The Importance of Community in Fitness

By Fabi Marier

While your fitness pursuits can certainly be a solo affair, there’s one aspect that can be a determining factor when it comes to the consistency with which you move your body, and the longevity of your endeavors: finding a sense of community.

Beyond fitness goals, community allows us to find a sense of belonging. It’s what can support us through some difficult moments — in or out of the gym — help inject a sense of fun in our day, and remind us of something essential: we’re all in this together.

But what does community look like? How is is created? How is it fostered?

To get a better sense of how communities come about in the fitness world, I’ve asked four coaches to share their experience. They are: Polly Hawver, owner of Big Fun Fitness, which offers empowering, fat-positive, queer-centered strength and life coaching in Olympia, WA; Rachel Black-Graves, owner of Bloomfield Fit Body Bootcamp in Bloomfield, CT, which goes by the motto Powerful Community, Powerful Results; Melanie Stride, owner of Stride Active, which offers Nordic walking, outdoor fitness and strength training in London, UK; and Kara Stewart-Agostino, owner of KSA Personal Training in Toronto, ON, which focuses on one-on-one and small group personal training with a focus on developing strength and confidence in movement.

What measures have you put in place to create community in your fitness practice?

Kara: My small group classes are capped at 8 to 10 people, which allows me to give each person some individual attention but it also allows the group to get to know each other. In each group class we have individual stations so that folks can work at their own pace as well as group circuits when they can develop some camaraderie through challenging exercises. When we’re doing partner circuits, I match people up based on similar modifications they may need or long-time members with new members.

"We’re all each other’s workout buddies — not just the friend you drove to class with." — Kara Stewart-Agostino

On Sundays, I host a drop-in group class where some of my personal training clients, as well as some of my group class members, come out for a workout and coffee. There’s a real camaraderie that’s been developed in that group, mostly from the opportunity to sit around after class to talk to the people alongside whom you’ve been sweating. It becomes a social experience as well as a workout.

Polly: Our community has sort of formed unintentionally — I have done various events for fun like outdoor workouts and a hiking group. I think our community has formed as a result of the emphasis we place on absolute positive affirmation of each other. We specifically emphasize movement for fun and offer a plethora of options so workouts can be as intense as you want them to be — folks often participate for the community aspect.

Melanie: More recently, I have been interested in and focused on creating a shared, living community that isn't reliant solely on the leadership of the fitness professional. In my community, this looks like continuing with active introductions and events, but also encouraging, empowering and facilitating members to organize their own community-building networks and activities.

Rachel: We use inclusive marketing that accurately reflects the diversity of our community — every size, shape, age, color, fitness level, etc. Our core values, that share what we’re about and how we expect others to move in our space, are clearly defined and very visible. Our team also receives constant education on living our values, understanding the communities we serve, and modifying the language we use.

Furthermore, we’ve created mindful collaborations via community workshops on topics our people want to learn more about, as well as purposeful giving to charities and organizations serving marginalized groups. Any time we collaborate, we do our best to work with a female- or minority-owned business in order to support and elevate those voices.

What influence does it have on the folks who work with you?

Melanie: There is a sense of shared ownership of the community and a spirit of independence that really allows folks to flourish in whatever community roles suit them. This could be anything from organizing a fancy dress walk to being in charge of dividing up the cake at the cafe after a walk. It also gives members access to a greater range of fun and bonding activities because people have varied ideas and skills when it comes to growing and participating in a community.

Not everything has to be mediated through a leader, so people can be more creative, doing things together that are unrelated to the activity that brought them together.

"Giving people shared ownership and independence forges a much stronger bond and community spirit than anything I could offer alone." — Melanie Stride

Kara: Folks see familiar faces class after class and start to encourage each other and cheer each other on through challenging circuits or when they see someone accomplish something they’ve been working towards for a long time. They build connections with people with similar interests that are completely unexpected. I’ve seen folks become running partners, lend camping equipment to each other, get their families together for outings, partner with each other for business projects, etc.

Every spring a large group of us run a 10K in support for a camp for children with cancer because one of the families has a child with leukemia — this year we’ve raised over $18,000! The connections they’ve built with each other are phenomenal.

Rachel: At the very least, folks are exposed to new ideas, new conversations, and new expectations of how to move in the world. Many shock themselves not only in what they're able to accomplish with us from a physical standpoint, but also in the ways our space challenges them to reframe or completely throw out old biases and instead take radical responsibility in who they want to be and how they want to show up in every area of their lives.

We're constantly being thanked for the growth opportunities, and "ah-ha moments" we help to facilitate. We hear "I didn't get ____________ till I came here" through happy tears on a weekly basis.

What effects does this community have on you, as a leader?

Melanie: Taking this approach to community is a double-edged sword. It's anxiety-inducing at times to allow give up the ability to monitor and control interactions between members of our communities. Will problems arise in relationships? Will they realize they don't need me at all?

But the pay-off for this discomfort is a community of invested members who show up often, show up enthusiastic and show up for the long-term. Plus, these communities have a chance of outliving our involvement, which is a valuable legacy for any fit pro truly concerned with affecting and facilitating lasting change in people's movement habits.

Kara: How can I describe the amount of love and devotion I have towards these people? I have so much pride in how they encourage each other and grow individually and as a group. I am always wanting to improve as a coach to do right by them. I am excited to go to work every day because I’m not just training a group of people who happen to be my clients, I’m training my friends.

