(Editor’s Note: This story is part of Club Industry’s series on diversity, equity and inclusion. To see more articles in this series, go here.) Although a racial breakdown of the employee base of fitness facilities doesn’t exist, an anecdotal look at the racial makeup of many health clubs shows that the higher up the ladder you go, the whiter the breakdown gets. Why isn’t the industry more diverse? For those open to delving into the history of the United States and how that history has impacted the racial makeup of the fitness industry, this article attempts to provide insights so that we can see the deep roots of systemic racism and understand better the effort it will take to make change.
In an age when history is routinely rewritten, and facts are discredited, a lot of people are unaware of the influence that racism has had on the fitness industry. Although our country’s history is documented in print, in books, and in films, our nation’s history of racism remains an enigma. In this article, we will look at a few critical eras in the American story of race and provide context about how these events impact the fitness industry today.
Native Americans make up 5.2 million people (2.9 million identifying solely as American Indian or Alaska Native alone) in the country. This number compares to 38.9 million people who identified as Black alone and 3.1 million more who identified as Black and another race, according to the 2010 Census. Native Americans were some of the first people to face discrimination–and even worse treatment–in the country based on their race. Today, many are affected by lack of fitness resources on the reservations—now often called tribal lands—where about 30 percent of Indigenous people still live. As more white people came to the shores of this continent and claimed land as their own, any initial peaceful existence between Indigenous people and colonizers began to wane. Indigenous people who tried to protect the lands they farmed and hunted were portrayed in verbal reports and news accounts of the day as savages. Eventually, many Indigenous people were moved to reservations by force or by agreements with tribal elders, and they often were moved again when the first lands were found to hide resources sought after by the white people who increasingly were moving west throughout the continent.
On reservations, Indigenous people were allowed to live by their traditional cultures, but if they chose to live outside the tribal lands, they were often expected to assimilate to Western culture.
As a result of segregation onto what often was not fertile land and the inability to get even some basic services there (today, three out of 1,000 white households in the United States don’t have indoor plumbing, but for Native Americans, that number is 58 out of every 1,000 households, according to “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” a report by nonprofit group DigDeep), health issues and the poverty level of American Indians and Native Alaskans grew. Today, Indigenous people have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than other Americans with higher rates of death from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, according to 2019 data from Indian Health Services. This group also dies of heart disease at a rate of 1.3 times higher and diabetes at 3.2 times higher than other Americans.
In 2017, the poverty level for Indigenous people was 26.8 percent compared to 14.6 percent for the nation as a whole, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Indigenous people have a household income of $40,315 compared to $57,652 for the nation as a whole, according to numbers also from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017.
With this level of income, belonging to a fitness center is an expense that may seem unreasonable for many Indigenous people, particularly with the lack of health clubs on tribal lands today.
The first Africans were brought to America in 1619 as slaves, portrayed by slaveholders throughout the more than 250 years of slavery as inferior beings. Slave patrols were set up to capture and return escaped slaves, and after passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery, the slave patrols were replaced with militias that actively sought to deny freed slaves from getting jobs and integrating into the workforce.
American minstrel shows, which started in the 1700s, began as variety, comedy and slapstick performances that depicted Black people (initially portrayed by white actors in blackface) as simpletons, buffoons, animal-like as well as thieves, “runners” and sexual predators, something that was reinforced in the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie “Birth of a Nation.” In that movie, the Ku Klux Klan was portrayed as the heroes who “restored order” to the South during Reconstruction and sought to “save” the whiteness of the South.
In minstrel shows, “black faces” were intended to be laughed at, mocked and even beaten, burned or hanged on stage in effigy as a way to entertain white audiences. By 1830, minstrel shows had become the most dominant form of public entertainment in the United States. Entertainment that was predicated on the biased and conscious/subconscious interpretations of how white Americans viewed Black people.
