Fitting In: Why Gyms Don’t Cater to the Obese and How You Can Fix It

This article is part of Club Industry's report, "America's Obesity Crisis and the Fitness Industry's Role in Resolving It." The report can be downloaded for free by going here.

Let’s be honest. The fitness world is geared toward the fit. Sure, every once in a while you’ll hear about a plus-size yoga instructor (like this Instagram star) or read a story about an overweight Olympian (like this gold-medalist), but for the most part, obesity and exercise are at opposing ends of the spectrum—in the media and in real life. Many schools of thought place blame, and shame, on the individual; however, we can’t ignore that society, the fitness society in particular, is unwelcoming to the unfit. But if these are the people who need our services the most, why aren’t we serving them?

Where I live, in New York City, the boutique fitness studio trend is exploding, and almost all of these gyms market toward the thin, the fit, the healthy. Don’t believe me? Just head over to any of their Instagram pages, and you’ll be hit with a well-lit collection of toned tushies, bloat-less bellies and lanky legs. There’s not a curve to be found. What message does that send though? Is it aspirational? “Join us, and you can look like this?” No. It implies, “If you don’t already look like this, this place isn’t for you.” So, is the marketing the culprit? Are all gym owners just exclusionary in their vision and in their Instagram feeds? I think this runs deeper. We have to remember that, at the end of the day, gyms are businesses, and health club owners know that marketing to the gym-junkies will help get them to their bottom line. And the bottom line matters.

But what if there was a way to boost the bottom line and offer programming for the obese at the same time? First of all, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge that, yes, some programs do exist that are specially built to serve those with significant weight loss goals, but in my opinion, they are too few and far between. With over one third of the American population categorized as obese and over one half overweight, exercise programs for these individuals need to be the standard, not the exception.

So what can you do to make your studio friendlier to people who are full-figured?

  1. Offer content specifically for beginners. In thinking about what appeals to the obesity community, it’s important to remember that, while some may have fitness experience, many are likely unfamiliar with even basic exercises, and their bodies need a low-impact approach, at least to start. One way to more subtly welcome in a new wave of work-outers is to offer classes specifically for beginners. Be sure to choose names that are welcoming and not intimidating, like “Intro to Yoga” or “Beginner Strength Training”. Terms like “high-intensity” or “bodybuilding” could be daunting and are best avoided for newcomer programming.
  2. Introduce at-home exercise plans. For the overweight, self-consciousness and fear of judgment can be a deterrent from showing up to the gym at all. New, virtual, digital fitness platforms are on the rise, enabling people to work out from the comfort of home without the pressure of peers (other than maybe your pup) giving a judgmental side eye. These apps and websites are a great option for those who aren’t comfortable working out in front of others, and some of these even offer partnerships where gyms and studios can stream their own custom content, giving you the potential to monetize a new offering and reach a new audience, free from any geographical constraints.
  3. Integrate nutrition counseling. Working out is only one piece of the puzzle toward losing weight and achieving a healthy lifestyle. People with more weight to lose can see some of the biggest and fastest gains (or rather, losses) of anyone when they combine a healthy diet with their exercise regimen. Just like with at-home exercise, there are now tele-health platforms that enable registered dietitians to meet with individuals one-on-one via phone or video without having to leave the house. Adding nutrition support can be a game changer for any client, not just the overweight, and can help you further differentiate from your competitors.

The beauty and fashion industries have already made progress towards body type inclusivity, with brands like Dove and Aerie committing to showing real women, unretouched in their marketing and advertising campaigns, and I’m here to argue that fitness should be next. We have the power and the responsibility to serve all kinds of people, in every stage of their wellness journeys, and by doing such, the opportunity to not only improve our businesses, but improve the health, and ultimately the lives, of so many people.


Jillian Bridgette Cohen is the co-founder and CEO of Virtual Health Partners (VHP), a health tech startup that offers live and on-demand nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle modification within a contained ecosphere of virtual support. VHP’s proprietary digital wellness platform VHPGO is available to clients through an exclusive network of participating partners. Cohen has more than 15 years of experience in the medical industry and was responsible for the multi-million-dollar growth of three other startups before founding VHP.

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.