Polly: The community we’ve created certainly makes me very conscious of the messages that I put out into the universe. It inspires me, brings me indescribable joy. I ultimately feel like the luckiest person in the world to get to work with people who are the strongest, kindest, funniest people I’ve met. Every day is an honor to be with them — and this is my job!

Rachel: This community saved me in many ways. They've helped me grow into the leader I am. They constantly challenge me to level up. To show up more. To show up stronger. To always use my voice. They remind me that there is still so much work to be done. They restore my faith in humans day after day in the way they choose to show up for one another. They make me so incredibly proud, and they'll never know how grateful I am for each and every one of them.

Fitness is great, and we're really really good at that piece… but we're in the people business. We want to develop exceptional human beings (that just so happen to have exceptional squat and push up form) that can go out and change the world by using some of the changes they've made within our walls. Fitness is just a happy byproduct of what we do.

This community allows me to make a bigger impact than I ever dreamed I could.

Which piece of advice could you give to someone who's getting started on their fitness journey, about community?

Melanie: Look for a space that reflects you. Ask what that organization stands for. Don't settle, because community makes all the difference in the world. Your community is what will make or break your consistency with your fitness journey (and beyond) on the tough days. Find your people.

Polly: Shop around, honestly. There are so many options for places to exercise — and now with remote coaching groups your options are endless and I wouldn’t settle on a studio or exercise community. I know there’s a tendency to feel out of place/out of shape/like you need to tolerate intolerable behavior because “it’s just the way it is” but that’s not true anymore.

"You don’t need to settle for a place that doesn’t feel right to you." — Polly Hawver

That’s not the way it is — you don’t have to participate in “transformation challenges” or even go to a gym that offers that garbage. You can find your people. We exist. We’re here. And we’re waiting for you. There are tons of people just like you who can’t wait to meet you. Keep looking until you find them!

Coaches' Corner

Are you looking for advice on how you, as a coach, can create community in your fitness practice? Here's what our expert coaches have to say:

Polly: Creating community is absolutely essential to a healthy and thriving business — and I would argue a happy and thriving you. I would be miserable without it. It’s the connection that I share with my participants and their connection with each other that really fills me. I also want to go on a limb and say I think it’s a radical revolutionary act. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve coached someone in a major life moment and connected them with another participant because I knew they would connect and be able to support each other. We’re not in this alone and it’s revolutionary to reach out and ask for help.

Kara: Be authentic and true to who you are. If you create projects that are interesting to you — that you would want to be part of — you can pretty much guarantee that there will be others who will be excited by them as well. That’s how you create a community of like-minded people. I started my Back-Alley Fitness project because I wanted to work out on Sunday mornings in a way that would work within my family routine. I invited neighbors and clients to join me and we’re now in our third year and it keeps growing and getting better and better. Whole families come out. Sometimes the kids join in and sometimes they just play in my backyard. My kids look forward to the workout and hanging out with other kids every Sunday morning. These classes are not just about the workout — they’re about the community of people who come out and the connections we’ve made with each other. For this community, fitness is not a chore or a punishment or something they “have” to do. It’s something that we want to do together — week after week.

Rachel: Make sure your space reflects what your community needs. Make sure you speak their language. Make sure they feel seen and supported. This goes way beyond knowing your clients' names. Make them feel served. Make sure your marketing reflects it. Make sure your staff reflects it. Make sure the sizing of your merch reflects it. Make sure your paperwork reflects it. All the way down to what you stock in your restrooms/locker rooms. It all matters. Create a space where they can thrive.

"Articulate your values clearly and fearlessly." — Rachel Black-Graves

Melanie: Once you have a burgeoning community, don't be too attached to your position as leader of that community. Communities are about fellowship and togetherness. When opportunities arise for others to take on formal or informal roles in the community, think about how you might foster and facilitate that in a way that fits with your personal boundaries and liabilities. Don't assume you have to keep control of everything yourself.

Polly: Be thoughtful and loving — if you care about people and create a structure for folks to participate, they will follow your lead. Be aware of your attitude on a daily basis, and be aware of what you’re saying — this is what is generating your community and if you want to foster a positive environment, you’ve got to start with yourself. Are you complaining about traffic or how tired you are? Are you commenting on your thick thighs in a negative way? Stop it. I’m not saying you can’t be human but be mindful that every word you speak and every action you take is being internalized by your constituents. You will get back what you put out. Focus on them. Be curious. Remember their stories (I take notes) and follow up with them. And then invite them all to a BBQ or a hike or a walk and they will show up.

Your business will grow and your participants will be happy and full. So will you.

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About the author:  Fabi Marier

Fabi is the Regional Director for Eastern Canada of the Body Positive Fitness Alliance Affiliated Professional. She's a Certified Personal Trainer and Kettlebell Instructor, as well as a Certified Mindset Coach and Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach. Trained as a dancer for many years, Fabi’s quest for strength came as a means to deal with the challenges of chronic injuries, and a desire – both for herself and the women around her – to reject societal pressure to always become less, and to strive to be more instead. As a mother and stepmother herself, she wishes to inspire the younger generations to embrace life with full strength – body, mind and soul. Learn more about Fabi on her website, Wholly Fabi, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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