How to make your studio more body positive

Does your studio welcome clients of all body shapes and sizes? Hopefully the answer is a resounding “yes”! But inclusivity has to be more than simply an abstract concept you hope or assume your clients will pick up on. It’s one thing to believe that movement is for every body, but quite another to effectively communicate that belief to your existing and potential clients.

If you’re not already being intentional about this, chances are you could do more to make sure that “heavier” people feel as though they belong when they enter your (physical or virtual) space. Fortunately, there are concrete actions you can take to ensure that clients recognize and reap the benefits of your studio’s body-positive approach to fitness.

Creating a space that feels comfortable for people of all body shapes and sizes

Here are some simple things you can do to make sure every body feels welcome in your space:

Emphasize the intrinsic rather than extrinsic benefits of movement. Instead of mentioning fat or calorie burning, talk about the myriad functional benefits of exercise.

  • The list could run pages long, but here are a few benefits to emphasize: movement prevents and heals injury; reduces pain; increases and preserves mobility, strength, coordination, and balance; boosts mood; alleviates depression and anxiety; increases energy; improves self-confidence; improves posture; improves cardiometabolic risk factors (more on this below); and it provides pleasure and enjoyment, plain and simple!
  • In everything you do at the studio, focus on how movement makes people feel and what being physically active allows them to do.

Avoid placing mirrors in your studio. This is a subtle but effective way to encourage clients to focus on how their bodies feel rather than how their bodies look.

  • Mirrors can be very distracting and discouraging for people who are struggling with body image and self-acceptance.
  • The very presence of mirrors can seem to affirm extrinsic, appearance-based motives for exercising.

Watch your words. Whether in class descriptions or in class cueing, choose your words with care.

  • Avoid diet and weight-loss talk—for example, don’t jokingly mention how many calories a tough class must be burning, and don’t offer “compliments” if a client appears to be losing weight.
  • Instead, praise things like consistent class attendance and improvements in strength, mobility, coordination, and balance.

Focus on movement education. Teach people how to move well so that they feel their best no matter what their shape and size.

  • Don’t try to help people get their bodies to conform to an imagined ideal. Instead, teach them how best to move their bodies just as they are.
  • Once again: explicitly focus on how wonderful proper movement makes us feel and all the things it allows us to do.

Make sure that staff are all on the same body-positive page.

  • Do some self-reflection. Many of us are not even aware of our own internalized biases—for example, a tendency to assume that heavier people always want or need to lose weight.
  • Provide training for staff around body positivity and be very clear about the approach you want to take. This training should include not only instructors, but also front desk staff and any clinicians who work in your studio. If everyone’s not on the same page, all of your other efforts will be moot.
  • Hire instructors and other staff members who represent a range of body shapes and sizes.

Use images representing a wide range of body shapes and sizes in your marketing materials.

  • Avoid describing images of heavier people as “realistic.” All body shapes and sizes are “real”—including those we’ve “idealized.” The principles of body positivity apply to every body, and this includes the svelte and youthful among us!

If you sell clothing, make sure to have items available to your clients in inclusive styles and sizing.

  • This doesn’t mean that everything you sell has to be available in every size (although this would be ideal). But if, for example, you sell a line of clothing obviously designed for slim, taut bodies, it’s a good idea to also sell clothing designed for body types that aren’t so slim and taut.
  • If you sell branded items of clothing (e.g., t-shirts featuring your studio’s name and logo), definitely make sure that these are available in the widest possible range of sizes. Offering branded items in limited sizing is a sure-fire way to send the message that your studio only cares about and caters to people who wear these sizes.

Perceptions of belonging and exercise adherence

Hopefully you’re motivated to create a body positive space simply because it’s the right thing to do: we all need and deserve to move well and feel great. As a business owner, you have an important role to play in making the world a better place by insisting on inclusive practices. But making sure every body feels welcome in your space is also the right thing to do for your business.

A 2019 study published by the American Psychological Association found that a sense of belonging was the number one variable that determined consistent participation in group fitness classes. The purpose of the study “was to examine the extent that groupness perceptions within fitness classes predicted basic need satisfaction and, in turn, group fitness satisfaction and adherence” (173)1. Unsurprisingly, exercisers who felt a sense of belonging reported greater overall satisfaction with their classes and more frequent attendance.

A sense of belonging is, then, the number one variable that determines whether or not clients will keep coming back to your studio. As inferred by the study above, we must “foster collective exercise settings” that enhance perceptions of groupness if we want clients—no matter what their shape and size—to consistently attend classes (171). When people move well on a regular basis, they get results and end up feeling great in their bodies. This further motivates them to keep coming back for more, creating an upward spiral of success—for both your clients and your business.

Fitness, health, and wellness are not determined by numbers on a scale

In August 2020, the Canadian Medical Journal Association published a comprehensive update to Canada’s obesity guidelines, shifting the focus away from numbers on a scale and onto improving health and quality of life. As health and wellness professionals, we should take note of this key message included in the new Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPGs): “Regular physical activity induces a wide range of health benefits in adults across all BMI categories, even in the absence of weight loss.”2

The CPGs cite years of research by thousands of scientists showing that exercise improves cardiometabolic risk factors like hyperglycemia, insulin sensitivity, and high blood pressure. Exercise also improves mood disorders and body image, increases muscle mass and mobility, and reduces abdominal visceral fat and ectopic (e.g., liver and heart) fat. All of these benefits and more exist even when body weight and BMI remain high.

The CPGs recommend that health care providers: 1) assess their own attitudes and beliefs about obesity; 2) recognize the ways in which internalized weight bias can affect behavioural and health outcomes in people living with obesity; 3) avoid using judgmental words, images, and practices when working with people living with obesity; and 4) avoid making assumptions that ailments or other complaints are related to body weight.3 These are all great recommendations for those of us who help people achieve and maintain good health through movement—and they’re echoed in the tips listed above.

We can all do better

The fitness and health industries’ long-standing emphasis on slim, idealized bodies was never meant to deliberately exclude other body types. Instead, for the most part this emphasis came from a place of good intentions and a misguided belief that we must be thin in order to be fit and healthy.

But to paraphrase the venerable Maya Angelou, “We did then what we knew how to do. Now that we know better, we do better.”

Yet while we may know better, none of us can claim to know everything, or to do everything perfectly. Nevertheless, I believe that as a community we can get closer to “perfection” by sharing our knowledge and experience with one another. To that end, what would you add to these suggestions for creating a studio space that sends out an unmistakably body-positive vibe? What practices have you implemented to ensure that people of all shapes and sizes find a sense of belonging in your space? Please share in the comments below.

1 Evans, M. Blair, Scott Graupensperger, Alex J. Benson, Mark Eys, Bryce Hastings, and Jinger S. Gottschall. “Groupness Perceptions and Basic Need Satisfaction: Perceptions of Fitness Groups and Experiences Within Club Environments.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 23, no. 3–4 (September 1, 2019): 170–84.
2 Boulé NG, Prud’homme D. Canadian Adult Obesity Practice Guidelines: Physical Activity in Obesity Management.
3 Kirk, SFL, Ramos Salas X, Alberga AS, Russell-Mayhew S. Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines: Reducing Weight Bias, Stigma and Discrimination in Obesity Management, Practice and Policy.