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Is There Science Behind Gyms “Banning” Skinny People?

Some gyms are catering to larger clientele — with one even banning "skinny" gym-goers. Greatist looks at the debate and reasoning behind the hubbub.
Is There Science Behind Gyms “Banning” Skinny People?
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Greatist News examines and explains the trends and studies making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. Check out the full news catalog here.

Planet Fitness gyms profess to “ban” meatheads so that calmer, more casual gym-goers can feel more comfortable when working out. So what happens when that same mentality is applied to banning skinny people? A bit of a media uproar, apparently.

The Daily News recently ran a story on several gyms that “banned” skinny people to help larger clients feel more comfortable while working out. This predictably didn’t go over so well with many readers of all sizes. The only real “ban” was at Vancouver’s Body Exchange, where policy only allows plus-size women to join the gym. But Body Exchange isn’t totally alone, as other gyms have tried to cater to larger clientele. Square One in Nebraska targets “people of size,” although smaller clients are also welcome. Downsize Fitness, with locations in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Dallas, was created to cater to chronically overweight and obese individuals although it also doesn’t technically ban anyone.

There’s no law preventing gyms from cherry picking their clients (as long it doesn’t constitute discrimination under the law). However, health and wellness isn’t usually associated with closed doors (Greatist, for one, is all about making better choices easier for everyone). It turns out there might actually be some self-esteem science behind it beyond just creating a media stir.

Self-esteem and self-compassion, or how good a person feels about his or herself, can be an important motivating force for change. Research suggests exercise has positive short-term effects on self-esteem in young people and may even be an important measure in improving self-esteem in children [1]. The idea that self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation helped fuel Body Exchange’s policy [2].

“Many of our clients have not had successful fitness pasts so I can see the anxiety before we get started and I can see the relief and happiness after we finish,” Body Exchange founder Louise Green told The Province.

“It’s intimidating going into a gym setting,” one Body Exchange client told The Province. “I honestly think some people in a gym setting are judgmental to people who are overweight or have a different body type.”

It’s hard to scientifically tie a ban with self-esteem, but these gyms are banking on the belief that working out with people of similar size will help gym-goers feel better about their bodies. That kind of support is meant to improve self-worth and lower feelings of public self-consciousness and social comparison [3]. The real question, though, is whether banning skinny people is actually helping gyms increase the self-esteem and overall happiness of their clientele.

It makes sense that gyms should try to make their environments comfortable and welcoming. But it’s not clear if “banning” a subset of the population is the right way to go about boosting self-esteem, or if discouraging skinny people will actually make larger gym-goers feel better or worse when working out. It’s another controversy — much like Planet Fitness’ meathead ban — that has stirred up some interesting debates, so lend your voice:

Is a plus-friendly gym a welcome change or is the “ban” totally wrongheaded? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Works Cited +

  1. Exercise to improve self-esteem in children and young people. Ekeland, E., Heian, F., Hagen, K.B., et al. Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs, Norway. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2004;(1):CD003683.
  2. Self-compassion increase self-improvement motivation. Breines, J.G., Chen, S. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2012 May 29
  3. Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself. Neff, K.D., Vonk, R. Educational Pschyology, University of Texas at Austin. Journal of Personality, 2009 Feb;77(1):23-50

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