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Gender and the gym

Date
Heavy lifting ... women often feel more comfortable in single sex gyms.

Heavy lifting ... women often feel more comfortable in single sex gyms. Photo: Stock image

Confession time.  I've  been going to the same gym for over a decade yet it's only this year that I felt brave enough to work out in the room with the heavier weights that's occupied mostly by men. It's an area that resounds to the noise of grunts as mega weights are lifted and thuds as they hit the floor. While there's no 'men only' sign, I've always felt that as a woman I'd look out of place. Yet it was all in my head - when I finally walked in there I wondered what had been keeping me out all these years. It soon felt as comfortable as any other place in the gym and I didn't rate a second glance – everyone was busy with their own routine.

But working out in the weights room is only one gender barrier that can exist in the gym. For many women the idea of exercising in any part of a gym with men is a turn off - that's why there are so many women-only gyms.

For many women the idea of exercising in any part of a gym with men is a turn off - that's why there are so many women only gyms. 

Earlier this year Caitlin Reid, a Sydney-based exercise physiologist and dietitian, began offering all-women exercise sessions at her studio Health and the City because she'd encountered so many women who felt uncomfortable in mixed gyms.

"For women who've been going to mixed gyms since their 20s or 30s and for whom fitness is important, mixed gyms are usually comfortable places. But it can be a problem for women whose main focus is weight loss and who are concerned about how they look," she says. "Women worry too much about what other people think of them.  Some women feel embarrassed about how they look when they exercise – they're red in the face and they're perspiring and they feel it's not a feminine thing."

A recent poll of 1450 women aged over 30 by the British mental health charity Mind bears this out. Two out of three women said they felt self-conscious about their body shape when they exercised in public, while 60 per cent were uncomfortable about their body's reactions to exercise – like sweating and flushing.

"There's also a group of women in the 50 to 60 age group who are trying gyms for the first time often because they want to lose weight, and for them going to a mixed gym can be harder – they don't know how to use the weights and they're reluctant to ask anyone how to use them because they feel stupid."

"Women do fear people are looking at them," agrees Bianca Richards, National Marketing Manager of the Fernwood Fitness women's gym chain. "Yet this is an illusion – people are concentrating on their own workouts.  But I think many women feel less pressure in a women's gym, more able to be themselves and not have to wear their best Nike clothes."

Are there advantages to working out in a mixed gym rather than a women's gym? When men work out they're more competitive so it may be there's a certain vibe in a mixed gym that might make it more motivating for some women, Caitlin Reid says.

"The most important thing is to find the exercise environment that suits us best – and it doesn't even have to be a gym. You don't have to use fancy equipment to get fit. "

But if you do want to try the gym, the quickest way to overcome self-consciousness is having confidence in what you're doing.  None of us are born knowing how to use gym equipment so the smart thing is to get instructions from staff or a personal trainer pronto, rather than fumbling around, uncertain what to do – and risking injury.

And don't be ashamed of sweat - it's a badge of honour not shame.

If you're a woman who goes to a gym, how do you feel about this?

214 comments so far

  • I agree it's all about confidence and feeling you have a right to be there doing your thing just like everybody else. After all, everyone pays the same membership fees. I'm always flushed and sweating because I work out hard running on the treadmill and cycling on the stationary bike (85% of my max heart rate) and I don't care what anyone thinks. Maybe some women have a problem with being seen that way because apart from vigorous exercise in the gym the only time anyone is going to see you flushed and sweaty is when you're having sex. (If you're running or cycling outside you pass people coming in the opposite direction quickly so they don't really get to look at you for long).

    Commenter
    MO4
    Date and time
    August 28, 2012, 6:05PM
    • I'm a guy, and MO4, I've found myself saying the exact same thing to females who sometimes get a bit self-conscious about getting flushed/a bit sweaty. Males aren't turned off or appalled by that. Nor are they thinking about sex when at the gym, but ladies shouldn't be ashamed of pushing themselves.

      Personally, I'm always impressed to see a girl really pushing herself in her session. Too many females seem to be just 'going through the motions' on their elliptical or whatever, then wonder why they don't see the results they're after. As they say in computer programming: Junk in, Junk out. And as my footy coach used to say about training: Turning up is not enough.

      However, if some females prefer single sex gyms, that's fine too. No doubt the occasional extended look from inappropriate guys could be off-putting. And as someone else said, the best exercise is the one you enjoy the most. And if a single-sex environment has you happy and ready to sweat, then go for it.

