As COVID-19 spread last year and gyms had to close for safety, women were forced to start exercising outdoors, or not at all. During the darkening winter months, women reported being afraid to exercise outdoors with fears of being harassed or attacked by men.
Now, according to Scotland’s latest roadmap out of lockdown, gyms are due to reopen on Monday, 26 April. But before we sit back comfortably in the knowledge that women are protected and happy in gyms, let’s ask them!
In England, women have rejoiced as they returned to gyms on 12 April (alongside other genders of course) and most of them have reported positive experiences.
There is, however, some level of discomfort women encounter at these facilities that should not be ignored.
In a Twitter poll, our followers reported similar attitudes with 64,1% saying that they feel safe and comfortable in mixed-sex gyms and 35,9% answering ‘no’.
“I love the gym because it helps me gain self-confidence, improves my sleep, makes me feel great and also impacts my mental health a lot”, gym-goer Nora explains. “My mood goes from 0 to 100 after a good session in the gym.”
“It’s the feeling I get after I have done a workout”, Riona, who starter her gym journey last year adds, “the mental aspect. Generally, I do feel safe, but there was one time I was mid-workout, and a men came up to me and kept trying to talk to me. That made me uncomfortable because I was just there to work out.”
As the poll suggested, the reality of women’s experience in gyms is complex and dependent on individual experience. However, there are emerging patterns.
“When you go to the gym, it is full of men, so you always feel that awkwardness and fear of being judged. Even though it’s changing, in my experience, around 70% of the people in the gym are men. You always have someone looking at you or even trying to make conversation when you are just there to work out,” says Alex, a frequent gym visitor.
“It depends where you go”, Cara, another gym-goer mentions. “Big gym companies, I would never visit because of the amount of judgement you get from others but I go to a small local gym run by a woman and a man, and it’s very open, they are very helpful and make you feel at ease. I think it’s very much to do with either going to a big chain or a smaller, local gym.”
A 2004 study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology identified that women’s social physique anxiety ‘significantly increased’ when placed from an all-women environment into mixed-sex then all-male. This reinforces that women are not unsafe or in danger at the gym, but they certainly experience negative feelings connected to male presence.
As a solution, the business of all-women gyms is blooming in Scotland. The idea is to create a supportive workout environment for women to use. One of the companies doing that is Curves, an international chain of fitness clubs, designed for women.
Siobhan Kavanagh, the owner of Curves Paisley and Curves Irvine says “We are a bit different than other gyms. We try and create a community, we know every single of our members by names and what their goals are.
“Most of our members say they feel a lot more comfortable in the setting that we provide, which is almost friendly, it’s not faceless. Women have said to me that they like the fact there are no men in the gym and no mirrors in the gym. They can come in and they don’t need to think about what they look like at all. But I generally don’t hear massively negative things about being part of a normal gym.
“All of our coaches are female too, so they are relatable in all things female. They understand that there are certain times of the month when things are a bit harder, you feel you need to lose weight or your mood is a bit off, our coaches are all trained to identify with those things.”
The conversation about women’s safety in sport is far from over but it is clear that mixed-sex gyms have room to improve to ensure that their female clients are comfortable at all times. It is reassuring that the majority of women gym-goers don’t feel unsafe while exercising, but we cannot ignore those who are constantly looking over their shoulders.
Let us know about your experiences at the gym!