“As much as Blacks were to be a source of amusement, it was clear that they should be feared by whites” and ultimately contained, Eric Lott, professor of the Graduate Center, CUNY, said in an interview with Maurice DuBois. Lott noted that although minstrel show audiences were entertained by the comedic mockery of blackness, white audiences were still afraid of Black mobs “rising up and taking power.” Most shows included recurring skits during which Black people who did not “stay in their place” were punished. It is not surprising then that the Jim Crow laws were named after a predominant character from the minstrel shows, “Jump Jim Crow.”
Jim Crow laws mandated the segregation between white and Black people in public schools, public places and public transportation. After slavery ended, cities and states passed Black Code laws meant to keep Black people from getting certain jobs, receiving fair pay for jobs they could get and exercising their right to vote, according to a criminal justice fact sheet by the NAACP. This was all part of the Jim Crow era, which ran from right after the Civil War to 1968, according to History.com.
During this same era, many cities began criminalizing minor infractions, such as spitting on city streets, and more readily enforced those infractions when they were committed by a Black person than a white person, leading to a large number of Black men being imprisoned on chain gangs in the South and forced into what some have called legalized slavery, working on road crews and tending crops in fields, according to the 2016 Ava Duverney documentary “13th.” All of this led to a stereotype that Black people, particularly Black men, were criminals and led to higher incarceration rates for Black men than white men.
Over the years, several other stereotypes introduced in the early days of the minstrel shows have emerged and taken root in Americans’ subconscious. One of the most pervasive (and complex) has been the “black athlete archetype.” As Lott stated, the early minstrel shows were a “mixed reflection of the admiration, intolerance and fear” that white people felt toward Black people at the time. This meant that while Black people were considered to lack intelligence and were unable to control their most base desires, they were also admired for feats of athleticism. Consequently, the depiction of Black people as “runners” and genetically advantaged “athletic specimens” not only deepened stereotypes introduced by the minstrel show, but it also established another place in addition to the stage where “displays of blackness” were acceptable: on the playing field.
In an article about the history of African Americans and the Olympics, Jim Crow Museum curator Dr. David Pilgrim wrote: “The racism that one finds in a society will often be reflected in ideas about and practices in sports in that society. Stated differently, the history of racism in athletics has closely paralleled the racism in the larger society.”
Pilgrim’s point was that the racism experienced by people of color in sports largely mirrored their experience (i.e., inclusion or exclusion) in organized sports, recreation and leisure organizations.
At the 1936 Olympic Games, the conversation about race and sports supremacy took center stage. Prior to the games, Adolf Hitler boasted that the games would be a striking and powerful confirmation of the superiority of Germans. His remarks grew global attention as many nations at the time (including the United States) were grappling with racial and human rights issues at home. Although talks of boycotting the games occurred, many (including the NAACP) saw participating in the games as a way to disprove the Nazi regime’s claim to Aryan supremacy. During these games, Jesse Owens’ historic capturing of four Olympic gold medals not only shattered Hitler’s proclamation of Aryan superiority, but it also set a precedent for utilizing sports and the Olympic stage as a platform to draw attention to human rights issues.
Subsequently, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ protest on the medal stand during the 1968 Olympics—during which they raised their clinched black-gloved fists during the playing of the American national anthem—should feel familiar to us. At the time, many Americans criticized Smith and Carlos for politicizing the games and drawing international attention to the civil rights movement taking place domestically. As an immediate consequence, both were suspended and removed from the Olympic Village. Among their critics was Owens, who said: “These kids are imbued with the idea that there’s a great deal of injustice in our nation. In their own way, they were trying to bring out what is wrong in our country. I told them that the problem certainly belonged in the continental borders of America. This was the wrong battlefield. Their running performances would have done more to alleviate the problem. Rather than the disrespect they showed to our flag and the discourtesy shown to the Mexican government.”
Although many Black athletes of the era used their fame to bring attention to social justice issues off the field, others heeded Owens’ advice and elected to let their successes on the field speak for themselves.
