For some time now, university campuses have been in the business of creating safe spaces for their students. As things go with critical pedagogy, particularly in the humanities, it can be a challenge to unpack what exactly a concept like safe space is, or what it is supposed to accomplish. In general, I understand a safe space to be one in which students can congregate and discuss how or why or whether they feel marginalized, often with respect to the study of a text on the syllabus, or perhaps in reaction to a new development in current affairs. The space is designated as safe because it is designed to eliminate, or minimize, any sense that one is being compelled to ignore or discount feelings of discomfort while studying a controversial text or thinking about a controversial issue.
It sounds reasonable and harmless in theory.
Yet safe spaces are themselves not without controversy, provoking claims that they undermine the integrity of intellectual pursuits by morphing into insidious hotbeds of intolerance. And like restorative justice policies adopted by one public school system that seek to replace suspension with counseling, and criticisms of parental discipline tactics like corporal punishment or spanking as obsolete and ineffective, they have also met criticism for being another manifestation of how universities coddle and infantilize their students.
Though I have my opinions, I am not an expert on trends in critical pedagogy. The movement to establish safe spaces on campus drew my interest recently not simply for how it exemplifies the overreach and occasional absurdity of modern-day political correctness, but because the movement seemed to have infiltrated so much of our cultural space that it was suddenly affecting my daily workout. As someone who has kept to a strict training regimen for much of my life, a regimen which is uncompromising in its intensity, I have never received a rebuke from a coach or gym or some other person telling me that exercising vigorously was intimidating to people around me, or if it was, that I was deserving of censure, or needed to be quarantined from anyone who might find my workout daunting to observe.
I might have received a word of caution that I needed to give my body a rest, but otherwise I never thought I was mistaken in feeling proud about the intensity of my workouts—that is, until I discovered that the safe spaces movement has infiltrated the exercise industry under the nom de guerre of Planet Fitness, a fitness company which seeks to create a judgment free zone in which anyone and everyone can exercise without fear of gymtimidation. But just as critics argue that safe space’ serve to infantilize and coddle students, often at the expense of free speech, I have found myself agreeing with critics that Planet Fitness coddles its customers, often at the expense of a workout.
When I joined Planet Fitness in January 2015, I felt no sense of excitement or anticipation like many people who join gyms after the New Year to fulfill a resolution. It was a mundane affair for someone like me who has been going to gyms all my life. I joined Planet Fitness for one reason: convenience. It was right down the street from where I live. I did not even purchase the membership myself. My fiancée purchased the membership as a Christmas gift. She knew I exercised regularly, and here was a gym opening right down the street from where we lived. And it cost only $10 per month.
It was great timing. The facility opened a month after I moved in with my then-girlfriend (now fiancée). I did not know anything about Planet Fitness, but it did not seem to matter. I had been in gyms all my life, and while each gym is different in its culture, its spaciousness, its equipment, and its training expertise, each gym is also the same in one crucial way: it’s a place where there is space and equipment to do the exercises you need to do to break a sweat, build muscle, and raise the heart rate. The name Planet Fitness struck me as nothing more than a clever trademark. But it was just another gym to me.
Then I began to work out there. First thing I learned: Planet Fitness is not a gym.
I heard this every time the overhead radio turned to commercials, one of which was an advertisement for what Planet Fitness is about. There was a recording of a boot camp instructor yelling instructions, another of a locker room full of women who are in a trance about getting rid of toxins, and yet another of a clique of women admiring each other’s bodies in the wake of a workout. Then the commercial would cut to a prospective member saying, “and that’s why I don’t go to gyms.” Then the voice of a representative from Planet Fitness would reply:”‘Well, we’re not a gym. We’re Planet Fitness.”
According to its mission statement, Planet Fitness is “a unique environment in which anyone – and we mean anyone – can be comfortable.” It is a “Judgement Free Zone® where a lasting, active lifestyle can be built.” It provides a “safe, energetic environment, where everyone feels accepted and respected. We are not here to kiss your butt, only to kick it if that’s what you need.” Inside the facility you see signs on the wall that say “No Gymtimination” and “Judgment Free Zone” and “No Lunks”. This is supposed to be a supportive environment to promote fitness among those who might otherwise avoid a gym because of the boot camp mentality of fitness instructors, so-called lunks named Ricky who slam weights, wear tank tops, and carry around a gallon of water, and women in a steam room who talk about removing toxins from their bodies or about how good they look in their outfits.
It was starting to feel a little hokey, but still, innocent enough, and not necessarily without merit. I can appreciate the attempt to widen the circle of inclusion and make available the benefits of health and fitness to as many people as possible. I can appreciate the attempt to tone down the culture and aura of hyper-masculinity. But ultimately it just struck me as more marketing ploys and slogans that I normally don’t pay attention to. The facility itself seemed promising. At first glance, it had a lot of space and a fair amount of equipment, though I had never before seen such an overemphasis on machines like bikes and treadmills and ellipticals rather than weights, benches, and studio space in which to do aerobic exercises. But at least there was the 30-minute workout station where you could alternate between anaerobic and aerobic exercises using machines and steppers.
