What is International Women’s Day all about? 

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is all about ‘Inspiring Inclusion’ – with some of the key aims for this year being to:

  • Help women and girls make informed decisions about their health;
  • Elevate women and girls participation and achievements in sport & 
  • Support women and girls into leadership roles.

Working towards a future where people of all ages and genders are properly informed about their health and have equal opportunities to enjoy fitness is something we are very passionate about here at BoxMate.

So, why is it still important to consider gender when it comes to discussions about health, sport and fitness?

We ran a large survey of over 500 women training in CrossFit and Functional Fitness gyms back in 2020 which showed that over ’94% of women had heard that weight training would make them ‘too bulky’. Adding to this very generalised and misunderstood messaging around weight training that we were hearing from our community were also statistics from the 2019 Active Lives Report by Sport England. This report highlighted that there were ‘over 721,800 more inactive women than men in the UK’ and that 35% of girls aged 14-16 ‘don’t like taking part in physical activity’ because of a ‘lack of confidence’ and a ‘dislike of being watched’.

A few years on, once we were through the depths of declining activity levels from the aftermath of Covid, data from the most recent Active Lives 2022 Survey showed that while the differences between activity levels in genders was actually now a slightly smaller (around 500,000 less active women than men) there was now a bigger disparity appearing for weight training between men and women, with more men now taking part in weight training but less women (down by 2% since 2019). 

The 2022 survey also highlighted that more men felt they had ‘opportunity to be active’ (38% of men vs. 29% of women) and to ‘find sports enjoyable and satisfying’ (38% vs. 25% of women)’.

When we look at the data there is no denying that there are still large gaps between people of different genders that need to be addressed and also important questions that arise as to why it is that men have greater opportunities to access fitness than women.

So, what do women working in this fitness space have to say?

Here at BoxMate, we work with a wide range of gym owners all over the UK (and beyond) and a large proportion of the gyms that use our system are women owned.

We wanted to reach out to some of our female gym owners to gain some insight on their views on both what it’s like to be a business owner in this space and how they feel their female members approach and understand their own health and fitness.

The two women in this article are both working hard to inspire change within the fitness industry and to help encourage and educate women to really understand their health goals and how to work with their bodies.

Paige Boland – The Unit

First up, please meet the fantastic Paige Boland – Owner of The Unit. Paige has been very successfully running The Unit for the last 19 months alongside raising her daughter. The opportunity to buy the gym came about just at a time she was looking for a fresh start following the devastating loss of her dad at aged 60. She told us:

 ‘At the start of 2021 I fell pregnant and moved to the gym I now own…I trained and worked all throughout my pregnancy & when my little girl turned 8 months, the previous owner approached me & asked me if I wanted to purchase the business. It was all a bit of a whirlwind from there, but it’s been an amazing (yet very humbling) experience’.

When we asked Paige her views on being a female leader in the gym industry she said:

“I find being in a leadership role quite surreal. I really enjoy being my own boss & being in control of my own environment, but it also comes with major responsibility and I think it’s super important to note that ‘gender roles’ when it comes to family & business don’t change just because you’re in a leadership role.

Any women in the same position as me will understand the pressures of being a full-time business owner, the heart/soul/personality of their community, a mother, partner as well as all of the other roles that come along with day to day life. That isn’t aimed to put any females off who want to push themselves into leadership roles, PLEASE DO, but just understand the pressures that brings & sometimes the guilt of balancing all those things: with one often being neglected to the other”. 

Like many of the women we chatted to in our survey back in 2020, Paige hasn’t been into fitness from a young age.

‘Fitness is crucial to my day-to-day life & overall wellbeing now. But it wasn’t always a huge part of my life… I think this is because it wasn’t heavily modelled by the people closest to me…

It wasn’t until I’d gained an excessive amount of weight and was living a pretty unhealthy lifestyle at age 23, that I found solace in the gym. I am only 5ft 4”, and I was 93kg at my heaviest. I had a bit of a wakeup call after seeing a photo of myself taken by a parent in my previous role as a complex care worker. My friend helped me get into exercise & we’d go to Pure Gym together. We found a PT who eventually introduced us to CrossFit and I never looked back. I fell in love with the whole ideology; it gave me a space to channel my fiery personality & nature into gaining new skills and that led to me wanting to help others do the same.” 

