Mixing fitness and politics in Trump's America is not for the weak

Source: Shutterstock, Thrive as the Fittest, eakinwale

Chatting about President Trump in between sets of squats? Steady, now. For some fitness buffs, keeping politics out of the gym is a cardinal rule. 

A website for indoor cycling professionals even cautions against mentioning politics during fitness classes. "It's insulting and demeaning to lecture other adults about pretty much anything, especially things political," a blog post on the site stated. 

Mixing politics and any business is risky, but some fitness trainers have decided they don't want to sit on the sidelines in the wake of Trump's presidency. 

Minneapolis-based fitness trainer Jen Sinkler previously kept her professional Facebook page (around 60,000 followers) free of political conversations, but she decided to start speaking out on politics after the 2016 election in mid-December.

Redefining "locker room talk"

On December 12, Sinkler lost more than 300 followers on her professional Facebook page. They left her because she gauged interest in talking about politics and human rights, and then posted about Oregon college student Aria Watson's #SignedByTrump photography project

"A few longtime customers told me they would not be able to support my business anymore," Sinkler said in an email. "One said breaking up was hard to do; another declared with more vigor that she was dumping me."

On the bright side, many praised her efforts. Sinkler noted she's received "an onslaught" of positive comments and new followers. In fact, the new followers almost exactly replaced the fleeing followers. 

Sinkler isn't the only one in the fitness community who's been broadening their conversations online. Erin Brown, a body positive activist, has blogged about racial identity and Elisabeth Akinwale, a CrossFit Games competitor, has posted about author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last Friday, Brown along with California-based trainer Neghar Fonooni, launched a podcast titled "Nasty Women Radio" that will address topics that have historically been taboo for women. 

Fonooni and Brown talk on "Nasty Women Radio."
Source: Nasty Women Radio/YouTube

"We've decided that we are not only okay with being nasty, but that we would rather be nasty in today's patriarchal society than be silent," Fonooi wrote in a Facebook post

Subtle acts of solidarity

Offline and in fitness studios, trainers have found less direct, but still engaging ways to address the divisive political climate. 

"As much as I refrained from vocally discussing the election, the one major tool I had and continue to use to express myself is through the music I choose," Jessica Rabanzo-Flores, head of training for fitBallet in New York City, said in an email.

"You don't build muscle without tearing the fibers first, either." —Jen Sinkler 

In several fitness classes, she played Janet Jackson's "Nasty Woman" and Destiny's Child's "Nasty Girl" to show her support for Hillary Clinton. Other class anthems have included "We the People" by A Tribe Called Quest, "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye, "The Day Women Take Over" by Common, and En Vogue's "Free Your Mind.". 

"I don't want to force my opinion onto clients that may be escaping [politics during class] but I tapped onto the emotional aspect of it," Patrick Frost, an instructor at Barry's Bootcamp in New York City, said in an email. When Frost asked about injuries before classes after the election, he told class participants to mentally check in with "emotional damage due to recent events" before they dove into the workout of the day. 

Sweating for empowerment

"If it's our job to encourage people to bring out their best selves physically, why not have the ability to ignite thoughtfulness and social consciousness, when possible and appropriate?" — Jessica Rabanzo-Flores, head of training for fitBallet

For fitBallet's Rabanzo-Flores, fitness is more than physical training — it's about motivating people to release their inhibitions and push past personal insecurities. " [Fitness trainers] challenge [clients'] bodies physically, while also inspiring them mentally, to push past any sort of limitations they think they have, encouraging them to believe that their bodies are strong and beautiful," she explained. 

"If it's our job to encourage people to bring out their best selves physically, why not have the ability to ignite thoughtfulness and social consciousness, when possible and appropriate?" Rabanzo-Flores said.

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But working out itself is also form of empowerment, she says. "Often times people come to class to get their day started or to de-stress from a full day at work and [fitness trainers] allow them to not have to think about all the BS," Rabanzo-Flores said. "We can't tackle the bigs things until we can take care of ourselves and be whole and healthy human beings"

Sinkler agreed. "Strong begets strong. It's contagious; it influences other areas of your life and the people around you. We're gonna need to be strong for this, and that needs to be the messaging."

In the wake of 2016's divisive election, should the fitness industry start getting more political? 

"I'd love to say 'hell yes,' but it's probably closer to 'maybe,' or 'I wish,' or 'I have no idea,'" Sinkler said, explaining that some fitness professionals might not be prepared emotionally or financially to deal with any resulting fallout. "I feel out of my depth sometimes (a lot of times), but I'm willing to learn, stretch, and grow in the name of the greater good," she said.

"You don't build muscle without tearing the fibers first, either," Sinkler said. "It's uncomfortable. And it will make you stronger."