Despite the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954—which ruled that segregation based on race was unconstitutional—minorities were primarily prohibited from obtaining memberships at historically white-only golf, tennis and country clubs until as late as the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first African American to play in the U.S. Championships (today’s U.S. Open). She then won the French Championships in 1956 and back to back Wimbledon and U.S. Championships in 1957. Despite her achievements (which included rising to the No. 1 ranking in the world), Gibson was not allowed to become a member of any of the clubs at which she played. Instead, Gibson would only be granted temporary access to the host club for the week before the event. Even if she won the event, she could not return to play after the event ended.
Without question, Gibson’s successes on the court paved the way for future generations of minority and female tennis players, including Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison-Jackson, Lori McNeil, and Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
Golf And Country Clubs
Like tennis, American golf and country clubs have historically only been accessible to whites and the privileged social elite. Despite the passing of anti-segregation laws in the 1960s, most golf and country clubs remained segregated until the late 1990s and beyond.
Twenty-one years ago, two figures loomed large in the Shoal Creek golf club race-relations debacle that brought corporate advertising to a halt at one of golf’s four major championships. One man was Hall Thompson, the white founder of Shoal Creek, and the other was Louis J. Willie, a leading Black citizen in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thompson initiated the crisis in June 1990 when he said his club would not be pressured into accepting “the Blacks.” As he openly told reporters at the time, he felt that his club, being private, was like “a home” and wouldn’t be “pressured to admit Blacks.” Once that appeared in the press, sparks flew.
Black organizations threatened to picket at the club gate. Corporate sponsors for the PGA Championship, which included IBM, Honda, Toyota, and Lincoln-Mercury, pulled more than $2 million worth of ads from ABC and ESPN. Corporate America feared the apparent economic fallout if consumers boycotted their products because they had sponsored an event at a club that openly practiced racial exclusion.
On July 31, 1990, with the tournament nine days away, an agreement was reached by the PGA of America, Shoal Creek and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to integrate the club. Golf’s leading organizations also agreed to change their policies regarding tournament sites. From this point on, admission policies would be scrutinized. Willie made peace when he integrated the club, permitting the 1990 PGA Championship to go forward.
It would be another six years before a second Black member, Ron Edwards, was admitted at Shoal Creek.
Tiger Woods played his first major tournament, The Masters, at Augusta National Golf Club in 1995. Although Woods would make the cut and finish the event in 41st place, his presence caught the attention of golf fans and professional golfers worldwide. At the time, golf superstar Gary Player remarked on his initial observations of Woods: “Certain players, you look at them once and you see something. As soon as I saw Tiger Woods swing today, I thought, man, this young guy has got it. It’s the way he puts his hands on the club, the way he stands over the ball. It’s agility. It’s speed. It is what a great horse has.’”
Player’s comparison of Woods to a thoroughbred illustrated both an admiration for Woods’ talent and objectified his overall skill and prowess for the sport of golf.
In 1997, the PGA tour hired its first director of diversity. Not coincidentally, 1997 was also the year of Tiger Woods’ iconic win at Augusta National.
Like Thomas and Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, Woods subtly raised his hands (closed-fisted) in celebration of his historic victory. That year, Woods won the event by an unprecedented 12 strokes, the largest margin in history.
Interestingly, Augusta National was one of a handful of premiere golf clubs that admitted their first Black members in the aftermath of the Shoal Creek debacle in 1990.
Early Gyms in the United States
Despite the existence of golf, tennis and country clubs, the existence of structured health clubs in the United States was somewhat limited until the 20th century. Franz Nachtegall is credited by many with creating the first private gym in 1799 in Denmark, but Frederick Ludwig Jahn of Germany is credited with creating the first gymnastics club in 1811, according to a history of the industry. Jahn later opened a club in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1848.
