The Trouble with Toxic Gym Culture

The Trouble with Toxic Gym Culture

The gym should be an oasis. Sure, the workouts should be tough, but the people we work out with should be loving, kind, and encouraging. Toxic gym culture, however, creates an environment of judgment, fear, and shame. What is toxic gym culture, and how can everyday gym-goers combat it?

What is Toxic Gym Culture?

The gym is a microcosm of American culture, with plenty of encouraging, kind, wonderful people who are just there to improve their lives and help others do the same. 

But others are anything but kind and encouraging.

Like any place where people gather, the gym has its own culture. Toxic gym culture occurs when members of that “society” (in this case, the athletes) create an environment built on fear, intimidation, peer pressure, or any other negative qualities. 

Toxic gym culture comes in many forms. The following are only a few examples of an unhealthy fitness environment:

  • Measuring success only by how much you weigh or how much you can lift
  • Belief that being “in shape” means adhering to a specific body type or shape
  • Pressuring members into doing more than they are capable of, even at the risk of injury
  • Making members feel bad for modifying workouts
  • Shaming anyone because of their body, abilities, or workout habits
  • Being unaccepting of any marginalized community or being unwilling to accept outsiders
  • Using divisive or harmful language in the gym
  • Making others feel less important or trying to assert dominance over situations or physical space
  • Belief that if a member isn’t getting thin or more muscular, they must not be working hard enough
  • Belief that physical fitness and working out are more important than anything or anyone else

These attitudes and behaviors create an environment where people don’t feel welcome, they don’t feel safe, and they certainly aren’t encouraged to pursue healthy habits at their own pace. Instead, members feel judged, as if everything is an unhealthy competition they can never win. 

The Dangers of Toxic Gym Culture

Toxic gym culture is dangerous and damaging not only to the overall ethos of the gym, but also to participants’ physical health.

Pressuring someone to perform exercises that they aren’t physically or mentally ready to execute can be extremely dangerous. Toxic gym culture often makes athletes feel like they aren’t progressing fast enough, that they aren’t good enough, or that they need to do more to be welcomed into the group.

When competition, judgment, and shame are the underlying messages, athletes often feel like they have to do more, be more, and take risks. Those risks often lead to injury. And in a highly toxic environment, athletes are encouraged to continue training on that injury, making everything worse.

Physical injury isn’t the only risk associated with toxic gym culture. The mental and emotional tolls can be even more severe. 

The gym is already intimidating, especially for those just starting out on a fitness journey. It takes a lot of courage to walk into a fitness center, especially for the first time. So, when someone enters a gym only to be criticized, made fun of, or judged, they often internalize those toxic messages. Most will leave the gym and never return.

Toxic gym culture keeps people from seeking healthier lifestyles. How many people would live healthier lives if they only had a loving, positive, welcoming space to work out?

How to Combat the Toxicity

Everyone has to start somewhere. If newcomers feel intimidated, bullied, or shamed when they walk through a gym’s doors, that’s a huge problem. We should all be welcome and encouraging, especially if someone is brave enough to start a fitness journey. 

Combatting toxic gym culture starts with you. If you see or hear someone shaming another gym-goer, making comments about someone else’s body, or displaying bullying behavior, call them out. Do not allow toxic gym culture to permeate your workout space. If necessary, talk to the owner or manager and express your concerns. 

And if you’re the one contributing to the toxic gym culture, STOP. There is no reason whatsoever to shame another human being or put them down to make yourself feel better. Everyone in the gym deserves your respect and kindness, no matter how often they work out, how much they lift, what size they are, or how they identify. 

The Golden Rule applies everywhere, including the gym. It’s up to all of us to make the gym a safe and inclusive environment.

Inclusivity in Fitness

Inclusivity matters in the gym, just as it matters everywhere else. If your workout space isn’t open to all people, regardless of body size, ability, gender, lifestyle, or ethnicity, it’s probably a toxic environment. Together, we must work to ensure everyone feels safe when they come through the doors.

Health and fitness are essential for everyone. It’s time we reject toxic gym culture. What are YOU doing to make your gym a more inclusive place? Tell us in the comments!

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