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This anthology wants us to redefine fitness for ourselves

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ever since he was young, Justice Roe Williams loved the gym, but he didn't always feel like the gym loved him back.

JUSTICE ROE WILLIAMS: I identify as a Black man of trans experience, and I feel like being in gyms, I couldn't be whole in my body. I couldn't experience my bodies in a way that felt connected to strength and power, that felt seen.

SUMMERS: That experience has inspired Williams, who is now a certified personal trainer, to push the fitness industry to work for all bodies. And that involves redefining what fitness actually means. Spoiler alert - it is not about BMI or working to failure or that familiar phrase - no pain, no gain.

WILLIAMS: I typically tell my clients that fitness is a relationship that we have with movement inside of our bodies, right? And that narrative should not be dictated by anyone but our own bodies.

SUMMERS: I wanted to talk with Justice Roe Williams because he's an editor of a new anthology. It's called "Deconstructing The Fitness Industrial Complex: How To Resist, Disrupt And Reclaim What It Means To Be Fit In American Culture." And there's another reason - I have also worked as a certified personal trainer. And over the course of my own life, my relationship with the gym and with fitness has been complicated. Some days it's empowering. Other times it's been unhealthy and made me hypercritical of my body. I wondered how Williams reconciles those feelings.

WILLIAMS: I always say to myself, I don't give power to others to take away my love for self. And so that becomes almost like I've written on my mirror - I am love. And love is not, like, this happy, giddy thing. Of course it is, right? But it's also, like, conflictual. It's also about growth. It's also understanding that the things that we hold even deeply inside ourselves, we have to think critically about in the ways that it's distasteful inside of our bodies. Like, my body yo-yos. You know, it's not one size. Like, I enjoy that my body fluctuates, right? It does what it needs to do. It gains weight when it's colder out. It loses weight when I'm more active, and it's warm out. And I'm not mad at that (laughter)...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...You know? And I think it's about just understanding the amazingness about our bodies and why our bodies do what it does, right? That's connection - and then just loving it, loving it up. I know this sounds, like, magical, right? You got this magic wand, and you're giving everybody love. But it's real.

SUMMERS: That sounds really nice.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it sounds nice, right? But it really starts with us really believing that sensation inside that says that's not true. And that truth, although maybe a desire of mines (ph), it's not healthy for me.

SUMMERS: One of the things that this book invites us all to do is to imagine what it would look like if we were to rethink fitness spaces in such a way that they work better for anyone who enters and wants to participate there. And I am curious for you, what do you think that space would look like and how might it look differently from, say, a big-box commercial gym that most people may be familiar with and could walk into on any given day?

WILLIAMS: First and foremost, it would be set up where each person feels like this is their space. They are welcome. They are supported. This is a journey that the coach feels honored to be a part of. This is not a business practice to just get another dollar. I would not like to see no pain, no gain. I would love to see everybody is celebrated here, right? So that people know that when they walk in, they're not going to be judged. They're going to - they're actually going to be centered in their movement practice. Everyone in the gym are open and curious and wanting to learn about all of the ways their bodies can move in spaces and not be trained in just one model of coaching. I believe that it should be spacious so that all bodies and all abilities have access and are able to utilize that space and utilize those tools for whichever movement practice they need. I feel like it should cater to the community that it is in. So meaning that I feel like my gym, I would first learn about the community I'm in, not just rent a space for a business. And in learning that, I would create a space that is centered around the people who would come in to let them know this is their space, right? So it's a different approach. It's not a business model but really just connecting with the community and the bodies that are going to be in that space.

SUMMERS: The other thing I just want to acknowledge in our conversation is the accessibility of coaching and of participating in a gym for many people. Hiring a coach or getting a gym membership, it's a luxury. And frankly, it's something that's out of reach for many people. How do you think about that in making sure that fitness and movement is something that isn't out of reach for people based on how much money they make?

WILLIAMS: Well, I just offer a sliding scale for those who feel like my prices are a bit too much, right? And then I say that movement spaces happen anywhere and everywhere, so you don't have to be locked into a gym membership, right? We could work out outside. I could bring out some tools. We could go to the park. There are multiple ways that you can move that are not scripted or prescribed, and you don't have to pay.

SUMMERS: I want to end this conversation on a really practical note, if we can, and ask you - what is one thing that you would challenge people to do if they want to take an active role in building a fitness culture that can work better for all bodies?

WILLIAMS: I would suggest that they get in contact with other spaces that are doing alternative practice, alternative work. We have to illuminate that there are lots of coaches who have created spaces that go against the existing model or fitness practices that we are all a part of, right? So I think it's not being afraid to step outside of boxes and believing that you can, right? I think those are the two important things - believing that you can - because sometimes it seems hard - right? - because we're not taught to create. We're actually taught to do the same thing as someone else. But we're all creators, and we can create a space that belongs to all bodies.

SUMMERS: Justice Roe Williams is a certified personal trainer and executive director of Fitness for All Bodies. He is also an editor of the book "Deconstructing The Fitness Industrial Complex: How To Resist, Disrupt, And Reclaim What It Means To Be Fit In American Culture." Justice, thank you so much for being here.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.