Women’s Only Gyms: Benefits and Drawbacks
With the pandemic easing and more people venturing out, many are looking for gyms and fitness centers to reclaim an active lifestyle. If you’re one of these people, you’ve probably noticed that you have options—a lot of them.
It can be hard to sort through the variety of gyms, fitness classes, and personal trainers available, especially if you live in an urban area. If you’re a woman, you have yet another layer of choices. Do you opt for a women’s gym, or a coed gym?
Far from the leotards and headbands of 80s aerobics, modern women’s gyms boast a range of fitness programs including cardio, strength training (often in the form of circuit training), classes, and sometimes even childcare during workouts.
The one thing you won’t find at a women’s gym? Men.
But is there really any advantage to joining a women-only gym? Which is the best gym for women? The answer depends on what you want in a workout space.
Why (Some) People Love Women’s Gyms
Though not as popular as they were in the early 2000s, women’s gyms still enjoy a dedicated base of customers. Some draw new clients even without much marketing, relying on word-of-mouth and Google searches to bring new faces through the door.
One of the biggest reasons a woman might select a women-only gym is to avoid self-consciousness. Those with little-to-no gym experience or limited physical endurance might fear judgment from fit, athletic men who work out regularly. There’s even a name for this: gymtimidation. And while it isn’t exclusive to women, far more women than men experience it.
In fact, some gym-goers experience gymtimidation with any large group, period. This may be one of the reasons for the popularity of women’s gyms, since they tend to be smaller and more intimate than coed workout centers.
Some women turn to women’s gyms because of experiences at coed gyms that made them feel unwelcome in stereotypically “male” spaces, like the bench press or deadlift station. They may have faced subtle pressure to free up the equipment for men, felt intensely observed when they wandered into an area with all men, or had a condescending male personal trainer. Still other women may be prohibited from working out alongside men due to religious beliefs.
The U.S. isn’t the only place that has turned to women’s gyms to solve these issues. Brands like Total Fitness (UK), Women’s Fitness Clubs of Canada, and Fernwood Women’s Health Club (Australia) cater specifically to women as well.
Sexual Harassment at the Gym
Unfortunately, there are also more unsettling reasons why women opt out of coed fitness centers. It’s all too easy to find personal stories and worrying statistics highlighting the problem of sexual harassment in these spaces. Although anyone can be a perpetrator or target of this harassment, statistics skew heavily toward men harassing women.
ExerciseBike.net released poll results in 2019 revealing that nearly 1 in 5 women had experienced sexual harassment while working out. Another survey by FitRated found that a whopping 70 percent of women reported “uncomfortable” interactions at the gym, and many of them changed their workout routines to avoid the men responsible. Even non-threatening interactions can become bothersome when women feel that the men around them are using the gym as a space to get dates.
The Rise and Fall of the Women’s Gym
Despite the perceived benefits for many clients, women’s gyms are not without controversy. Their popularity reached its zenith in the early 2000s but has deflated in recent years, due to a variety of factors.
For one thing, the entire concept of women’s fitness has evolved. Once about losing weight and slimming down, women’s workouts have become increasingly focused on body acceptance, health, and strength. These changing attitudes make it harder for women’s gyms to leverage what used to be their biggest value proposition: to make you thin.
Their fall in popularity was most visible through big brand names like Curves. Once it seemed there was a Curves on every street corner; these days you may be wondering, “Do Curves gyms still exist?” The brand established over 7,800 locations by 2005. But this number shrank to 367 by 2019. Other heavy-hitting franchises met the same fate. Some have rolled their women’s club memberships into membership packages that also include coed centers, in order to keep them lucrative. This was the case for Lucille Roberts in 2017 and Spa Lady in 2019.
Do Women’s Gyms Discriminate?
Awareness of inclusion and human rights has also colored public view of women-only fitness clubs. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that women-only workout zones inside coed gyms violate anti-discrimination laws. Other states including Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin have exempted gyms from anti-discrimination regulations, just as restrooms and locker rooms are exempt.
The court cases highlight complicated questions that women’s gyms will have to navigate moving forward. Some believe that women-only workout zones amount to the segregation of men. Advocacy groups worry that these spaces might exclude certain demographics within the LGBT community. For example, what if a woman’s gym barred a transgender woman from attending because of other clients’ discomfort? What if customers at a women’s gym demanded that lesbians be excluded lest they sexually objectify other women?
Many gym owners are just on the cusp of grappling with these issues. As is the case with any business, the ability of women’s gyms to adapt and evolve in an ever-changing world will determine their success moving forward.
Pros and Cons of Women-Only Gyms
Given all this, is a women’s gym the right choice for you, or should you stick with a coed environment? Gym membership is a commitment, and will become a big component of your weekly routine, so weigh the pros and cons before deciding.
The Pros of Women’s Gyms
- Less gymtimidation. Smaller spaces and women-only clientele make some women more comfortable working out.
- No male-female sexual harassment. Single-gender workout spaces cut down on the likelihood of harassment.
- Programs just for women. Fitness and nutrition classes, as well as workout routines, can focus on women and their specific physique, biology, and mental health.
- Networking. These gyms can be fertile ground for networking with other women, since you all have fitness as a common starting ground. The nature of circuit training in particular, a popular model at many women’s gyms, nurtures opportunities to talk during workouts.
- More supportive of women’s lifestyles. Some women-only gyms feature on-site childcare for busy moms. Some, like Vacek’s, offer key access so women who work and take care of families can come in at off hours as needed.
The Cons of Women’s Gyms
- Limited membership. Any time you remove an entire category of members (i.e. men), you inherently limit the networking circle and the diversity of perspectives on fitness techniques and goals. Diversity will also be limited if members of the LGBT community don’t feel confident attending.
- Potentially limited workout offerings. Some women’s gyms lack the type of machines and classes that are stereotypically cast as “male” resources. This varies by gym, but it’s an angle you should investigate if you’re used to the offerings at coed gyms.
- No male workout partners. If you already have a male workout partner, like a significant other or good friend, they can’t come with you to the gym.
Find Your Best Fit
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of which gym experience is best for women. Some thrive at women’s fitness centers. Others love their local coed center. The important thing is to choose the gym that best fits your needs, concerns, and goals, while remembering that no business is 100 percent perfect all of the time.