Around the same time, George Williams founded the first YMCA in 1844 in London, England, as a Bible study and prayer group for young white men who faced dangerous conditions on the streets at that time. The first YMCA in the United States was founded in 1851 in Boston. It welcomed immigrants, taught them English as a second language and gave safe lodging to rural men moving to the city for work.
In 1869, the YMCAs expanded to include gymnasiums. In 1881, the term “body building” was first used by Robert J. Roberts, a staff member at the Boston YMCA, where he created exercise classes for the men.
Initially, YMCAs excluded people of color. Freed slave Anthony Bowen founded the first YMCA association for Black men in 1853 in Washington, DC. It was called the YMCA for Colored Men and Boys, but it didn’t have its own building until 1912. In 1910, 24 YMCAs were built in 23 cities specifically for Black men, and the dorm rooms and eating facilities that were included in the Ys helped Black men who were traveling find a place to stay when many hotels were segregated. Some of these facilities included gyms and pools.
The first YMCA for Asians was founded in 1875 in San Francisco for the large Chinese population there at the time. They faced discrimination that was codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first law to restrict immigration into the United States.
A Y serving the Japanese population was founded in 1917 in San Francisco.
Thomas Wakeman, a Dakota Indian, founded the first YMCA for Indigenous Americans in 1879 in Flandreau, South Dakota. Another 40 Ys for Indigenous people were founded by 1898.
In 1931, the YMCA World Conference unanimously passed a resolution that condemned racial discrimination and called for all Ys to end segregation at their facilities. In 1946, the YMCA National Council passed a resolution banning segregation of YMCAs. Despite these two resolutions, some Ys remained segregated until 1967 when the Y passed a resolution that required local Ys to certify each year that they did not discriminate based on race, color or national origin in their membership policies.
20th Century Gyms
In the 20th century, the commercial club market could be divided into two broader categories, although some gyms (such as YMCAs and Joseph Pilates’ Pilates studios, founded in 1926 in New York for ballet dancers) fell outside these. The two broad categories were bodybuilding-focused clubs, such as Gold’s Gym International was at the time, and then racquet clubs. Both types of facilities were white dominated.
In 1939, Jack LaLanne opened what some call the first health club in the United States. In 1947, Vic Tanny opened his first Vic Tanny Health Club, which catered to men and women in the suburbs with separate workout days for each gender. No records indicate whether people of color were allowed in either facility.
In 1966, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who founded the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas in 1970, coined the term “aerobics” and pushed aerobic exercise as a way to combat heart disease. In 1969, Judi Sheppard-Missett began teaching what would be known as Jazzercise, a dance-based aerobics class that hit its stride in the 1980s. Jane Fonda’s aerobics VHS tapes and Richard Simmons aerobics classes and videos soon followed.
Even with the growth in popularization of strength training and aerobics, the people participating in these activities at gyms were mostly white. Because of lack of opportunity in education and employment, people of color were concentrated more heavily in blue collar jobs that paid less and required manual labor that, even if their finances would allow them to pay for memberships, may have left many feeling too tired to exercise before or after work.
In addition, redlining played a role in keeping people of color away from country clubs, golf clubs and health clubs as they began to develop. Redlining was a practice in which people of color were denied the ability to move into certain neighborhoods by either denying mortgages, insurance or other financial services to them for certain areas of a city based on their race rather than their qualifications or creditworthiness. For that reason, people of color who were technically part of the middle class or upper class still might not be able to live in the neighborhoods they wanted. And as for-profit business operators, health club owners often situated their clubs in middle class neighborhoods, making a trek to those facilities more difficult if a person lived in a lower-class neighborhood, especially if the person had no means of transportation other than a city bus or walking.
Ethnic Workouts Go Mainstream
Zumba changed aerobics to the extent that it introduced a distinctly Latin cultural element (and identity) to aerobics, even if it didn’t necessarily change the demographics of the participants completely. Zumba was created by founder Alberto “Beto” Perez in October 1998. Easily recognized by its initial emphasis on using four basic Latin rhythms (salsa, merengue, cumbia and reggaeton), Zumba not only introduced gym-goers to a new style of exercise, but it also motivated many operators to seek out and welcome non-traditional aerobics instructors in the hopes of capitalizing on the program’s widespread popularity and appeal. Many of these instructors were from the Latino community or other communities of color that had historically been underrepresented within health clubs.
