Inclusive fitness is the alternative to toxic diet and weight-loss culture
Like most social media apps, the fitness side of TikTok is full of content — workout regimes, food videos, and body positive influencers float around For You Pages sharing an overwhelming amount of information about personal health and body image. While some FYPs are awash in hundreds of gym bros, visually-appealing fruit bowls, and “What I eat in a day” videos, others are filled with less popular, but still important, conversations about what health means for people with diverse bodies and life experiences.
Many of these conversations are helmed by fitness and health professionals who promote what they call an inclusive fitness culture — fat-positive, intersectional programs that don’t focus on weight loss or goal-setting in the traditional sense and in doing so, subvert the often unapproachable, even unsafe, fitness spaces found both online and in-person.
Inclusive fitness culture acknowledges a variety of experiences and identities: people with disabilities, fat bodies, neurodivergent people who need accommodations in exercise programs, transgender and gender nonconforming people, and people of color. Just like the medical industry, health spaces contain a multitude of biases and institutional barriers that prevent the fitness world from being a safe space for all. In addition to male-dominated gyms that can put women in danger, queer and fat communities battle constant microaggressions in fitness spaces, and people of color navigate a world where their physical appearance is discriminated against. Intersectional fitness seeks to address the misogyny, racism, and fatphobia we’ve come to accept in the fitness world.
So, in come a new generation of “fitfluencers” using TikTok to share another perspective on health and fitness. Videos using the #bodyinclusive hashtag have racked up more than 3 million views, while the broader #dietculture and #nondiet tags appear throughout the fitness content and have gathered hundreds of millions of viewers. It’s important to note, though, that not all of these videos actually share inclusive fitness content, so keep a discerning eye while scrolling.
Appreciating your body, what it does for you every day, and holding space for your body.
AK MacKellar is a certified trainer and personal fitness coach, and the founder of Free to Move, an online, queer-inclusive movement program (a phrase that centers positive, enjoyable movement rather than intense exercise). It offers workout courses and other wellness resources catered to building positive, queer fitness communities. “I talk — broken record style — in my classes about appreciating your body, what it does for you every day, and holding space for your body. Using fitness and using movement as a way to change how you feel, and change what you feel in your body and in your mind,” MacKellar said.
MacKellar also runs a successful fitness TikTok account. Here, their workout videos de-emphasize appearance and diet in favor of intuitive movement, and share resources for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, primarily for a queer audience. “I think there’s this long-held belief and ingrained idea in all of our brains that fitness equals weight loss, and that’s the goal. That’s the only goal and there’s no other reason to do it. That’s such a shame,” MacKellar said.
Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association, agrees that this traditional fitness thinking can have a dangerous effect on the mental health of many marginalized groups. “Fitness influencers, the diet industry, exercise companies, gyms, etc., often promote dangerous messages to their followers or their consumers that can instill a disordered relationship with food, body image, and exercise issues,” she explained. Kronengold pointed out that a lot of fitness language (like “earn those calories”) assigns a moral worth to eating and exercise, which can negatively impact people who struggle with eating disorders and body acceptance.
MacKellar is a former athlete who wasn’t originally working in the fitness space. In 2019, they had a bike accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury and limited their ability to participate in the traditional fitness routines they used before. Instead, they started a career as a fitness coach, taking courses and training that emphasized alternative, holistic health programs — ones that accounted for their experiences as both a nonbinary and neurodivergent person. These are now core elements of the fitness programs they offer on TikTok and through Free to Move, in a fat-positive, queer-accepting, non-diet space.
In practice, that means MacKellar focuses on representation, seeing people of your own identity and experiences leading a class or exercising near you. It also means divorcing the idea of fitness from the gender binary: Gym environments are inherently gendered (think men’s and women’s locker rooms, “women-friendly” machines, or even fitness classes divided along the gender binary) as are many diet apps, athletic wear, and other curated online fitness conten
t. MacKellar, on the other hand, makes their workouts universal. They avoid gendered language in their coaching and utilize queer music, icons, and other cultural references.
The program also avoids conversations about “normal” or “ideal” bodies, and emphasizes frequent personal check-ins as you exercise. You should never feel pushed or coerced into pain while exercising, they explain. “The biggest thing that I want folks to take away is that they’re listening to their body and doing whatever they need to feel safe, to feel comfortable, and to feel good in this workout,” they said.