      Commenter
      Fred
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 10:17AM
    • OMG its another female sulking about nothing yet again, BLAH BLAH BLAH is all I took from this article.

      The human race is going about their own lives, some of them are going to the gym to work out, yes that is considered as normal. Then you have 1 or 2 women complaining about some sort of invisible sexual prejudice out of no where... we males couldn't care less, in fact no one could care less, so let me ask you this, why the "massive wall of text" (the article) ?

      Seriously is this ground breaking news?

      Commenter
      BLAH BLAH BLAH
      Location
      BLAH BLAH LAND
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:03AM
    • @ Fred RE your quote "Nor are they thinking about sex when at the gym".

      Speak for yourself, I am thinking about sex at the gym all the time. Nothing better than a fit woman working up a sweat from an intense workout.

      Let's face it.....most women go to Fernwood because it makes them feel better about themselves. I'd imagine when you go to Fernwood the routine is to get a magazine and walk on the treadmill whilst chatting to the woman beside you about celebrity gossip who is also walking and reading a magazine. It is the perfect place to go if you are lazy and want to be surrounded by other people who are lazy and make you feel comfortable.

      I admire the women that go to mixed gyms - they really give it a hard go and put themselves out there. They are the ones who end up achieving the real results - being surrounded by people with likeminded goals helps you to achieve your goals, it is a simple fact. The goals of people in mixed gym's are different to those in ladies only gyms and the results reflect that.

      Commenter
      Let's make sandwiches
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:10AM
    • @Fred: "Personally, I'm always impressed to see a girl really pushing herself in her session."
      It's interesting you say that, because that's exactly the reason why I can't agree with everyone who says that no-one's looking at you in the gym. My experience is that it's just not true.

      I started in a women's only gym for the first couple of years of gym going while I got my confidence up; I too was struck by the fear that people would look at me and say, ''look at that fat girl run". Turns out, that's not what people say at all. People notice, but if they're going to say anything it's something nice. Back when I went to Fernwood (years ago), I had lots of women say nice and supportive things to me. In more recent years since I started going to mixed gyms, it's really no different. I now get men who like to encourage me when I run (the slightly patronising, but well intentioned: "keep it up, don't worry what people say"), to men who are impressed by my technique with the gym (from "your form is excellent" or "wow, you work really really hard" - or, my favourite, said of the weight I was deadlifting: "I thought I was doing well until I saw you").

      I guess it's a confidence thing - women's gyms were really important to me becoming a confident and competent gym user. However, I've now realised that I probably never needed to be intimidated in the first place - most people are pretty fundamentally decent and aren't going to point and laugh.

      Commenter
      GWCH
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:12AM
    • @ GWCH:

      "most people are pretty fundamentally decent" That's been my experience too. If you're friendly, other people generally will be too.

      @ let's make sandwiches:

      Occasionally I think about sex too at the gym (some guys do look pretty hot) but so what. One's thoughts are one's own private business and I'm not going to do anything because I'm happily married. I would never stare or ogle at anyone and if someone overweight is exercising I think good on them for trying instead of sitting on the couch eating junk food.

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:29AM
    • Sorry to be rude to the male population but for me it is nothing to do with self confidence. There is research which backs up the problem I have, that I find the smell of male sweat revolting and I also find the grunts and groans a put off. I have encountered really nice guys who don't hog the weights and I have found guys and girls who do. Forget self confidence this is about comfot. Although I find it impossible to believe that men don't ogle attractive women!

      Commenter
      sickofusernames
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:31AM
    • Paula if you go to a gym where blokes grunt and drop weights have a word to the gym manager and tell them to stop or change gyms. If they drop weights that aint strong enough to put them down properly and are lifting the wrong weight to show off

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:53AM
    • I don't think women get any more attention at the gym than what they would in the work place.

      I would have thought that women would be more judgemental of each other than any man would be.

      As crushing as this reality may be to some, guys in the gym don't really care how fat you are, what you are wearing, what weights you are lifting or what program you have. This goes for men who feel self conscious too.

      Commenter
      bw
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 11:57AM
    • My observation is that these days women's gym attire is way more conservative than what you expect at swimming pools and because of this I personally think men at gyms are not that interested in perving. It is likely that some men being too hard core in gym activities is the turn off factor for women gym users. On the other hand, if one don't like to be seen having arms and legs exposed or sweating by the opposite sex, then don't bother doing sports.

      Commenter
      Alan
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 29, 2012, 12:05PM

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