As the Zumba brand grew, the brand also expanded their catalogue to include other world and ethnic dance styles such as Hip Hop, Afro-Cuban, Bollywood and other native dance.
Similarly, the rise in popularity of TaeBo and Billy Blanks, a seven-time world karate champion, changed the face of the industry, leading to one of the first Black faces recognized as a fitness expert for the masses. Blanks created the tae kwon do and boxing-inspired workout in 1976, but it didn’t take off until he moved from Boston to California in 1989 to open a studio. In the 1990s, celebrities discovered the workouts, and he released workouts on VHS for people to work out with at home.
Both of these movements led to second generation brands from people of color, such as Hip Hop Abs (created by Shaun T.), BollyX (created by Shahil Patel), U-Jam (created by Susy Marks and Matt Marks) and MixxedFit (created by Lori Barcenilla Torres). Because of the success of Zumba and Tae Bo, the industry learned that these workouts were not novelties but were normative and sought after by the masses.
However, for some people of color, these classes can smack of cultural appropriation if all of the instructors and participants are white.
Effects on the Industry
Whether the inclusion and popularity of more ethnically diverse workouts has led to more people of color joining fitness centers and working at them is up for debate.
The recently released 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report Executive Summary shares health club member breakdown by race as a percent of total membership. The Latino population had the most growth in membership during the decade studied. Following is the breakdown comparing 2010 to 2019:
- White/non-Hispanic: 67.43 percent in 2010; 66.34 percent in 2019
- Black Americans: 12.59 percent in 2010; 12.30 in 2019
- Hispanic: 8.39 percent in 2010; 12.78 percent in 2019
- Asian/Pacific Islander: 8.99 percent in 2010; 7.19 percent in 2019
- Other: 2.6 percent in 2010; 1.39 percent in 2019
Racial data related to employment in the fitness industry is non-existent, so instead you must look around at your own business and those of your competitors. How many people of color work at your front desk, in child care and in maintenance/cleaning staff? Now, how many trainers and group exercise instructors are people of color? Now look at your directors and general managers. And finally, who is in your C-suite with you? Chances are, the higher up the ladder you go, the fewer people of color you will find.
Income is an important factor in whether people join health clubs. Wage data from second quarter 2020 derived from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics points to wage inequalities by race for those working full-time jobs:
- Median weekly earnings of Asians: $1,336
- Median weekly earnings of whites: $1,018
- Median weekly earnings of Blacks: $806
- Median weekly earnings of Hispanics: $786
Wages were even lower for women in all of these racial groups with Hispanic women earning the least among all women ($717).
The average health club member tends to be more affluent with the average household income (HHI) of members being $81,000, according to IHRSA’s report.
People with a household income of at least $100,000 make up 25.02 percent of health club members in 2019 (compared to 18.13 percent in 2010). By contrast, people with a HHI of $25,000 or less make up just 6.68 percent of health club members—although that number is higher than the 4.77 percent in this bracket who were health club members in 2010.
Those numbers show that memberships from people with a HHI of less than $25,000 grew by 40 percent between those years while memberships rose 38 percent for HHI of at least $100,000, according to IHRSA.
A recent Physical Activity Report found that physical activity among the lowest income population (defined as $25,000 or less) actually declined. In 2010, 41.8 percent of this group were inactive in 2010 but that had risen to 45.6 percent being inactive in 2019. The inactivity level also increased for people making $25,000 to $49,999—30.7 percent in 2010 to 32.6 percent in 2019. By contrast, the rate of inactivity remained at 24.3 percent for those making $50,000 to $74,999 while it decreased for those making $75,000 to $99,999 (from 21.7 percent in 2010 to 18.9 percent in 2019) and for those making more than $100,000 (from 17.8 percent in 2010 to 16.5 percent in 2019).
