What does “Fitness” really mean?
At Get Yourself Active we want to help you as an individual or organisation to empower Disabled People like us to take part in sport and physical activity. For this new blog series, we’re taking a deep dive into co-production in sport. Once a month we’ll offer you a new perspective on one of our favourite topics from a wide range of expert voices. This month Rebecca Clarkson (Bex) takes a look at the possibilities for co-production in the Fitness sector. Bex has thirty years’ experience of working in the charitable sector and is proud to be the Fundraising Manager for Disability Rights UK as she strongly believes in the ethos of Disabled people leading change. Bex also writes, lifts weights and thinks, although not at the same time (usually). She believes in fairness and justice and she doesn’t believe that suffering makes us better people
It’s a funny old concept, ‘fitness’, isn’t it? The word tends to evoke ideas of gyms, treadmills, sweat. And that is all too often exactly the image that the fitness industry promotes.
Before I wrote this, I Googled a few of the ‘big name’ gyms, and the overwhelming impression you get is that if you’re not young, muscly, and a bit, well, gleamy, you won’t fit in. Oh, and not a Disabled person in sight. Of course, these places will all tell you how inclusive they are, and they probably believe it, but is this borne out in the environment they create?
I often wonder what a co-produced gym would look like, and I’m prepared to go out on a limb here and suggest it would be nothing like any currently in existence.
But there is no reason that this shouldn’t happen – as long as the people who currently hold power and make the decisions are prepared to share that power and decision making. I respectfully suggest that this start with listening to people they’ve never heard of before. There is no point in consulting your usual constituency – the people who are ‘gym literate’ and quite accustomed to navigating a ‘fitness environment.’ Instead, you need to connect with those who think it isn’t for them – if indeed they think about health and fitness.
And how you do it is critical. The utterly wonderful Dr Gabor Maté (do Google him and try reading his work – you’ll be glad you did) tells this self-deprecatory tale in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts:
‘I used to believe that all people needed was basic information. So all I had to do was teach overweight individuals how excess body fat would overburden the heart, plug the arteries and raise the blood pressure . . . and they would leave the office grateful and transformed …
I soon found out that they left the office asking for their files to be transferred to some other physician … more understanding about the ways of human beings.’
More understanding about the ways of human beings. Just imagine how different everything might look if we worked in that way. We might treat the use of drugs as a public health issue and show kindness and support to those in the grip of addiction rather than criminalising them as we do currently.
We might accept that lifelong sobriety is achieved by perhaps only ten per cent of alcoholics through total abstinence and offer tested and successful treatments such as The Sinclair Method instead. We might begin to realise that people who appear to be making what we are pleased to call ‘poor choices’ about their health are not necessarily doing so out of a willful desire to be self-destructive, but are perhaps making rational choices available to them within a very limited set of options.
If the last year has taught us anything, it is just how hard it can be to stay motivated when we are left to our own devices in a world where our everyday enjoyments and activities are severely curtailed or disappear altogether. I’ve been surprised by how many people have ‘confessed’ to their lack of exercise the pandemic.
These have been people with (often) the motivation, resources, and places to exercise, but these counted for very little without the structure of gyms, classes and fitness buddies. Add to that the hardships of living in isolation from loved ones and support networks and then we can start to recognise how many people live as a daily reality. We should not waste this opportunity to understand and act upon it.
Time for change
So let’s press ‘reset’ in the world of fitness. Let’s engage as never before with people, with curiosity, with purpose. We need to try to understand the ways of human beings and how we can make ‘fitness’ a fun thing.
A necessary thing, a thing you wouldn’t want to miss. That physical and mental health are inextricably linked is now accepted as a given (we hope).
I must own to some skin in the game here. Having had my mental health challenges over the years, I will confess to being positively messianic about the advantages of physical activity. In my case, a real addiction to weightlifting.
I also know from personal experience how challenging the process of ‘getting fit’ is. I’m proud that the thing that made a difference in the early days of my ‘fitness journey’ was easily accessible classes at the local church hall. Nothing fancy and very definitely nothing high tech; the music came from CDs, and the training was delivered by local people who just understood their audience really well. There will be so many others with similar stories and an even larger number with good ideas, which might make all the difference if they felt they could tell them. Let’s listen.