I am an atypical Plex-er. A gym class hipster, if you will. I jump rope, run a couple laps around the track and generally burn 50% of my energy trying not to be a hazard to more serious exercisers. Even still, it never took long for me to pick up on what other people were doing at the Plex—and what others thought of it.
Exercisers in-the-know suspend themselves from a confusing strappy jungle gym or jump repeatedly on and off boxes like JJ Watt. Rowers erg and runners spend an hour pounding plastic on the treadmill. Beefy guys and wannabe beefy guys are magnetized to the weight area. And girls go to group fitness.
Girls go to group fitness to look cute and burn calories and justify wearing Lululemon. How embarrassing, I thought, to take riding a tiny bike that goes nowhere, or stepping on and off a piece of plastic seriously. The one time I went to Fitlates, I did so with a sneer.
Back in Colorado, my tomboy classmates and I climbed mountains in tee shirts and track shorts. We ran and played sports and got dirty doing it. That is to say, what made me uncomfortable about group fitness at BC was that it wasn’t masculine and so I thought it was silly and weak.
In retrospect, I can see that my 5-minute long, Fitlates-induced butt spasm was karma. As I lay there on the floor, nursing my broken butt and bruised ego, everyone else in the class kept cranking out air bicycles and clamshell leg motions. I could ride a real bike, so why couldn’t I do this?
And that’s when it hit me: these girls were strong!
So I tried TBC-Step. At first glance, it was a room full of women bobbing up and down and waving their arms around like an over-enthused troop of flight attendants, indicating the exit rows. Then we incorporated weighted bars the size of my forearm and lunged until it seemed like really, there was no way we could lunge anymore. But we did, for 2 more minutes. We all did. Even me.
At the end of class, when I left the TBC-Step and merged with the stream of people exiting the main exercise room, I felt stronger. Sure that what we’d done in the MPR was more impressive than what I would have achieved hopping around by myself in a more sober setting.
And that is more or less the magic of group fitness for many women. It makes working out a motivational, team-building and social experience without, it turns out, sacrificing physical intensity.
“A lot of girls come to BC having played sports their whole lives and choose not to in college. Group fitness offers them that team feeling,” says student spin instructor Molly Davis, MCAS ‘18. “It’s a whole group of women choosing to be there, and the energy is exciting.”
It’s true that camaraderie and support are not in short supply at group fitness classes. Whether it’s encouraging whoops in a dance battle at Zumba, smiles exchanged in the mirror at Barre, or an instructor urging you to keep going for a few more seconds, an underlying current of positivity is consistent in all of BC’s fitness classes.
At other gyms, or in the dining hall, you might hear women telling each other, “This last set is for our Spring Break bodies,” or, “After this we’ll work off what we ate!” Student fitness instructor and personal trainer Erica Lindsey, MCAS ’18, acknowledges that the pressure to fit in and project a perfect self is a motivator for many women participating in group fitness. However, “The Plex programs do a great job of diverting away from that,” she says.
In her spin classes, Davis uses verbal affirmations to divert her students’ thoughts away from negativity, and towards bodily health. “The messaging I use in class is, ‘You all look so strong in this movement,’” she says. “Or, ‘Notice how your bodies are moving right now.’”
The hope is that words and phrases centered on strength can help women reframe how they perceive of their own bodies. After hearing Davis’ words and paying more attention to how I move throughout a day, I stopped thinking of my forever-twiggy legs as, well, sticks, and felt a lot sturdier and prouder to be standing on them.
But even if the women in group fitness classes know the workout is hard and feel stronger for it, there still remains the fear that men don’t see it as legitimate. Equally problematic is the norm that men don’t go to group fitness (or that if they do, they risk being seen as effeminate).
For Davis and many women on this campus, the solution is bringing male friends to fitness classes. Typically when she invites the guys, only a few show up. But, those who do go enjoy themselves and walk out with newfound respect for the difficulty of the workout. Slowly but surely, as more men trickle into yoga and spin, their presence in the room becomes unsurprising.
But getting men to group fitness class is also about changing their perceptions of the women who do these activities. “Having men in that setting could have a strong impact on the way men on our campus perceive of women on our campus,” Davis says. “They would recognize: The workout is hard. These women are doing it, and they’re doing it really well.”
In coed classrooms on campus, BC men see their female peers being smart and outspoken every day. For now, in the MPR, it is largely women who are present to admire one another’s feats of strength and endurance.
Many on campus (myself, Davis and Lindsey included) would agree that greater integration and inclusion in group fitness classes is a future to aim for. Exercise is exercise, and to make it exclusive to any body is nonsensical.
Still, there’s some nostalgia around the idea of letting go of (or, actively moving away from) one of the only distinctly female settings on campus. “It’s nice having a space that is like, this is our space! This is where we feel powerful,” says Lindsey. “You lose a little of that sisterhood. There’s a weight on both sides of the scale.”