With the 2020 elections just on the other side of this month, voting is top of mind for a lot of people. There’s a lot at stake in this election, and if you’re turning to fitness to sweat the stress away, you’re probably not the only one. But fitness and voting have even more to do with each other than you’d think.
Your access to workout spaces — whether that’s a local park with a track or a boutique studio — is fundamentally shaped by voting, says Nicole Cardoza, a yoga instructor and founder of Yoga Foster and the newsletter Anti-Racism Daily. “There are systemic issues perpetuated in the studios we hold dear and in the spaces that we occupy when we’re trying to be well,” Cardoza says. “So when we want to feel well in studios, it’s really about looking at that overarching system of racism and dismantling it. A lot of that, especially in the next few weeks, comes down to the actions we take at our polls.”
How Do Politics Shape Fitness Culture?
Pretty much everything about your gym or fitness studio is shaped by who’s in office in your area, Cardoza explains, pointing in particular to access to public transportation, instructor pay, and basic neighborhood safety where studios are located.
T’Nisha Symone, founder of luxury fitness club BLAQUE, tells Bustle that zoning laws have a lot to do with the presence — or lack thereof — of accessible fitness spaces in Black and brown neighborhoods. “State and local governments decide how neighborhoods are constructed and as a result, what kind of fitness and wellness behaviors the people in these communities will have access to,” she explains. “Whether or not these resources are available is something that can and should inform our voting behaviors at the local level.”
Access to fitness resources has to do with both private and public interests. A 2019 analysis conducted by Bloomberg found that franchises like CrossFit, Barry’s Boot Camp, and Pure Barre are usually located in neighborhoods that are over 80% white. Of the other 13 fitness franchises included in the analysis, 12 were also located in areas with an average of 70-80% white people. The data also revealed that clubs like Equinox and SoulCycle are often located in gentrifying neighborhoods, drawing in more affluent and white clientele rather than serving the often BIPOC, low-income communities that have been living there.
“Wellness is political,” says Helen Phelan, a Pilates instructor who specializes in body neutrality and mindfulness. “To serve only one type of person is political. To avoid making a statement or ‘getting political’ is a privilege and a political statement all in itself.”
What people learn, say, and even wear in studios is also political. “If you say ‘namaste’ at the end of your practice or wear Mala beads, you need to be standing up for racial injustice,” says Ali Duncan, a yoga instructor and the founder of Urban Sanctuary, the first women-run, Black-owned yoga studio in Denver, Colorado. “So many studios have appropriated a different culture than their own without giving recognition to that culture, nor have they stood up for racial injustices. It has become a trend or the norm to take what you want for the benefit of financial gain and forget, or not even care, to learn where it came from.” Voting can open up physical wellness spaces to people from marginalized communities to make fitness culture richer, without appropriation.
How Can Voting Increase Access To Fitness?
“Right now, the fitness industry, like all industries, functions based on capital and who has it,” Symone explains. “Economic disparities are linked with health disparities. This means that those who suffer the most from preventable health-related illnesses have the least economic means to invest in their own longevity and quality of life.”
By voting, Symone explains that you can contribute to shaping policies that influence who can safely access fitness spaces. Economically, that might mean reimagining health insurance benefits to include things like gym memberships, or advocating for policies that end redlining or food deserts, which can help improve people’s wellness holistically. You might also consider voting for a candidate who’s campaigned for broader access to parks, or who’s advocated for policies to curb gentrification.
But even if someone has economic access to wellness spaces, that doesn’t mean fitness activities are safe for everyone to participate in publicly. This is also something voting has an impact on. “Neighborhoods that do have accessible outdoor fitness spaces have the added threat that comes with police brutality and racial profiling,” Symone tells Bustle. “Community safety involving police services are organized by state and local governments. These are massive deterrents to regularly engaging in outdoor wellness-based activities for Black people and many people of color.” By voting, Symone says that you can impact decisions about community safety on local and national levels, potentially protecting people trying to go for a jog in their neighborhood.
“Promoting diversity isn’t enough; we have to address the issues that make diversity necessary,” says Emma Middlebrook, the founder of REP Movement, a workout space in Portland, Oregon that emphasizes body affirmation, anti-racism, and queerness. “Bodies are highly politicized. Standards of health and beauty are embedded with racist ideas and the fitness industry thrives on a culture of whiteness and heterosexuality. People with trans bodies, Black bodies, women’s bodies, and bodies of size have felt let down, unseen, unheard, and unsafe in more traditional gym settings.” Voting helps shape what kinds of gym settings are available to people, creating opportunities to feel safe and welcome in fitness spaces — and your vote can help do just that.
Are you ready for Election Day? Start by registering to vote and making a plan for Nov. 3.
Nicole Cardoza, yoga instructor, founder of Yoga Foster, founder of Anti-Racism Daily
T’Nisha Symone, founder of BLAQUE
Ali Duncan, yoga instructor, founder of Urban Sanctuary
Helen Phelan, founder of Helen Phelan Studio
Emma Middlebrook, founder of REP Movement