Building Gym Class Community

By Shawna Malvini Redden


“Where the HELL have you been, girl?!” The amplified voice booms over loudspeakers. All eyes, it seems, turn on me.

I wave and smile.

Now, I don’t normally enjoy getting hollered at, but I haven’t been to this Zumba class in six months, and I’ve been missed. And that feels good.

I explain how my teaching schedule changed last semester, etc. etc., and the bubbly instructor jokes, “Oh just bring them to Kid’s Club.”

Laughing at the image of my college students hanging out in the gym nursery, I say “They’re 22!”

“There’s 22 of them?” she asks.

“No, there’s 30 of them and they are 22.” She invites them to join Zumba, then.

We laugh and as the music starts, I chat with a friendly class member who also inquires where I’ve been the last, oh, half year. As the dancing starts, I realize how nice it felt to be missed and to feel a part of a (sweaty) little community.

Especially with something difficult (for me, at least) like exercising consistently, how does a sense of community help with motivation, I wonder?

I know that in past, in this same class actually, I’ve felt excluded and annoyed by certain folks (reference “Stealing someone’s spot: Loathing and loving (?) fitness class characters“) to the extent that I stopped attending class for awhile to avoid feeling grumpy. (Don’t worry, I got over it.) And I’ve read about weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers being successful in large part because they build in a social element which helps with motivation and accountability.

So, how might we go about building community in gym classes? Places that foster competition, obviously as in “spot stealing” or subtly like when I stare at that incredibly flexible and well-balanced chick in the Pilates/Yoga class and um, push my once-upon-a-time-ballerina-self way too far trying to keep up with someone who isn’t even noticing me, ahem. Places that push boundaries for strength and stamina, and might cause us to show weakness (like the time(s) I have to sit down in hot yoga to avoid passing out). Places that require some amount of vulnerability whether that be wearing less than flattering exercise garb, working with an unknown partner or even just trying something new/difficult (took me a year to work up the nerve to just try a class!). Well here are a few ideas…

Easy ways to build gym class community

  • Smile at people. Yeah, seriously. I tend to wear a bitchy-resting-face at the gym (okay, so it’s more like a don’t-talk-to-me-I’m-here-to-work-out-not-get-hit-on face, too) and I’m sure that comes off as unfriendly in the fitness class environment. In class, I practice making eye contact and smiling at people when possible, especially when the teacher is having us perform stupid human tricks.
  • Make introductions. The classes I like best are the ones where I have a couple friends or at least friendly faces. We can’t always remember each other’s names, but we small talk before class, pull mats side by side, etc. and it’s nice. There is something comforting about knowing someone might miss me if I don’t show up.
  • Encourage newbies. How many times do people attend one class and then disappear? I know I’ve done it (years later, I’m still not over my single visit to R.I.P.P.E.D). But I find that when someone notices me or gives assistance, I’m much more likely to think about trying again. So share advice, offer help, say “see you next week.”
  • Sing along. Especially in dance classes, there are opportunities to sing, shout, and in the case of my off-the-grid zumba, play invisible bongos. Go with it. Everyone feels silly, but the more people play along, the more fun, and the better likelihood you and the people around will want to come back.
  • Answer back. A few times every class, the teacher will ask “How’s everyone doing?” or “Having fun yet?”, and I’m always surprised at the minimal responses back. I can’t imagine how awkward it feels to ask questions of a crowd and be virtually ignored. Whether you use words or the perennially popular whoop or shout, answer the questions!
  • Connect online. Lots of teachers maintain Facebook pages and Instagrams with inspirational messages, healthy recipes, notices about classes. These spaces are a great place to put names to faces, ask questions, start conversations.
  • Pay compliments. Notice someone’s spectacular moves, stellar strength or impressive flexibility? Tell them. You might make someone’s day.
  • Think community, not contest. For busy classes with long lines, sign-ups and lotteries, it’s easy to get into a competitive mindset for space or resources (I’m totally guilty of this sometimes). Consider ways that you can include and encourage others, instead of viewing them as the opposition. Make room. Share equipment. Take turns.

Small affirmative tweaks will do wonders for the emotional tone and collective energy of a room. And I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get in the exercise department.

What other ways do you build community at the gym? Tell us in the comments section!

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