leaders or folks who are actually implementing services for the community around health and resources — and were thinking about how it aligns to all of the professional development that ACE offers. It really was about listening to understand where some of the gaps could be when it comes to addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the fitness industry.

Q: And why do you think diversity, equity and inclusion are being addressed in the fitness industry in this way now?

A: Things are changing, right? Last year, there was a social uprising for making all of our spaces better for all of us, and it was in the forefront of our consciousness. So, I think that there is an ethical imperative to respond, and I think there is a lot of pressure on the industry to take the step forward and create and do better. I also think that things are changing. Personally, I don’t like comparing what I believe to be an ethical imperative to the bottom line, but I do think that it is also about providing quality service and making sure that we’re making fitness accessible. We saw through the COVID-19 pandemic how disparities in health really affected some communities more disproportionately over other communities. So, the reason why I think there’s a lot of pressure to make sure that there’s access to health resources is because we saw how vividly inaccessibility to resources affected our communities through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: I’m curious about what some of the early feedback was that may have led you to make adjustments to the final version of the course.

A: I think, a lot of times when we’re presented with a problem, it’s human nature to want to resolve the issue right away, and what we’re dealing with is a very nuanced, convoluted issue that has existed since the founding and colonization of this land. So, when folks are looking for rapid solutions to address some historical wrongs over time, really taking a step back to think about how to build an understanding is important. Knowing that everybody is at different levels of their understanding of the issue, knowing that there are systems of socialization that create blind spots and bias that prevents people from understanding where we are contextually, how do you design a learning experience that’s going to effectively support the development of all of those perspectives? So, a lot of the feedback was around how we are making sure this content is honest and really centered on the experiences of communities that have been underserved by health resources, so that we are actually creating equitable opportunities.

Also, how are we making it digestible in a way that, if I’ve never even taken a look at this issue, that I feel I can engage, learn and make some actual change? A lot of those initial feedback loops were all around making the content accessible and digestible, relevant and timely for the learner. It was really about the learner experience because, ultimately, the goal is to help health and fitness professionals grapple with some of these really difficult, nuanced perspectives.

Q: Can you share any examples of scenarios, language and care that have not been inclusive in the fitness industry? And examples of diversity, equity and inclusion that can correct those previous examples?

A: One of the stories that we shared in the course is pigeon-holing fitness instructors to modalities that are stereotypical. Someone comes into the industry and can teach different methods or coach different ways, and they’re put into a stereotypical course.

Another is microaggressions from clients, across the board, both from peer-to-peer and also coach-to-peer. One of the Black fitness instructors started teaching a spin class, and on their first day when they entered the class, one of the clients told them immediately that “we don’t listen to rap music in this class.” There was an assumption there that this person would come in and change the dynamic of the class. At the same time, this instructor had to continue to provide quality customer service to the client, even though they had just experienced a microaggression. That’s something to consider when you’re providing service to customers, to clients: How do we bite our tongues and manage emotions? What impact does that have on our instructors of color, and how does that affect retention?

Some instructors have experienced and navigate it from clients, so much so that some clients won’t work with instructors who are not reflective of their race. That affects access. Other issues are how coaches are engaging with clients who have vastly different lived experiences and challenging assumptions that they might have. Some of the things we’ve talked about when it comes to social determinants of health are access to transportation, working hours and aligning working hours to time in the gym, access to food when folks might live in a food desert, nutrition and getting access to nutritious food, thinking about health care access and communities that are disproportionately underrepresented in access to insurance and health care. If they’re not able to have access to health care, how much are they going to prioritize fitness? So, there were lots of considerations around disparities around interpersonal communication and mitigating bias, microaggressions, and stereotypes that come out in those interpersonal relationships.

Q: What kind of difference do you think it will make to clients in the industry to work with professionals who complete and apply the lessons from this course?

A: Diverse clients who are coming into the fitness industry seeking service will receive service from professionals who have been trained on demonstrating empathy, even if they have a different lived experience. They will have a trained professional who understands social determinants of health and health disparities. We have an action plan at the end to help them think about how they can leverage resources and have ways to address some of those disparities. They’re going to be more considerate of some issues that clients might be experiencing, so clients can talk about those issues and now have a professional who has an awareness of them, identify resources to support that can demonstrate empathy while they’re sharing, and then can mitigate bias and better communicate around the needs of the client.

Q: And what kind of difference do you think this can make for fitness professionals and the industry as a whole? And why does this matter?

A: One of the key differences that I think this course offers is that it builds on a foundation around the social and systemic issues that are at play in interpersonal concerns. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, we all have bias.” It’s another thing to say, “Hey, we all have bias because we’ve been socialized to think about our lived experience in these ways, and these certain lived experiences have been centered. And some lived experiences now experience disadvantage because of that socialization and because of that social structure.”

A lot of times, structural oppression — racism, sexism, patriarchy — these things have been embedded in our country’s founding. This is part of our nation, it’s a part of our inception, and everything has grown out of that. So, if we have a garden box that’s built in a way to support that, and we’re trying to weed our garden, manage crops in that garden, and the only thing we’re doing is trimming the leaves, the roots are still there. That root is structural oppression. This matters because we won’t ever be able to have the garden that we envision because the weeds are going to keep coming back until we pull them out by the root. So, if we really want to create the systemic change that we’re aspiring to do, we have to understand the structural issues, or the root causes. That is really where we should be spending time and getting folks comfortable acknowledging. For folks who have not recognized these structural issues, it can be really triggering. For folks who live them, it can be a really triggering conversation. Until we recognize them, we’re not going to be able to really get our garden the way that we want it to be.

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