On Being Visible

A few days ago, I was working out in a park with a bunch of friends.  We were enjoying ourselves while jumping rope, doing planks, roundhouse kicks, push-ups, and all that stuff which I used to hate, but has grown fun for me over time.

As we were running backwards along the park, on a busy street in North Oakland, I was seized by a brief moment of panic.  It was a sort of panic I hadn’t felt in awhile.  After working out regularly for several years now, I’ve come to take my fitness for granted sometimes.  But, in this moment, I was overcome by a sudden realization that people could see us.  Lots of people.  They could see me in particular, running backwards and trying not to trip over my own feet.  Eek!

I was reminded of all of the shame I used to feel regularly when I would exercise in public:  are my boobs jiggling?  Is some idiot guy gonna say something stupid?  Is a spandex-clad, super fast cyclist going to give me unsolicited advice about my posture?

There are so many public health initiatives lauding the benefits of exercise.  And, I agree: I believe that regular exercise can have a tremendous impact on well-being. However, we as fitness professionals also need to take seriously the barriers people face in getting regular exercise.  It’s not so easy to go out for a jog in your neighborhood when you experience harassment for your size, age, race, gender presentation.  It’s not so easy to go out for a jog in your neighborhood if there is regular violence.  It’s not so easy if there are no sidewalks, or if drivers aren’t used to seeing pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, there’s been a proliferation of outdoor “boot-camp” type fitness classes.  On one hand, these classes can provide camaraderie in the visibility of exercising outside.  On the other hand, for many people, old traumas and memories of middle school gym class are stirred up.  The fear of “doing it wrong” in front of a group of people can be massive.  The competitive nature of these classes can often turn people away.  I know they did for me: what if I can’t run fast enough, jump high enough?

So, considering all of this, what can we do to support one another in achieving exercise goals that are right for each of us and our bodies?

Simple actions can go a long way.  Next time you’re working out with other people, say something encouraging.  Smile.  Take time to appreciate the skills of the person next to you, especially if they have a different set of skills than what you bring to the table.  Everyone’s body moves in a different way, and it’s truly amazing the diversity of strength and capacity that we all have.

So, those are some things I’ve been thinking about these days.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, concerns!





  1. Mo

    Oh my goodness, this is why I don’t work out in gyms. And maybe why I like cycling? Because it can be done alone or with people you trust- although you’re in public you’re also in a little privacy bubble because you’re going so fast.

    It’s something I really struggle with as a fat person- When I’m out of breath or struggling I can’t help but think that people must be looking at me and thinking “Of course that person’s breathing hard- they’re fat.”

    Anyways, there have been a few times I’ve had drivers shout nice things out their window- once a woman drove by at my speed and said “Is that an electric bike?” and I said no and she responded, “Damn! You’re going so fast! You go!” Needless to say, I felt pretty good about myself.

  2. bruin.

    this is great rachel! disability also impacts why a lot of folks struggle with exercising out in the world–i always can’t believe the amount of commentary and condescension folks offer depending on how my body is working on any particular day. boo that. yay liberatory movement! ❤

  3. Rotfeld

    Rachel, I really love this post. This topic really piqued my curiosity. Visibility is the corollary to privacy…it’s very healthy for the morale to get yourself out there. it can be distracting, but once you get over being self-conscious in public, you realize that you are (and probably should be) your own toughest critic.
    ~ MR (your fellow CPT)

  4. Tyler

    Hey Rachel nice post. I have been doing personal training for a few years now and this is one of the biggest concerns that my clients have. Some of them are very insecure about themselves especially in the beginning when they just start. I like to have space in my gym where they could be a little bit more private.

  5. Trevor

    Couldn’t agree more, I think to really achieve your fitness goals you have to forgot about what others are thinking and do it for yourself. There’s no coincidence that the majority of people I speak to that are having issues with their fitness are also the same people who have confidence issues. The two are definitely intertwined.

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