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At its core, movement is universal. Whether weights light your fire, dance feeds your soul, or a run outside provides mental clarity, sweat is the great equalizer that can transcend the differences that set people apart.
But while some pros act as if it’s easy to throw on some shoes and get going, the barrier to entry can feel like an unscalable mountain—especially if you’ve never seen anyone like yourself reach that proverbial summit before.
In theory, social media makes connecting to like-minded fitness enthusiasts simple. There are tons of opportunities to inspire, motivate, and delight—but also to exclude. That’s why following folks who share lived experiences can make a difference. “Representation allows you to dream beyond what you thought possible,” says Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC, a clinical and sport psychologist and the director of the NBA and WNBA’s Mind Health program. “It gives you hope and confidence and creates a sense of belonging.”
Representation isn’t the only way the fitness space is evolving. It’s no longer just about, say, lifting more or running faster, but also strengthening mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness—or “feeling better as a whole person,” says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise.
Indeed, there’s recently been a shift in people’s “why” when it comes to exercising: Stress relief and mental health are now the top two reasons people sweat, according to a report from Mindbody, a workout scheduling platform. “Now we think, What does it mean to be fit in multiple areas of my life?” Gunter says. “If you see people who hold different identities walking journeys similar to yours, it expands your idea of what fitness and community looks like.”
These six women know firsthand that fitness is about more than fitting in. It’s about moving in a way that fills your cup, sharing your truth, and being yourself. As Bryant says, “all individuals deserve to participate in physical activity and experience its benefits”—they just may need a bit of inspo first. We hope you’ll see a piece of yourself in these stars and challenge your definition of fitness. “Belonging happens because a community is created that allows people to bring their full selves to the table,” says Gunter. Time to pull up a seat.
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Curious how you can curate a social feed that lights you up instead of dulling your shine? Try these tips from sport psychologist Kensa Gunter, PsyD.
Look for legit credentials.
Not everyone needs to be a full-fledged expert, but turn your spidey senses on before you take fitness, nutrition, or mental health advice from a follow in your feed. Look for “science-backed, research-backed experience,” Gunter says. Make sure they’re “qualified to be providing the information that they’re providing.”
Do a quick vibe check.
How does their content make you feel? Motivated, inspired, positive? Gunter says that’s a good sign! On the other hand, “if you find yourself comparing or criticizing or judging or having negative feelings as a result of engaging with someone’s content, that’s a sign that that’s not going to be most beneficial for you.”
Compare notes with your inner circle.
See who your friends are following and take suggestions from folks whose opinions you trust. “We are all in this together, whether it’s a fitness journey or just trying to navigate this thing called life,” she says. “Using our community can be a helpful way to sort through the social media waters.”
Make sure you feel safe.
This may be the most important must-do on this list, Gunter emphasizes. Accounts you follow should embrace a welcoming, inclusive environment that respects differences and doesn’t play into any words or concepts that may be triggering for you in the fitness space. Focus on feeling “emotionally and psychologically safe” in terms of how this information is presented.
Trust your gut and clear someone from your feed whose content is not serving you—yes, even if your bestie swears that person is the best in the biz. “It really is trial and error,” Gunter says.
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Jacqueline Andriakos is the Executive Health & Fitness Director at Women’s Health, where she oversees all health and fitness content across WomensHealthMag.com and the print magazine. She has more than five years of experience writing and editing in the wellness space and has contributed to national publications including TIME, Self.com, Health, Real Simple, and People. Jacqueline is also certified in personal training by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Amanda Lucci is the deputy editor of content strategy at Women’s Health and a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has more than 10 years of experience writing, editing, and managing social media strategy for national and international publications.