Updated: May 7, 2019
Have you ever taken a look at the demographics in the gym? Why do women flock to group fitness while most men stick to the weight room?
Group fitness has come a long way from the days of jazzercise and dance aerobics. Gym schedules are packed with everything from cycle to bootcamp; yet the ratio of women to men still seems to be about 8 to 1.
"That's for women. You know what they say - 'fight like a girl'... I'm not going to work out like a girl unless I'm trying to slim down."
I’m at the gym getting ready to teach my Wednesday strength class. Because the weights in the group fitness room only go up to 15 lbs. I usually try to grab some dumbbells or plates off the main floor for participants who need to go heavier. As I am coming back into the GX room, weights in arms, I encounter a man and woman chatting in front of the door. I say hello and ask “are you guys coming to class?” – I just wanted to introduce myself and welcome them if they were new participants. But that’s not what went down...
Me: (as I am putting weights down so I can open the door) Hi. Are you guys coming to class?
Him: (chuckles) Uh, no, no... I don’t take those classes. I don’t do all that jumping around.
Me: Oh, this isn’t a cardio only class. It's strength based – we mostly lift. You are welcome to come check it out.
Him: (chuckles some more) Oh no no... That’s for women. You know what they say ‘fight like a girl’... I’m not going to work out like a girl unless I'm trying to slim down.
Me: (trying to still smile politely) You actually can build muscle in this particular type of class.
Him: No, no. Unless your name is Ronda Rousey or Laila Ali, I’m not taking your class.
Ahahaha! #Rude I was so fired up! I couldn’t believe this guy! The nerve! Fight like a girl? I wanted to throw a dumbbell at him! Instead, I put the remaining weights down, extended my hand, and said “I am not Ronda Rousey. I am Angelica Barquero. But you are welcome to join us if you ever change your mind”. Then I walked into class, trying to contain myself.
I was over it by the end of the warm up but I never forgot this guy and his misconception of group fitness. Statistics indicate that the genders of gym members are roughly 50/50. However, in my experience, the men are rarely represented in class. I usually have 1-2 men for every 10 women. Why? Why are (more) men not taking group exercise classes?
First, The History
Made For Women, By Women
"Jacki Sorensen, a dancer and U.S. Air Force wife, was asked to develop a fitness television program for other Air Force wives at a base in Puerto Rico. Sorenson combined dance and aerobic exercise by choreographing a set of vigorous dances to upbeat music – Dance Aerobics. "
When you hear the word “aerobics” what do you picture? Colorful leg warmers. Steps. Spandex. Dancing. Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta doing pelvic thrusts...
If not, you are probably part of the younger demographic. But the older folks, such as myself, know all about the leotards and leg warmers. It is, after-all, how it all started.
Group fitness began in 1968 when Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H. introduced aerobic exercise for maintaining and improving health. Around the same time, Jacki Sorensen, a dancer and U.S. Air Force wife, was asked to develop a fitness television program for other Air Force wives at a base in Puerto Rico. Sorenson combined dance and aerobic exercise by choreographing a set of vigorous dances to upbeat music – Dance Aerobics. She later introduced the first Aerobic Dance class at a New Jersey YMCA.
In 1969, Judi Sheppard Missett created Jazzercise as a student at Northwestern University. She had been teaching dance when she realized that many students were attending for exercise rather than dance technique. In an effort to improve class attendance she began holding classes with a bigger emphasis on fun and fitness. Jazzercise was born!
In the 1980s fitness associations such as AFAA and IDEA were developed to create an industry standard by certifying aerobics instructors. By the 1990s aerobics classes had begun to evolve into the group fitness classes of today. Classes such as boot camps, strength, cycling, Pilates and yoga were developed as a means to get a workout in a small space and focus on fitness components beyond cardiorespiratory health.
Exercise Behavior & Motivation
Men & Women ARE Different
There is a limited amount of research available on why group exercise participants (still) tend to be females. But that’s okay because I think we can come to some conclusions by looking at the differences in our exercise behaviors.
