Why the Wellness Industry Needs to Be More Inclusive

Friends laughing together after morning run in downtown neighborhood

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Millions of Americans enjoy wellness activities every week, ranging from fitness classes to meditation, massage, or yoga. Studies have demonstrated that participation in these activities can have a substantial impact on both community and personal health. But there is also strong evidence that access is not equal when it comes to health and wellness services.

Communities of color have a harder time taking part in activities that can have a tangible impact on their health. Whether it is limited access to nutritious foods or simply not feeling included in fitness studios and gyms, there is a discouraging perception that wellness is for white people.

Examining these implicit messages and understanding the societal impact of the barriers they create may be helpful in leveling the wellness playing field.

The Power of Wellness

The wellness industry is a major player in the global economy, generating trillions of dollars of revenue each year. And the activities that fall under the wellness umbrella play a significant role in our day-to-day health.

Financial Power

"Wellness" is a broad overarching term that encompasses practices including nutrition and healthy eating, yoga, meditation, mind-body practices, fitness, weight-loss, spa retreats, workplace wellness, and wellness tourism. The wellness industry that provides these services is worth 4.5 trillion dollars, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), and the industry is still growing.

Within the wellness industry, personal care, beauty, and anti-aging accounts for the largest economic player, valued at $1.1 billion globally. But physical activity (valued at $828 billion), healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss (valued at $702 billion) are not far behind.

The Global Wellness Institute estimates that the physical activity sector of the wellness industry will be valued at $1.1 trillion by 2023.

Health Impact

Physical activity (which includes sports, physical activity, fitness, and mindful movement) and healthy nutritional practices have a well documented impact on personal health outcomes and on community healthcare spending.

For example, a large body of evidence has shown that mindful movement (including practices such as tai chi and yoga) can improve cognitive and attention skills in healthy adults and in those with ADHD.

There is also evidence that these practices can lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, decrease stress, reduce inflammatory markers, lower blood pressure, and decrease pain.

A regular practice of physical exercise has been associated with health benefits including:

  • Better sleep
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Weight loss and healthy weight maintenance
  • Reduced risk for a wide range of illnesses including arthritis, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and eight types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer

In fact, according to the authors of one published report, the effects of exercise are so powerful that it should be considered a drug. And large scale studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have suggested that helping adults meet exercise guidelines may reduce overall U.S. healthcare spending.

These benefits have the capacity to address many of the disparities in low-income communities of color. However, they are not equally available to everyone.

Racial Imbalances in Health and Wellness

For most people, improving wellness starts with basic steps such as getting regular health check-ups and making simple changes to daily habits—like eating more fruits and vegetables, taking steps to decrease stress, and increasing daily movement. These foundational activities may be more difficult if you are a person of color.

Health and Nutrition

Access to healthy foods (such as fresh meat and produce) is a well-documented problem in neighborhoods of color. Several studies document that the food available in poor Black neighborhoods is less fresh and of lower quality than in white neighborhoods.

In contrast, alcohol outlets are much more common in those areas. Experts note that it is not surprising that rates of obesity and diabetes are highest in poor Black neighborhoods.

And even getting basic health care may be more difficult. Participation in some fitness programs may require or suggest clearance from a healthcare provider.

Fitness and Wellness

According to the GWI, there is no question that there is a huge disparity in physical activity access across different socioeconomic groups. They note that even though the commercial fitness sector is expanding its reach, they are still targeting primarily those who are more able and likely to exercise, specifically, the educated, more affluent, younger demographics, and those living in major urban centers and wealthy suburban areas.

If you look at participant spending, it becomes evident why fitness is marketed to upper-income populations. Wellness spending in the U.S. is substantially higher than it is in other parts of the world.

In North America, spending averages $1,345 per participant per year, compared to $528 in Europe and just $45 per participant per year in sub-Saharan Africa.

The GWI does not provide specific data about disparities based on race in North America. But they acknowledge that it is a problem. Beth McGroarty is the Director of Research and PR at the Global Wellness Institute and she is direct when she explains the situation.

BETH McGROARTY, GLOBAL WELLNESS INSTITUTE

The issue of elitism and lack of inclusivity and access to all kinds of wellness for people of color has been a stubborn, unacceptable problem in a wellness market that has been pitched too narrowly to wealthy white women.

— BETH McGROARTY, GLOBAL WELLNESS INSTITUTE

Findings from recent research studies provide additional evidence of the problem. For example, a study published in 2018 entitled “Maybe Black Girls Do Yoga” investigated interest in and access to mind-body therapies, such as yoga and mindfulness among Black women of different ages.