We asked Paige how she inspires other women into wanting to take control of their own health goals as she did on her own personal journey:

“We have some very strong, fast & fit females within our gym space. My outlook & approach to fitness is to encourage all our members to explore as many variations of exercise as they can and would like to; prioritising recovery & other lifestyle factors to be the best they possibly can be. I think some parts of the fitness industry are broken and have conditioned women to think a specific body type is ‘optimal’ or that they shouldn’t build muscle because it’s ‘masculine’.

“So, I do think there’s more work to be done within the fitness industry to drown out the opinion that anyone else gets to have a say on an individual’s body or what they can achieve. Some of those widespread misconceptions are doing females a disservice as they aren’t fully understanding the importance of treating your body with the respect it deserves in nourishment and ample exercise or building muscle to support your skeletal structure as you age”. 

We asked Paige what she thinks would need to change to get more girls into fitness from an earlier age. She told us: 

“I think fitness & sport needs to be integrated from the beginning. The Unit is and always will be a family space. I have a 2-year-old & a dog who both spend time at the gym with me throughout our working week. We also have a space for members to bring their children to sit/play during classes & have dedicated classes for children/teens. I think this needs to be encouraged far more in general, not just for females. Our children do as we do, so showing them young what healthy habits & exercise looks like integrated into everyday life, will help them to develop healthier habits as they grow.

I think if we encouraged our girls to do all the amazing things they can do in and out of the gym straight away, and showed our boys how to encourage and support them within the fitness space, we’d have a much healthier society overall”

We wanted to know if Paige has seen any notable differences in attitude to training and fitness goals between younger and older female members in her gym.

All our female athletes try the challenges we set within the gym community & day to day programming, and we have older athletes throwing the same weights around as younger ones… I think there needs to be more educating on how training can be utilised for longevity of your body, and not just a short-term fitness goal and how we don’t just breakdown after age 30/40, we control our own outcomes when it comes to physical fitness”. 

A key aim of International Women’s Day this year is to ‘Help women and girls make informed decisions about their health’. We asked Paige how important it was to make sure her female members are educated and informed when it comes to their training/ overall health choices and how she facilitates this in her own gym. 

“It’s important ALL the females in my life are educated and informed when it comes to health choices, not just in the gym. Anyone who knows me knows I’m very outspoken about lifestyle & society. But I’m at the forefront of helping our female members understand their bodies, gain knowledge around their physical and mental health and then use all those tools to become the best possible version of themselves.

We’ve recently been having conversations within the gym around tracking menstrual cycles & why it’s important to get in tune with your own rhythm. Training as females changes massively week to week because of the natural hormone fluctuation throughout the month & knowing this can really help us get the most out of our bodies; knowing when to pull back & focus on recovery and when to push for the gains”.

Sami Hop – HOP Fitness 

We also caught up with the brilliant Sami from HOP fitness, who like Paige is working hard to help her members feel confident about their health and fitness choices. Sami currently runs her HOP fitness classes and community out of another gym. Sami, like many of the women we chatted to found her love of fitness a little later on in her life. She told us:

“Fitness came to me in my late 20s and my life became immersed in fitness when I was around 26! When I was a teenager I partied. Is dancing at raves a form of fitness?😅 

We asked Sami how she moved towards fitness and what made her want to pursue running her own gym classes and community. She told us: 

“Life can become repetitive, boring, tight on cash, low on self-confidence and can leave us feeling hopeless sometimes.When we feel strong, focussed and capable, it gives us confidence to change our own lives! 

I knew I had to be a strong little berry bi*** to get what I wanted from life, otherwise I was going to continue sulking in a waitress role, wondering why I felt so hopeless. Knowing how much fitness transformed my own mindset and quality of life , I wanted to help others spice up their lives too!  Health Over Perfection works against the aesthetic obsessions, calorie counting, self comparisons by focussing on mindset coaching.

Everyone deserves to feel better and I am determined to continue offering an environment where everyone feels worthy”

Sami takes this same passion and love of fitness from her own journey and shares this enthusiasm and energy to the clients she works with. We asked Sami her thoughts on how the women she works with approach their fitness goals. She said: 

“I am meeting more and more women that want to GET STRONG!!! However, I definitely think there is still a lot of help and mindset coaching required for women in our area of the Cotswolds. The unrealistic expectations of perfectionism continues to have an impact on women comparing themselves to others timelines and lifestyles. We need a CrossFit box here and we are working to introduce people to CF style of training, nutrition and lifestyle”. 