In researching the gender differences in exercise behavior and motivation, findings were fairly consistent. I found very similar conclusions in multiple studies (see references).
Women exercise for weight loss and toning more than men.
Men are motivated as much by weight gain as weight loss.
Male exercisers are more likely to report that they exercise for social and competitive reasons.
Female exercisers are more likely to report that they exercise for appearance reasons.
The part that is very interesting to me is that self-esteem was found to be lower in females that showed dissatisfaction with their bodies, while males dissatisfaction does not affect self-esteem. This suggests that societal forces equate worthiness to physical appearance for women, but not for men.
A study on gender differences in eating attitude, self-esteem and reasons for exercise indicated that a difference in how we exercise (and diet) may be a result of the different male and female ideals. Men work to achieve a V-shape, focusing more on biceps, chest, and shoulders; whereas women generally seek to be thin, with an emphasis on slim hips and thighs. The same study stated that women are more likely than men to describe themselves as fat, to weigh themselves often, and to diet frequently.
I went deeper in my research but the bottom line is, in general, men and women have different goals, motivation, body-image perception, and ideals. My encounter with gym guy got me fired up because no women wants to be talked to in a condescending way. While his delivery may have been rude, his point was not wrong – yes, we are different. The thing gym guy doesn’t understand is that we can work on different goals side by side. Most of today’s classes focus on a wide variety of fitness components – strength, cardiorespiratory health, agility, flexibility and so on... I know a husband and wife that take high-intensity group fitness classes together. Different bodies, different goals, same class.
"Coen discovered that both men and women felt a need to conform to stereotyped activities and therefore would 'stay in the confines of what was perceived to be normal for their gender'. "
We know group exercise was started for women, by women; BUT now has evolved.
We understand that men and women have different body ideals; BUT both ideals are accommodated in today’s classes.
So, why are men still on the main floor while the women are in the GX room?
I believe Stephanie E. Coen sheds much light on this topic in the study “’It’s gym, like g-y-m not J-i-m’: Exploring the role of place in the gendering of physical activity”. Coen discovered that both men and women felt a need to conform to stereotyped activities and therefore would “stay in the confines of what was perceived to be normal for their gender”. Male participants avoided using equipment that was thought of as feminine, despite an interest in it. Women’s concern was with taking up space or getting in someone else’s way. We seem to be sticking to the status quo without even knowing it. For more on Coen’s study visit https://phys.org/news/2017-12-explores-gender-gym.html
I believe it is just a matter of time before the female to male ratios in the gym change. Change is often a slow process, but it is well on its way. If we look back over the span of 50 years – the time that it took for dance aerobics to become group fitness – we can see that more and more men have become involved in both taking and teaching group fitness. I asked Mr. Barquero why he thinks some men are willing to try my classes while others continue to refuse. Why do I get more guys at one facility versus another where I get a big fat 0? He pointed out that the gym where I get more men is the one that is connected to a certain pro football team's training facility. He said that may indicate a more athletic clientele that sees group fitness more like a sports team. Aha! I think he is on to something there... So, here are some discussion questions for you. I would love to hear what you think.
How would women feel if more men took group fitness classes? Would it be a welcome change or would women feel like their space is being invaded?
What is your opinion of gender specific gyms or areas in a gym designated for women?
Are men more likely to take a class led by a man? Are a women more or less likely to take a class led by a man?
Adrian Furnham, Nicola Badmin, Ian Sneade, 2002 Body Image Dissatisfaction: Gender Differences in Eating Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Reasons for Exercise
Baine B. Craft, Haley A. Carrol, M.Kathleen B. Lustyk 2014 Gender Differences in Exercise Habits and Quality of Life Reports: Assessing the Moderating Effects of Reasons for Exercise
Lynn Katherine Herrmann 2012 Fitness and Fitting In: An Exploratory Study of Gender and Exercise
Stephane E. Coen Mark W. Rosenberg, Joyce Davidson 2017 “It’s gym, like g-y-m not J-i-m”: Exploring the role of place in the gendering of physical activity