As I went about doing my workouts, I hit a snag almost immediately.
In one of the first weeks after I joined, as I was doing burpees (squat thrusts with a pushup), an attendant came up to me and said burpees are not allowed. Plyometrics—aerobic exercises involving jumps and explosive exertions that maximize energy expenditure in short intervals, e.g. burpees—are not allowed. Not even shadow boxing was allowed. I expressed my shock. Already sweating and charged up from my workout, I argued. I could not believe what I was hearing. But the attendant informed me calmly about the policies. He said I should have received them when I signed up—as if, I thought to myself, I needed to read about what happens in a gym. I continued to argue my case, and told him that any exercise using steppers in the 30-minute workout area is itself an example of plyometrics. He did not dispute my characterization of the 30-minute workout area, but he remained adamant. Eventually I complied, shaking my head in disapproval. I was at the end of my workout, so at least I was not shortchanged on that particular day.
Though I escaped with a workout on that particular day, I worried that I was now going to be without the convenience of a gym down the street from where I lived. I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, but I was feeling disappointed that I might not be allowed to do the things I need to do to maintain my fitness.
Then, on another day, I did a chest workout, thinking that I was fine because I was using equipment freely available to members, namely, a bench and weights. I did decline bench presses with dumbbells. As I finished the set, I dropped the dumbbells on the floor because they are heavy and I didn’t want to tear a muscle or tendon trying too hard to let them down lightly. The lunk alarm went off. It sounded like a high piercing fire alarm, and I felt a tinge of panic before realizing what happened. Then I laughed and shook my head. At least no attendant came by to give me a warning about working out too hard. More examples of prohibited exercises followed. One day I was warming up by doing side lunges with a jump between each lunge. A Planet Fitness employee cleaning up nearby saw fit to inform me of the policy against doing plyometrics. When I responded that I was merely warming up to ensure I do not pull a muscle, he relented, calling my reasoning interesting.
Eventually, I could not help asking myself: when have I ever encountered a gym—sorry, a fitness facility—where one is discouraged from working out too hard? Planet Fitness would claim that there is no prohibition on working out hard or getting in a good workout. The attendant who warned me about doing burpees or shadow boxing said I could run on a treadmill to my heart’s content. But in effect, these prohibitions, supposedly in the service of preventing ‘gymtimidation’, were preventing me from doing the exercises I needed to do to get my heart rate up.
Other things weren’t adding up either.
From day 1, there was something odd about the place. As I would hand my fob at the door to be swiped, the attendant would hand it back to me and say have a good workout. Then to my left, I would see a pail of Tootsie Rolls, not exactly the kind of thing you eat when you are trying to encourage a good workout and promote a healthy lifestyle. And when I began in January 2015, they gave out pizza one night a week. Not exactly the promotion hook you expect from a gym.
It was beginning to seem like Planet Fitness was a gimmick, a place for wimps. Maybe that is a harsh assessment, and surely it plays right into the marketing of Planet Fitness, which is interested in encouraging everyone to start exercising, and motivating people in part by clearing away the lunks and hyper-masculine culture associated with traditional gyms. As I said, I can appreciate the attempt to widen the circle of inclusion. I can appreciate the attempt to tone down the culture of hyper-masculinity. But one has to wonder: is this about fitness or just a self-esteem gimmick to make people believe they are getting that good workout the attendants wish for you perfunctorily when you walk in?
I am skeptical. It strikes me as a ploy, even a scam to the extent that it wants to convince people they could get into shape by working on a few machines and then eating pizza. It seems to confuse hyper-masculinity and gymtimidation with the intensity required to actually get the heart rate up and shed a few pounds. It also does not seem to understand that a workout environment does not have to penalize intensity to encourage those less experienced in fitness and exercise. I also train at a martial arts gym, where I train in jiu jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing. The workouts can be intense. Much emphasis is placed on technique and dedication to the art. Discipline is encouraged. But everyone is welcome and allowed to go at their own pace. You are not shamed for going hard, or for going soft, and intensity by some does not get in the way of letting others go at their own pace.
I have nonetheless remained as a member at Planet Fitness because of the convenient location.
I continue to do my workouts on my own terms, and attendants have stopping bothering me about it. I disregard the prohibition against burpees and other plyometric workouts and the attendants have let me be. Moreover, I see other men and women who do regular gym workouts with heavy weights that they drop, and even though they set off the lunk alarm, no one comes to warn them against doing it again. At least at the location where I exercise, Planet Fitness employees have become more lenient in enforcing the anti-plyometric policy. The lunk alarm might go off from time to time, but the commercials mocking boot camp instructors and toxin-conscious women have ceased, and members who are interested in exerting themselves have not let the silly guidelines of a marketing gimmick get in the way. Some members prefer a softer pace, some a harder pace, but all is well on Planet Fitness, even if there is a limit to what can be done given that the weights are only so heavy and the space only so expansive, and even though that pesky lunk alarm likes to go off every so often. Don’t drop any weights is a snide remark I hear from those who have given Planet Fitness a chance. I try not to, but if it’s between pulling a muscle and setting off the lunk alarm, I’m not going to risk injury strictly abiding by silly guidelines.