We asked Sami, what, if anything, she thinks needs to change on a more widespread level for more women and girls to feel comfortable about getting into sports and fitness from an early age. Sami said: 

“It would be amazing to bring weightlifting and other styles of training into high schools to take the primary focus off competitive team sports. Exercise to me never felt like something relaxing that we did for our mind, or anything that was particularly skill focussed on our own progressions. I think self belief, values and mindset education should also be a huge part of our relationship with fitness from a young age”. 

We wanted to know if, like Paige, Sami had noticed any notable differences between the older and younger female generations she works with at HOP. She said: 

“Yes definitely, I find that older generations of women around are often still focussing on weight loss, scared to get ‘too muscley’ and scared to eat more. For years they have been told to cut calories and stay tiny. It is a completely different belief system that has been ingrained vs.younger generations that are inspired by different goals. Although some of those goals may be image driven a lot of the younger females are more strength and health focussed”. 

We asked Sami how she supports the International Women’s Day aim to ‘Help women and girls make informed decisions about their health’ and how important this is to how she interacts with her clients. She told us:

“This is an absolute core value of HOP. It is SO, SO, SO important to ensure that women here are learning about the importance of training and nutrition for their health and mental wellbeing, along with learning about the body, how it works, why we do things certain ways and helping them find the individual approach that will help them to achieve their goals.
I educate women by running courses and workshops, posting diverse content, sending emails with interesting podcasts and news and also taking the time to talk to our members in person, to listen, to give a cuddle”.

Sami also said:

“BoxMate also really helps us teach our clients to focus on performance and skill based goals because they can track their results in ways rather than through just image or weight and body changes.” 

Key Takeaways 

The CrossFit space is often seen as unique in its approach to celebrating strong women and equal achievements between males and females at the highest level in sports. The challenge is how to make sure these same attitudes are filtering down to the general population, and in particular younger girls at the very start of their understanding and relationship with fitness.

Speaking to both Paige and Sami who work with women on their fitness goals every single day gave us some really interesting insight into what lies behind those statistics coming out from the reports.

To really work towards those aims of IWD this year it’s very clear that education and good information being available from a really young age is going to be key to inspire positive change and to make sure that it isn’t only later in life that women are gaining the confidence to pursue fitness and missing out on years of knowledge.

The work of amazing groups like Strong Girls Squad are already inspiring such positive change for young girls and women and helping to educate them on weightlifting, fitness and their bodies. In this video put together by the Department For Education you can see the work they do through their holiday clubs to give young girls a space to feel safe to exercise and train without a fear of being watched like they might have in school in their PE lessons.

We absolutely loved the messaging from Paige that the gym space should be a family space where it’s normal for very young children to be immersed in fitness and exposed to this as a totally normal part of every day life for men and women of all ages. We’ve been lucky to tour around a large number of gyms in the UK and always love to see when there are younger children observing training in the gym and being encouraged to take part and just have fun in a gym setting. We’ve recently seen lots of initiatives in gyms we work with to being CrossFit kids and teens classes into the normal gym programming.

Similarly, it’s really interesting to see that both Sami and Paige are working towards sharing new research and information to their members about the truth around weight training, calories and working with your bodies and menstrual cycles to get the most out of your health and fitness. These conversations are now starting to take place and battling back against the limited education that is unfortunately still happening in mainstream education here in the UK. As Sami said, more work needs to be done to bring this type of education and learning into schools so it can be accessed by everyone and part of the conversation from the beginning.

Understanding our bodies and feeling comfortable about fluctuating hormones, menstrual cycles, and how to work WITH our bodies without any shame or embarrassment is such an important part of the education that will ultimately mean that more people can access and enjoy sport and fitness.

What strategies do you use in your own facility to Inspire Inclusion? 

We’d love to know what work you do in your gym space to educate members to get informed about their bodies and choices and to make the most out of their health and fitness journey.

Moving forwards this is something we will be challenging ourselves within our team to become better educated on so we can share more informed content and research across our platforms to Inspire Inclusion within our community.