On TikTok, some of MacKellar’s most popular videos are found in their “True Beginner” series, designed to share approachable workouts that are actually for beginners — no strenuous or complex exercises that could create barriers for people with disabilities, those who have never worked out before, or neurodivergent people who might not be able to focus through a 30 minute workout, they explained. Some of these include fully seated workouts that can be done in any environment, or exercises that don’t put strain on specific body parts, like knees or wrists. The workouts are designed to adapt to the needs of the person, and free of the expectation that you need to “level up” your workout or “work up” to an end goal, whether that’s a specific number of reps, speed, or weight. This kind of thinking is not only shame and guilt-inducing, it can lead to injury or harmful eating and exercise behaviors, MacKellar and Kronengold agree.
While MacKellar shares inclusive fitness tips to their 131,000 TikTok followers, Malarie Burgess went viral for fitness videos that reject diet culture and embrace intersectionality. Her page, @thejockscientist, aims to take back exercise from the toxic diet and wellness space, and instead promotes new understandings of how food and exercise fit into your day-to-day life.
Burgess, who uses they/she pronouns and wishes to use both in this article, has worked in the fitness industry for 10 years. Now they’re an exercise physiologist, with both a degree in exercise science and a training certification from the American College of Sports Medicine, and works full time as an exercise specialist for a local government office on aging. They say this experience helped inform her perspective on intersectional fitness.
“I specifically work with older adults and adults with disabilities. And that really opened my worldview up in fitness, because [they] don’t really take the approach to exercise that many folks and young adults do,” they said. “It’s about being able to maintain your independence and maintain your function and make sure your body is working to the best of its ability. And using exercise to help with that kind of longevity.”
Burgess’ TikTok reflects those ideas, focusing on reassurance that all forms of movement, health, and appearance are valid. “I want people to not be scared of fitness, if they can approach it. Because we’ve been taught for so long that it’s a punishment for what we eat, or how we look, or that we need to be doing it for a really specific reason,” she said.
If you’re disabled, you’re a person of color, if you’re queer, those spaces exist.
Other videos on Burgess’ page breakdown how diet culture was fed to people throughout the 2000’s, how to combat fatphobia, and how to create inclusive exercises for people with chronic illness or disabilities. She also shares workout and health tips that acknowledge the emotional impact of the media’s fitness obsession. She wants her account to validate diverse experiences. “My particular little space will always be a safe space for individuals of all types. If you’re disabled, you’re a person of color, if you’re queer, those spaces exist,” Burgess said.
Burgess points out a few red and green flags for finding fitness programs that might be more inclusive. Try to avoid professionals or classes that use phrases like “get in shape” or other appearance-focused terms that imply there’s a single, ideal body image. Professionals who use diet or BMI (Body Mass Index) measurements, before and after photos, or body part measurements to gauge progress are also no-goes for Burgess. And consider what kind of photos they’re sharing on their fitness pages. Do they work with diverse clients?
“You can inquire about it if you are interviewing somebody. Someone that’s worked with a lot of diverse populations, I’ve found in my experience, tends to be more adaptable, and they’re going to be better at individualizing your program,” Burgess explained.
Kronengold also flags the terms “regime” and “program” as signs of potentially unhealthy fitness behavior and noninclusive spaces, because this often implies strict goal setting and weight loss, rather than fitness for “pleasure,” she said. Instead, she suggests people find certified professionals that use terms like “joyful movement” or “intuitive movement” in their marketing, much like Burgess and MacKellar use.
It’s important to keep in mind, Kronenberg says, that fitness influencers and professionals are ultimately selling you something, trying to earn money or followers to build their own careers. And the thing that often sells best is claiming they can fix your insecurities. On the other side of the spectrum, Burgess and MacKellar say they turn away people who aren’t looking to have conversations about non-diet focused, intersectional fitness, and only seek weight loss.
For all the professionals dipping their followers’ toes into the inclusive fitness world, there are others who still perpetuate a harmful diet culture, stigmatize certain bodies, and threaten to expose many to harmful weight loss behaviors. Deconstructing the diet culture monster and internalized fatphobia is a long battle. “I will take that beating so that this can continue to be a space where people can unpack their relationship with their body, with food, with exercise, because I think there’s been a lot of damage done to a lot of individuals, and I want to help undo that damage,” Burgess said.
There’s hope that people in need will stumble across their accounts and find a space that is comforting and accessible, filled with reassurances and an emphasis on the personal, individual nature of fitness and health. No shame involved.
“It is sort of like a David and Goliath situation,” MacKellar said. “There’s all these small trainers and people scattered all over the world… Using their tiny platforms and voices to try to make a difference. Trying to fight that real big beast.”
If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone about your eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also text “NEDA” to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line or visit the nonprofit’s website for more information.