Growing up, Sayeeda Chowdhury, 24, never thought of herself as an athlete. She developed an aversion to the gym young, when classmates stared at the “Muslim girl modifications” to her P.E. uniform. “I hoped I could find the courage to go to the cardio room one day, but never imagined going into the weight room filled with testosterone and people staring,” says Chowdhury.
But that didn’t stop her from admiring strong female athletes. One day, watching a powerlifting video posted by a woman in her medical school class, she couldn’t help herself: “Goals,” she commented.
To her surprise, the woman invited her to come to the gym to learn to lift. With encouragement, Chowdhury kept coming back, gaining confidence on top of strength. “I stopped caring about who was watching me,” she says. She was hooked, and today she’s a powerlifter in her own right.
The Physical Activity Gap
Chowdhury definitely isn’t the only woman to feel a sense of gym intimidation—if you’ve ever set foot in a bro-y weight room and suddenly felt like everyone was judging you, you know the feeling. But it’s not just a matter of making women self-conscious: Researchers argue experiences like this contribute to a gender gap in physical activity levels that harms women’s health.
Globally, women are less likely than men to get enough exercise: 57 percent of men ages 18 and over meet recommended aerobic activity levels, versus 49 percent of women, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. When it comes to the number of people who meet guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, the gap widens. (Further marginalized groups have it even worse—in a recent study, young black women were the least likely group to report any physical activity, and given the discriminatory policies trans and nonbinary people face in sport and gym environments, experts suspect their exercise participation rates are even lower.)
In my six years as a personal trainer, I’ve seen this firsthand. It’s more than a personal frustration—it’s a serious health equity issue. Research tells us that regular exercise is one of the most powerful things a person can do to reduce their risk of developing chronic disease: It lowers the risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and numerous types of cancer. Exercise is also beneficial for mental health, and helps to build and maintain bone density, a concern especially relevant for women who are at greater risk for osteoporosis.
Just like the wage gap, the gender gap at the gym robs women of a better future.
Gender Lines in the Gym
So what’s responsible for the gym gap? The answer is complex, but a major factor is that active spaces are plagued by gender-specific deterrents that encourage women to stay on the sidelines.
For starters, women are more likely than men to experience weight stigma, which can discourage women from going to the gym (and even the doctor’s office). Then there’s the issue of harassment—as in most public spaces, women’s experiences in gyms and on hiking trails and running routes are often marred by harassment. While running in a busy park in Salt Lake City, Shauna North, 26, was followed by a man in his car. He would park, watch her run past, drive up ahead, and park to watch her run by again. Later during that same run, she was whistled at by two more men, separately, as they drove by. Over 40 percent of women experience harassment while running, according to a 2017 Runner’s World poll. North was so shaken by her experience she gave up on the idea of running a half-marathon, afraid of what might happen on training runs after work. “If the same thing were to happen to me at night with no people around, I don’t know what the outcome would have been,” she says.
One of the most discouraging factors keeping women from working out might be hiding in plain sight: the actual design of most gyms, and the social attitudes they reinforce. “If you close your eyes and think of the gym, the imagery that often comes to mind is vividly gendered,” says Stephanie Coen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Picture weight racks dominated by sweaty dudes while women are corralled near the cardio machines and stretching areas. “I have often been the only woman working out in rooms of 15 to 20 men,” says Chrissy King, a 33-year-old powerlifting coach in Milwakee, “and the conversations in those rooms can be very uncomfortable, involving a lot of misogynistic, homophobic language.”
Coen and her colleagues found that these stark gender lines function as invisible but very real social boundaries, which keep women from heading to the weight racks—a tragedy by trainer standards. Resistance exercise (a.k.a. pumping iron) is uniquely effective in helping to build and maintain bone density, reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes (more than cardio alone) and helps reduce the risk of falls as we age.
Crossing these gender lines isn’t easy—participants in Coen’s study voiced that unspoken feeling that entering the wrong zone would be a no-no. “Some women felt less legitimate in this space and didn’t want to get in the way of other users who they perceived to have more expertise,” Coen says. “It was striking how many women talked about shrinking or minimizing their consumption of time and space in the gym.”
As a female trainer who isn’t a stranger to the weight rack, I get it. Throughout my career men have made me—and my mostly female clientele—feel that we don’t belong in the gym. Sometimes this happens in subtle ways, like when they encroach on our space. Other times, it’s more overt, like the time a male trainer walked over to where I was working with my client, took one of the dumbbells we were using, and walked away. Once, I was teaching a female client to bench press and noticed a male trainer and his male client watching us from across the room. When we were done, the trainer said, “You girls are so cute. Which one of you is the trainer?”
This doesn’t happen in every gym of course—plenty of gyms and boutique fitness studios are ruled by female clientele. But even female-dominated spaces can promote some discouraging messages about working out. I once joined a women’s gym and was disappointed to find that the intake form included questions asking new members to state how much weight they wanted to lose and what parts of their bodies they wanted to change. They didn’t have a single weight heavier than 20 pounds.
Building a Better Gym Experience
Things are changing. Weightlifting is having a big moment—thanks in large part to the popularity of CrossFit and other workouts like it—and women are participating in greater numbers than ever before. A record 47 percent of USA Weightlifting members are now women. USA Powerlifting Women’s Committee reports similar gains: There were 6,525 competitive female powerlifters in 2017, up from only 928 in 2011.
Seeing someone else bridge the gym gap was instrumental for many of the women I spoke with. When King first started exercising consistently, weightlifting wasn’t on her agenda. “I told my trainer that the only reason I was joining the gym was to get skinny. She suggested strength training and I was like, What?” King says. But working with that trainer, and seeing other women lift heavy weights, gave her the confidence to try. “It really changed my relationship with my body,” she says. “My narrative had always been that I was a weakling. But I learned that strength is a skill like any other. Powerlifting made me feel strong and comfortable taking up space—I gained confidence.”
As part of her study, Coen asked participants about what they thought gyms could do to break down gender-based barriers. “A few of my participants actually recommended playing around with the layout of gyms,” she says. “For example, there can be these stereotypical situations where the weight room is sort of a cave, or the squat racks are in a dark, dank corner—that can be uninviting for a lot of people.” Making the weight room more visible could help make spotting a woman pumping iron feel like less of an anomaly.
Two years later Chowdhury tries to pay her friend’s support forward, helping other women muscle through gym intimidation. “Between my sets, if I see a female lifter or someone who looks nervous as I once did, I smile to make them feel comfortable,” she says. “The gym is for us all and no one should feel they don’t belong or aren’t good enough to be there.”