5 Ways to Make Your Health Club More Inclusive

Here are five questions you can ask yourself to see how your facility can become more welcoming for different types of special populations.

For many club owners and operators, creating a workout environment that’s welcoming, safe, and supportive for people of all ages and abilities is an important part of their mission and values. Yet, many users still struggle to “fit in” or feel comfortable in fitness facilities.

While it’s true that you can’t control everything, you can make a few changes that will make your club more appealing—and rewarding—for those who are older, obese, or have a disability or chronic disease.

Making your offering more inclusive isn’t just a community outreach initiative—it’s also a business opportunity. Personal limitations affect more people than you might think. Consider the following statistics:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than one billion people—15% of the world’s population—are living with some type of disability. In the U.S., at least 20% of those under 65, and 37% of those over 65, are affected.
  • The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) predicts that one in four of today’s 20-year-olds may experience a disability during their lifetime.
  • WHO also estimates that chronic diseases cause 70% of all deaths each year.
  • In 2014, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease (PFCD) estimated that 60% of Americans had one chronic disease, and that 42% had more than one. By 2020, that number may grow to 160 million, with 83 million people having multiple conditions.
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To make your club inviting to a wider range of individuals, consider the following questions:

1. Is it easy to move around your facility?

Typically, clubs provide the basic amenities required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such as ramps, pool accommodations, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and showers. However, to be truly inclusive, you may want to exceed those requirements.

Realistically, how difficult is it for this cohort—people who are overweight, hearing impaired, or using crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair—to make their way through your club? For instance, is there adequate space to move between cardio and strength equipment, or to use them at their full range of movement?

ADA guidelines require a minimum clear floor space of 30" x 48" adjacent to each piece of this type of equipment so someone using a wheelchair can safely transfer to the machine. But is there enough space for a person using crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair to move in and around exercise equipment and benches? Is the seating throughout the building comfortable for people who are obese?

Simply making walkways wider, and implementing similar, thoughtful changes, can convey the message, to those with limitations, that you want them in your club.

2. Have you adapted any group exercise classes?

Doing so is important if you’re striving for greater inclusivity. For older adults—who have balance problems, limited mobility, injuries, or who require lower-intensity activities—you can, for example, promote balance training, aquatics classes, or restorative yoga.

You also can modify existing classes. A circuit training class could be offered in a seated format, or you could introduce some recumbent or arm-powered cycles to your group cycling sessions. Exactly how you adapt classes will be determined by the needs of the population you’re serving.

“Realistically, how difficult is it for this cohort—people who are overweight, hearing impaired, or using crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair—to make their way through your club?”

3. Do the images that you employ represent everyone?

Look at your marketing materials, and ask yourself whether the images utilized adequately represent your target population. Fitness stock photos tend to skew toward able-bodied, non-obese individuals. However, such images can be intimidating, particularly to people with a low sense of their physical abilities, creating barriers to participating in exercise. Using photographs of people of different races, weights, body types, and skills can make more people feel welcome, and make it clear that physical activity is both beneficial for—and accessible to—everyone.

4. Is your club—from the CEO to the front desk staff—focused on inclusivity?

Your staff members stand on the front line of member interaction, so buy-in from them is essential.

Once they understand the importance of opening your club’s doors to different populations, and become comfortable interacting with the resulting diversity—only then can you begin to develop a truly welcoming environment.

To help your trainers and group exercise instructors understand the new things they may be required to do, and why they’re doing them, give them the option of pursuing related training or certification courses.

Also, an important part of such training involves becoming familiar with the proper terminology, which can differ from place to place. For example, in the U.K., the phrase “disabled person” is preferred, but, in the U.S. and Ireland, “a person with a disability” is more common. However, it’s important to remember that everyone feels differently about how they’re being described, and some may not think of themselves as having a disability or disease at all.

To decide on the appropriate words, be sure to listen to how the member or client refers to themself.

5. Do you offer programs designed for special populations?

Opening your doors to people dealing with obesity, disabilities, or chronic disease will expand your business, and also empower your community outreach efforts.

Considering these five preceding factors can help you to begin creating a more welcoming and inclusive space for everyone!

IHRSA is committed to supporting inclusiveness through the IHRSA Foundation's ACCESS Health: Inclusive Fitness Program. In May 2017, we launched the first round of the program's pilots using the Universal Fitness Innovation & Transformation (UFIT) model. UFIT is a global social change initiative set up by the UNESCO Chair in Inclusive Fitness, Sport & Recreation, PE and IHRSA.

Author avatar

Alexandra Black Larcom

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.