The Power of Inclusive Language in Fitness

Conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) have become more commonplace in just about every industry over the past few years — including in the fitness world.

And to be honest, the fitness industry is particularly prone to exclusivity rather than inclusivity. From before-and-after pictures suggesting that weight loss should be everyone’s ultimate goal to doing “curls for the girls” or “girl push-ups” during a group strength training class, the imagery and language of fitness could use some improvement.

Inclusivity isn’t just about avoiding offending someone — though that’s certainly important too. The unfortunate truth is that health disparities exist not only across racial and ethnic lines but also across lines of gender, sexual identity, age, disability, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.

person boxing at gym

Why using inclusive language in fitness is so important

The goal of EDI-focused work in the fitness industry should be to create welcoming and empowering environments that allow every individual to reap the benefits of an active lifestyle. The idea shouldn’t be to “avoid offending” but to make everyone feel at home, supported, seen, respected, and heard.

One key step to creating that type of environment is to improve your cultural competence, which is the ability to understand and interact effectively with people from other backgrounds.

For example, if you assume that a heavy person is lazy or unmotivated, then that assumption — which lacks an understanding of that person’s history with physical activity and nutrition, cultural norms toward movement and food, and their access to things like healthcare, safe places to exercise, and nutritious food — will taint your interactions with that person.

There are a few other common ways in which a lack of cultural competence will reveal itself in a fitness space:

  • Assuming that a person who has a larger body lacks personal discipline
  • Assuming more fit people have more skill or experience with a particular type of exercise than those who are less fit
  • Assuming that certain activities, machines, or training approaches are more appropriate for either men or women
  • Assuming that people of certain races or ethnicities are more athletic or fit than others
  • Assuming that being older correlates to frailty and a lack of ability
  • Assuming fitness level is directly linked to motivation
  • Assuming a person’s diet is based solely on willpower

So open your mind and actively learn about other cultures and how the traditions and values of those cultures — whether ethnic, religious, or otherwise — might impact participation in physical activity.

Think about your own relationship with health and fitness. Altering your perspective might help you better understand and appreciate someone who might have a very different history in this area.

And try not to worry about offending or upsetting someone when you ask honest and open questions to learn more and better yourself. Most people will appreciate your efforts.

How to use more inclusive language in fitness

Finally, here are some tips for making your language more inclusive:

  • Instead of “hey guys” or “hey ladies,” say “hey everyone” or “hi friends.”
  • Instead of “I’m getting bikini ready,” say “I’m preparing to be more active this summer.”
  • Instead of “I need to burn off those weekend drinks,” say “I’m excited to start the week with some physical activity.”
  • Instead of using trite and outdated sayings like “I’m doing curls for the girls,” say “I feel so strong when doing biceps curls.”

The bottom line: While cultural competence is complex and requires an ongoing commitment to self-improvement, making some simple and immediate changes in how you communicate with others will go a long way toward making everyone feel more comfortable, welcome, and empowered as they seek to reap the countless benefits of physical activity.

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About Cedric X Bryant, Ph.D., FACSM

As president and chief science officer, Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., FACSM, represents ACE as a national and international speaker, writer and expert source. He oversees ACE's development of strategies to deliver exercise-science and behavior-change education in ways that are engaging and compelling, recruiting more people to become exercise professionals and health coaches and equipping them for growth in their respective fields. He also leads ACE's efforts to support the appropriate integration of science-based programs and interventions into healthcare and public health. Dr. Bryant has written more than 300 articles or columns for fitness trade magazines, academic journals, and national media outlets, and authored, co-authored or edited more than 35 books. He can often be found as an authoritative resource for health and fitness articles in a variety of respected publications including USA Today, Washington Post, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Shape, Consumer Reports, Fox News, CNN Headline News and more. Dr. Bryant serves on a variety of committees and boards including the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity, National Board of Health and Wellness Coaching’s council of advisors, National Association of Physical Literacy’s advisory board and BOKS Kids’ advisory board. He earned both his doctorate in physiology and master's degree in exercise science from Pennsylvania State University, where he received the Penn State Alumni Fellow Award, the school's highest alumni honor that is given to select alumni who are considered leaders in their professional fields.