While they were seeking healthy ways to manage stress, the women in the study identified barriers including limited access to convenient classes and conflicts regarding yoga's spiritual component.

Other studies report that communities of color are less likely to be sufficiently active, and are less likely to be engaged in mindfulness practices.

In a study investigating why yoga is underutilized by communities of color, researchers found that many participants confronted a wide range of barriers including concerns about injury risk and a lack of confidence in their ability to perform the practices.

The Daily Impact of Racial Bias

While statistics and data from focus groups and research studies provide clear evidence of an access imbalance, it can be helpful to bring it down to a personal level and examine what it really means in the daily lives of people of color.

Kjirsten Fogelson is a biracial yoga instructor who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Even though it would seem that as a fitness leader she has an established footprint in the wellness space, she still says she often feels left out.

"When I go into a gym or a studio, I often don't feel included because white bodies dominate the space," Fogelson says. "Marketing materials, posters, and literature generally feature white participants, gyms are less likely to play musical artists of color, and even language is geared more for a white audience."

She adds that yoga intentions set at the beginning of class to ground your practice rarely amplify voices of color. Fogelson says that she would like to see companies held more accountable for their promises of inclusiveness. She would also like to see the media landscape change.

KJIRSTEN FOGELSON, YOGA INSTRUCTOR

If you Google yoga or any type of exercise, you'll see primarily images of thin, blond, white women. This is racially problematic because it promotes a misconception that black people don't care about health. We need to change the narrative of who can be well.

— KJIRSTEN FOGELSON, YOGA INSTRUCTOR

She says that exposure to television commercials, printed media, and online images promoting white images of wellness can send a strong message—especially when you see them from a young age.

"You see that you are not part of the industry and that can add to the mental health issues, trauma, and stress that are already experienced at higher rates in communities of color," she says.

Efforts to Rebalance the Industry

While it is clear that there is substantial work to be done in the wellness arena, there is some evidence that some change may be on the horizon. And in fact, there are some Black members of the fitness community whose experience has been positive.

D Gunnz is a spin instructor in New York City who says his experiences both as a gym member and now as an instructor have been positive. He says that he has not felt judged and he feels that his access has not been limited because of race.

"I'm a Black man," he says. "People can obviously see that when I come in to teach. But I use my talent and enthusiasm to transcend any barriers that might exist."

He goes on to describe the fitness industry as a meritocracy. But he also acknowledges that Manhattan is a unique environment. "I'm becoming more aware that New York is a bubble," he says. In the midst of the current racial climate, he says he is spending more time talking to friends and family about power.

D GUNNZ, SPIN INSTRUCTOR

When you're on a spin bike you have to use resistance to generate power. I can translate that message to the world.

— D GUNNZ, SPIN INSTRUCTOR

Fogelson is using her experience and expertise to start a nonprofit. The organization, called Colorful Movement, will work to bring diversity into the framework of yoga in order to unify the practice and increase the growth of Black and Brown leaders in the community.

Specifically, she will work to provide resources such as mats, supplies, water bottles, and clothing to make it more convenient and affordable for people of color to practice.

The Global Wellness Institute is in the process of a series of ongoing conversations about overcoming the barriers that confront communities of color. A recent GWI Wellness Master Class featured Dr. Nicola Finley discussing health disparities in Black and Brown communities. And its Global Wellness Summit is promoting an initiative to encourage people to buy from wellness businesses owned by Black women.

Other large established organizations are also working toward change. The American College of Sports Medicine released a statement in June 2020 acknowledging the inequity problem and committing to a new focus of inclusion, specifically to their Leadership and Diversity Training Program.

Other organizations, including the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Cardiology, have released statements since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Each organization is committing to a greater focus on diversity and equality.

A Word From Verywell

While it is encouraging to see a trend toward a focus on improved access and diversity, it remains to be seen whether or not the movement will continue to be a front-burner issue in the business and wellness industry. It will also take time before the impact of any changes will be seen on a large-scale level.

In the meantime, anyone can take steps to change the wellness environment. In addition to supporting businesses founded by people of color, Fogelson suggests other changes that business owners and wellness practitioners can make. "Just providing tools and products for people with different bodies and hair can make a difference," she says.

And she says that taking a hard look at music choices, images, and other environmental factors would be a good first step. If you're not a business owner but simply a participant, Fogelson says that language choices can make a big difference. She says that using words like "ghetto" to describe broken equipment or pointing out differences in the appearance of Black or brown hair may seem inconsequential, but they have an impact.

And D Gunnz suggests that all of us can "adapt, adjust, and improvise." What we do in the studio, he says, can translate to and have a real impact on our world outside.

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Article Sources
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