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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photo by Dre Castillo.

Gyms can be intimidating. More than that, they can feel unwelcoming or entirely inaccessible to people who don’t meet stereotypical fitness ideals.

After months of working out at home during the pandemic, I had mixed feelings about returning to my neighborhood gym. On one hand, I was eager to use equipment and feel less isolated; on the other, I was reluctant to face scrutiny over my body and feel like I don’t fit in.

Many people — including women, People of Color, trans or nonbinary people, and people with disabilities — may feel like most gyms are not designed with their bodies in mind. This has not gone unnoticed.

In recent years, a growing number of fitness organizations that aim to serve these particular groups have been cropping up across the country.

Often founded by people from marginalized groups drawing on personal experience, these fitness organizations create safe and affirming spaces that embrace and celebrate people with bodies typically left out of conventional gym culture, which tends to center around nondisabled, muscular, and white cisgender men.

Clients say specialized gyms go beyond offering an inclusive space to exercise — they provide a fun source of community. Not only do these people report feeling happy and strong, they also cherish meaningful connections with fellow members.

Here are three of their stories and the fitness organizations they say made a positive impact on their lives.

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Nina Kossoff, left, leaning against the ropes after a workout. Photo by Max Adler.

As many people who attend fitness classes can attest, it’s all about the instructor.

Prior to the pandemic, Nina Kossoff had taken a boxing class for queer and trans people with Max Adler, a onetime competitive boxer. When Adler, who is trans himself, launched OutBox, a boxing and fitness club that centers on queer and trans clients, Kossoff was immediately on board.

“There’s a higher level of understanding of the heightened relationship queer and trans people people have with their bodies,” Kossoff said of working out with Adler at OutBox.

Some participants may experience body image concerns or dysmorphia that queer-led classes are especially sensitive to, Kossoff noted.

“Working out is an inherently vulnerable experience,” Kossoff said, praising Adler’s attentiveness to the individual needs and abilities of everyone in his group classes, which were held outdoors during the pandemic.

In addition to encouraging people to listen to their bodies and modify movements as necessary, Adler also challenges his class regulars to push themselves.

Adler launched OutBox, which will open a studio location in Williamsburg this fall, during his own gender transition, when he felt especially uncomfortable returning to his old gym.

“I wanted to create a space where there’s no gender barriers, where queer and trans people can come and be comfortable,” he said. Adler also offers private training tailored to pre- and post-transition needs that he hopes to expand into broader programs.

In addition to offering a certain cathartic release, boxing is accessible to all different body types and fosters social connections, Adler noted.

“The sense of community is awesome,” he said of OutBox.

Kossoff agreed. OutBox classes offer “a chance to hang out with other queer people with similar interests,” they said. “That’s sort of taken for granted in other spaces; the whole world is a place for straight people to meet.”

Ultimately, Adler wants people to feel excited rather than daunted about working out.

“Having people who never felt like they had a space in sports come in and surprise themselves — that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

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Chris, right, at Special Strong before a match. Photo courtesy of Special Strong.

Chris Cameron was already playing basketball and flag football with the Frisco Flyers, a Texas-based Special Olympics team, when he started working out at Special Strong. The gym is designed for people with a range of disabilities and has multiple locations across Texas and Arizona.

Special Strong’s offer to host a boot camp for the Flyers turned into an ongoing relationship with the team. Cameron, who is autistic, began exercising regularly at Special Strong, including one private training session and one group class per week in addition to working out on his own every other day.

“He’s totally focused on his health and fitness because of what he’s learned through his experience with Special Strong,” said Donna Lankford, Cameron’s mother, who became a training manager there after she recognized its positive influence on their lives.

Special Strong is designed for a diverse array of people with disabilities, Lankford said. This ranges from people with Down syndrome or cognitive impairments to those with physical limitations, whether from a condition like multiple sclerosis or after surgery.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Lankford said of Special Strong’s approach. “It has to be very, very customized to each client.” Personal assessments begin with a phone intake, followed by a complimentary in-person session to establish someone’s particular needs and goals.

“You have to meet people where they are, and be able to understand where they’re at, before you begin to help them,” Lankford said.

Cameron added that group classes are especially fun, and trainers are good at maintaining the flow while attending to individual members who may become overly excited.

“The special needs community doesn’t get a lot of time for socialization,” Lankford said. Special Strong provides opportunities for members to see their friends and participate in activities designed especially for them, unlike much of the rest of the world.

“This is their thing,” Lankford said. “This community can stand up and accomplish things just like everybody else.”

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Gym members at Miriam Fitness after a workout. Photo courtesy of Miriam Fitness.

For Filsan Ibrahim and her sisters, working out has become a family affair. Before getting involved with Miriam Fitness, opened by training coach Miriam Mongare in October 2020, Ibrahim said she wasn’t really all that active.

“If you’re not a buff guy, gyms are just not the place that you want to be,” Ibrahim said. But Mongare’s studio, which welcomes all women, especially women of color and Muslim women, felt like “a win,” Ibrahim said.

“It’s definitely night and day” compared with previous gym experiences, she said.

Ibrahim said she feels comfortable at Miriam Fitness, knowing there’s no judgement or unwanted attention. This was not the case at the local YMCA, where she recalled that her sister once experienced a racist confrontation from another member.

“It’s a safe and welcoming community,” she said of Miriam Fitness.

Now, Ibrahim works out three times a week with three of her sisters — with the hopes of convincing her fourth sister and their mother to join someday, too.

Mongare creates fitness programs that feel suitable to all levels, Ibrahim said, including daily circuits focused on different areas, like legs one day and endurance another.

“It really does a lot for how you feel about yourself,” Ibrahim said of regular exercise with a supportive community. “It changes your life.”

Ibrahim said she is especially grateful to Mongare for extending the benefits of working out to Women of Color and Muslim women, who elsewhere may encounter preconceived notions or outright discrimination based on their appearance or how they dress.

“Being hijabis, being Muslim, just being women, our strength isn’t something that’s appreciated,” Ibrahim said. People tend to have more gendered expectations that women like her are polite or pretty, Ibrahim said.

“It’s nice to show that this is another part of you — oh, you’re [also] really strong,” she said.

Naveen Kumar is a culture critic and journalist whose recent work appears on them.us, The Daily Beast, and Vox.