How Do You Speak About Fitness?

By Dr. Kate Browne

Have you ever read one of the list articles about all the hidden meaning in logos? After you do, you’ll never not see the arrow in the FedEx logo.

Marketing doesn’t happen spontaneously. Companies create messaging campaigns around a brand or product and use specific words and imagery that evoke the feelings the company brand wants to be associated with the brand. For FedEx, a delivery services company, the arrow symbolizes forward movement, which is exactly what shipping should do.

So, what does marketing have to do with exercise?

Well, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably interested in body-positive health and fitness. You may strength train or do other types of exercise with the intention of empowering yourself, improving your quality of life, or just feeling good in your body. And chances are you came to this perspective not because you saw an ad for a gym on TV, but because you saw some messaging — a social media post or a blog article like this one — that offered you a new way to understand the role of exercise in your life.

Embracing body-positive fitness has changed the way I understand the value of exercise and my relationship to my body. I used to be a chronic dieter whose only experience with exercise were intense bursts of motivation when I was dieting. I believed the fitness messaging that exercise should be boring and painful because I had a bad body.

Changing my perspective to view exercise as something that added value to my life made it possible for me to develop and maintain an enjoyable exercise practice for the past four years.

And yet, I still felt bad about myself when I saw an ad for a gym or watched an infomercial hawking the latest rock-hard abs program. So, I started looking at fitness advertisements methodically.

What Is Fitness Marketing Telling You?

I knew from my studies of weight loss success stories that we use words and images together to create meaning, and that looking for patterns can reveal the underlying messages that persuade readers. After analyzing over 300 fitness advertisements, I found that traditional fitness marketing uses metaphors that support the message that exercise should destroy our bodies.

We burn calories. Incinerate fat. Shred our abs. Crush and kill our workouts. Conquer our excuses.

We challenge and fix and sculpt and reset and repair.

Traditional fitness marketing is based on the premise that we are not OK as we are, and that exercise is a corrective tool reinforced by violent metaphors.

The Role of Metaphors in Fitness Marketing

Metaphors are powerful communication tools that we use to convey meaning and describe experience. In fact, it’s estimated that we use some form of metaphor in 90 percent of our speech. Metaphors capitalize on making connections to shortcut between concepts. In other words, using what we know about one thing can help us understand another.

For example: time is money.
“This gadget will save you hours.”
“I invested a whole morning solving that problem.”
“Is standing in line for tickets worth it?”

Creating meaning this way can be intentional or unintentional, but it still creates meaning. The primary conceptual metaphors of fitness are based on the premise of the body as something that needs to be destroyed through exercise.

I believe that we can change our experience with exercise simply by changing the way we talk about the role of fitness in our lives.

Instead of using metaphors that tear us down, what would happen if we used marketing to sell fitness as something that brings us up by improving our quality of life?

The metaphors used in traditional fitness marketing usually convey one or more of the following ideas:

  • The body is garbage. (“Get rid of unwanted fat”)
  • The body is a commodity. (“Earn your body” and “You control what your body looks like”)
  • Exercise is violence. (“Shred your abs,” “Burn belly fat,” “Blast fat fast” and “Killer workout”)

Furthermore, if you look in detail, you’re likely to notice the following:

  • Dark colors are used (red, blue, grey and black are very popular).
  • The tone is serious (with the exception of bouncy white women teaching aerobics).
  • Models are always sweaty, with visible muscle and very few clothes.
  • Imperative copy is employed (“Commit to be fit,” “Just do it,” “Take control,” etc.)
  • Before-and-after success stories that almost always involve dramatic weight loss are prevalent.

On the other hand, body-positive fitness metaphors tend to center around the following:

  • Fitness is open.
  • The body is a celebration.
  • Fitness is freedom.

Thus, body-positive fitness marketing is more likely to include:

  • Bright colors
  • A fun, happy tone
  • Models of different body types smiling and wearing different kinds of clothing
  • Declarative or exclamatory copy (“Every body happy,” “You deserve to feel good,” “We’re members, not models”)
  • More action shots and groups of people

Some brands are already experimenting with selling fitness products and services without shame by changing the metaphors in their advertising copy.

Blink Fitness has an “every body happy” campaign that uses bright colors and models with diverse body types to share a message of community. WERQ Dance Fitness creates social media messaging that relies heavily on metaphors of openness and empowerment. Liberation Barbell of Portland, Oregon uses its brand name to convey a message of fitness as freedom. And Girls Gone Strong evokes strength for its own sake instead of a tool to do harm.

The idea that you can use metaphors to encourage exercise as a positive addition to quality of life instead of subtracting something bad hasn’t caught on to the mainstream fitness industry. The good news is that messages become more powerful as they circulate, and we can all do our part to be the change we want to see in the fitness industry.

What Do I Do Now?

If you’re feeling the same way you felt when you first saw the arrow in the FedEx logo, you may wonder what’s next. That’s how it is when a new piece of information rocks our world — something that we took for granted as normal is suddenly cast into a new, disorienting light. How have I gone so long without noticing that before?

When you start noticing how often fitness brands use shame and violence to sell exercise, it’s hard to ignore. I wanted other people to see what I saw when I read these ads, so I started “correcting” shame-based fitness advertisements on my blog Taking Up Space.

I proved that you can sell the same fitness product or service without shame, but how can we create the change we want to see in our fitness spaces?

We demand a change, or take our business elsewhere.

It’s pretty simple, actually. We vote with our dollars, so if you’re a customer of a business that uses shame-based advertising, you’re well within your right to say something about it.

In late 2016, I visited a new gym called LifeTime Fitness, and I saw this ad on the wall:

I posted about it on Taking Up Space, and got the attention to the marketing manager. I explained my objection — the shame-based message that “everyone knows” exercise is for weight loss — and asked that the ad be taken down. Not only was the ad taken down, it was replaced with a message that was much more inclusive.

It is possible to have your voice heard and create the kind of change you want to see in fitness advertisements. It’s OK to say you don’t want to be associated with a gym that does a “Bikini Body Challenge” or a “Summer Slimdown” contest. There are lots of other ways to encourage people to exercise without preying on their insecurities, and businesses need to know how their messaging affects their audience.

Make your voice heard by supporting businesses that already make an effort to sell health and fitness without shame.

Tell them that you notice the encouragement in their messaging. Buy their products and services. Review and share their work with others.

For businesses that you support that aren’t on board yet, speak up. Let them know that you deserve a better experience with their brand, and want messaging that makes you feel like a part of their community and not an enemy. If they refuse to listen, consider taking your business elsewhere.

Our experience with exercise doesn’t stop when our workout is over. The messages we hear about who exercise is for and what expectation we should have for it have a big influence on our identity as athletes or “fit” people.

We have the power to shape the stories we tell about the role of exercHow do you speak about fitness? Have you considered the impact of marketing on your fitness narrative? Prepare to see fitness marketing like never before.ise in our lives and our communities. What story do you want to tell?

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About the author:  Dr. Kate Browne

Dr. Kate Browne is a writer, speaker, and multi-sport athlete affiliated with the Body Positive Fitness Alliance and sponsored by Superfit Hero. Her TEDx Talk, “How I Found Real Fitness Inspiration: Saying ‘No’ to Fitspo” shows how marketing tactics of the 19th century freak show influence the fitness industry today. She is also the founder of Taking Up Space and the author of Body Composition, a study about weight loss success stories. Kate is the proud mom of a kindergartener, an iced coffee enthusiast, and an avid karaoke singer. Learn more about Kate at

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