‘There’s a Difference Between Tolerance and Acceptance’: Exploring Women’s Experiences of Barriers to Access in UK Gyms

Weight-bearing and moderate intensity exercise are increasingly recognised as important to wellbeing, yet women have been shown to participate in these activities at lower rates than men. With gym training a primary means of engaging in these health-promoting activities, one way in which disparities in exercise participation may be addressed is through understanding of women’s experiences accessing gym spaces, and barriers to participation experienced in these environments. Drawing on 18 in-depth qualitative interviews with female gym staff and gym users, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted in four commercial gyms in the South & South-West of England, this article explores the experiential realities of women seeking to access gym training and the barriers they identify to equal access in these spaces.

Findings examine four key ways in which gyms environment and the gendering of this space create barriers to women’s access: through the sharp gender segregation of weights areas and emotional barriers crossing into this ‘male space’ creates; through insufficient equipment provision for women’s needs and how this raises costs to women’s participation; issues with the performance of masculinities in gym space and associated intimidation and harassment in increasingly (hetero)sexualised gym space; and how gym structures create the impression one is always ‘on show’, and subject to scrutiny. This research offers insights into the experiential realities of women regarding how these barriers are felt and perceived, and in doing so offers understanding which can help direct gym policies toward more equitable outcomes, contributing to this important area for health and social research.

University of Lincoln, College of Social Science Research

Luke Turnock, University of Lincoln, School of Social and Political Sciences