Black Americans are more likely to be obese than any other ethnic group, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which shared this obesity data from 2017-2018:
- 49.6 percent of non-Hispanic Black adults were obese
- 44.8 percent of Hispanic Americans were obese
- 42.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites were obese
- 17.4 percent of non-Hispanic Asians were obese
And within non-Hispanic Black adults, Black women were more likely to be obese than Black men: 56.9 percent for women compared to 41.1 percent for Black men, according to the CDC.
What causes these disparities? Likely “differences in social and economic advantage related to race or ethnicity,” another study by the CDC hypothesized. It notes that certain groups of people “have systematically experienced greater social and/or economic obstacles to health … based on their racial or ethnic group.” Some of the underlying risks include “lower high school graduation rates, higher rates of unemployment, higher levels of food insecurity, greater access to poor quality foods, less access to convenient places for physical activity, targeted marketing of unhealthy foods, and poor access to health care or referrals to convenient community organizations that aid family-management or self-management resources.”
The Importance to the Industry
All of this history and data is important to the fitness industry for various reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic is still looming, and many gym-goers are still undecided as to if or when they will go back to their gyms after the pandemic subsides. We now know that minorities and other at-risk communities are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and that they need the fitness industry now more than ever before. Putting the industry’s complicated history with racism and discrimination aside, the time to act is now.
In these truly unprecedented and uncertain times, all fitness businesses are either being forced to adapt or are actively dying in the wake of both the pandemic and movement to eradicate systemic racism. Whether by necessity or by way of virtue, operators are expanding their focus and searching for new ways to initiate dialogue with non-traditional customers or revamping business strategies to create compelling experiences that retain membership. Simply put, staying indifferent or being unwilling to take action is no longer an option—and operators that want to stay in business are slowly coming to terms with it.
What is certain is that now is the time for the industry to take swift and decisive action to earn (and retain) the business of people of color who have either recently entered the fitness space or have been historically underserved by health clubs. Fitness brands that have traditionally marketed to operated storefronts in economically and racially diverse communities (i.e. The YMCA and Pure Barre) may recover more rapidly than their less inclusion-minded competitors and are taking deliberate steps toward attracting and retaining people of color as members, employees and as franchisees/owners.
Similarly, entrepreneurial-minded people of color and their followers are not waiting for traditional operators to invite them “to sit at the table” as stakeholders or to ask for their business as members. Historically hindered by lack of access to business management education, funding and established sales markets, entrepreneurial people of color are finding their way to ownership and leveraging technology to bring their followers with them. What this means is two-fold:
- The already limited pool of minority talent within the fitness industry will be further depleted by high-potential people of color who will elect to start new businesses vs. attempting to earn equity as employees of established clubs.
- They will take their followers with them. Clubs that have historically benefitted by monetizing the large followings of popular people of color (as personal trainers, group fitness instructors, or as salespeople) will be impacted when members follow their “favorites” to new establishments or to businesses more distinctly crafted to meet or exceed their needs.
The old adage of “build it, and they will come” is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Operators are running out of time to build or to rebuild, and consumers of all races are rapidly developing new habits related to health and fitness; many of which do not involve actually attending a gym. Whether motivated by necessity or altruism, the health and wellness industry needs to take action now. Increasing diversity is a start, but it is not enough. A truly sustainable and impactful diversity and inclusion strategy will need to do more than just “invite people in.” It will need to acknowledge and accept the mistakes and misdirections of the past and confront the intended and unintended biases of leadership and of employees. And, if needed, it must tear down what is broken or corrupted in order to make space for something new and enduring. Ultimately, if we do not build it (or cannot build it), our members will go elsewhere or just build it themselves. This is already happening. The time to act is now.