Gender Divide In Gyms: Why Its Time To Muscle Your Way Into The Fitness Game

As far back as I can remember, there were clear demarcations, not just in the kitchen, at the dining table, in careers or parenting, there was one relating to exercise as well

Richa S Mukherjee
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gender divide in gyms
Since I spend an hour and a half at the gym every day, quite naturally this activity has been identified by the web crawler’s army online and I end up getting a lot of gym and physical fitness-related videos on my social media feed.

That’s where I recently came across a video where a young girl, who seems to have just returned from a workout, fumes over how the instructor kept addressing the entire mixed-gendered class as ‘you ladies’ who needed to be toughened up, pushed and made to get into shape.

If you don’t put in the hard work, there will be no flat abs, no beach bodies, he declared. She was deeply annoyed, firstly by how he was portraying women as some lazy, unmotivated lot of wastrels and then the fact that he was setting goals that were unfair and unrealistic for so many.

What if a girl or a woman just wants to be fit and strong without any biscuits congregating on their abdomens? Why is that so wrong? That’s the thing. It isn’t wrong.

What’s disappointing is that physical fitness, which should be associated with positive things like good health, celebrating one’s body, longevity, determination and happy hormones has now become one more arena where men and women can be pitted against each other, where someone must leave, feeling incapable, unwelcome, like they don’t belong. 2 cereal bars for guessing which side that must be.


From as far back as I can remember and what I gathered from the world around me, there were clear demarcations, not just in the kitchen, at the dining table, in careers or parenting, there was one relating to exercise as well.


Men would focus on building muscle through free hand exercises or using indigenous weights at home while the ladies could indulge in the more genteel options such as walks, aerobics, and Yoga, if at all. Otherwise housework or chasing after groceries and kids like PT Usha was considered exertion enough. Do you remember seeing those black and white videos from the West, where smiling women with picture-perfect bodies are shown ‘working out’ with machines that made it look like they were in a massage parlour and not a gym.

Why must we not overlook the gender divide in gyms?

Women only needed to look toned and presentable, strength and health be damned. But age catches up. The limps, the creaking bones, the mulishly stiff fingers, the bent backs, the crippling knee pain, even in the early ’40s and ’50s, a lifetime of abusing and taking the body for granted manifests into an older couple where the woman is always looking more depleted and worn than her partner. And to think this can be mitigated by paying attention to our bodies early on in life. Yes, any sort of exercise, cardiovascular exercises, yoga, all these are great but gyms too are a wonderful option. Then why do women stay away?

Did you know there is a term used in fitness circles called ‘gymtimidation’, a phenomenon that supposedly explains why so many women stay away from the gym. According to a survey done in the US, 65% of women stayed away from the gym because they felt that they were being judged or stereotyped, which made them very conscious. I’ve been there.

You walk into a gym filled with guys, yelling, helping each other pump, flexing their muscles, and drinking protein shake while a handful of women will be found on the cardio machines. Some sense hostility, as if they are entering a space where they are not welcome. But I’m not going to vilify the guys here. They at least they made it to the gym.

We need to stop being so bothered about how we look and who is looking and instead focus on what our muscles and bones are yearning for inside.


These days, many gyms are making a special effort to onboard women since our needs, construct and motivational factors are different from those of men. There should be no competition or stigma when it comes to health.

Lifting lighter instead of incredibly heavy, working on endurance and flexibility instead of beefy muscles, that’s a holistic and wonderful approach. And it’s a proven fact that strength inspires strength. Just look around. Why should women feel intimidated by ">weights, hailing from a country that’s been put on the international map innumerable times by our weight-lifting women champs. Exercise and fitness are as much about mental tenacity as they are about strength and being roasted daily in the fires of judgement and expectations, who can trump our prowess on that front?!

A survey conducted across a million people in 2019 using data provided by a fitness app, revealed that 53% of women in India are physically inactive and are also burning lesser calories than men on a daily basis. The case worsens in Tier 2 cities. The direct correlation of deficient physical activity is to diseases like hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol. And why stop there? Something else we rarely talk about is how important muscle and bone strength is, especially for women, given our complex anatomies, childbirth etc.

Strength training is non-negotiable to avoid crippling diseases like osteoporosis and arthritis than women are prone to. How you choose to do it, through Yoga, Pilates, weight training, calisthenics, animal flow, capoeira, dancing (I’m losing track, with the plethora of options on hand these days!) just know that only if you prioritise yourself, will you be able to help others. Remember the emergency oxygen mask and safety belt instructions on flights? You first. That applies in this context as well.

While the world is changing, slowly but surely for the better, lets also be realistic and acknowledge that society’s fascination with showing women their place, telling them how to dress, what to eat, where to work, how to live, how to speak, is a centuries-old obsession, hard to resist and is still rampant around the world. But the road to sustainable change is an arduous and pernicious one which takes time. It took many years of persuasion before women weightlifters were allowed to compete in the Olympics.

It took Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi and her husband many years of persecution before she became the first Indian woman of Western medicine. It took Regina Guha, one of the first few women lawyers in the country to agitate endlessly and help bring about an act allowing women into the practice of law. Clearly, we don’t like taking no for an answer but patience and perseverance is key. Sprinkle that with a healthy dose of ‘I don’t give a damn’ and you have a winning recipe.


So, the next time you are headed to a gym and someone cautions you that weight training will make you start looking disproportionate and manly, grab a dumbbell, resist the urge to lob it at their heads and workout. It’s about time the ladies gave them some healthy competition!

Views expressed by the author are their own

Suggested Reading: Beauty Standards And Judgements: It Is Time To Let Go…Of Nonsense!


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