LGBTI+ people face unique barriers to the mental health benefits of fitness

Getting active can be a mental health boost, but what if you don’t find sporty spaces welcoming, or being body-conscious makes you uneasy? El Reid-Buckley looks at the obstacles facing LGBTI+ people and offers some advice on how to get around them.


Summer is fast approaching and all of my social media feeds are covered with the same things: half marathons and Hyrox competitions. While I usually dread the content at this time of year, with all its talk of shreds and beach bodies, something feels markedly different now.

It’s not about how good you look any more, apparently. Rather, it’s about managing stress and coping with adversity, and building not just physical but also emotional strength. ‘Intense’ workouts seem to have fallen out of vogue in favour of fitness for everybody and every body.

But even if the current fitness trends seem to be more inclusive, who is represented within such content – online or otherwise – remains quite limited. Specific types of bodies are privileged, which can make it seem like exercise is only for certain types of people. The influencers in this space are mostly white, able-bodied and stereotypically beautiful. They are also typically cis and heterosexual.

LGBTI+ people tend to have poorer physical health than cis heterosexual people, and this is likely due to barriers to participation. A recent report from Sport Ireland found the most prominent barriers include fears of discrimination and a lack of LGBTI+ representation in sport. This is worse for trans and non-binary folks, who not only face attitudinal barriers but also blanket bans on their inclusion. Further to this, fitness culture and its spaces are typically normatively gendered and therefore difficult to navigate, as they can contribute to greater feelings of gender dysphoria for those who do not embody certain aesthetics.

Feeling worthy

Recent research from Trinity College found that mental health among LGBTQI+ people in Ireland is in decline. And it’s broadly accepted that physical activity can help increase moods and positively change the lives of people with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Of course, going for a run isn’t going to solve all our problems and seeking professional medical help is always important and recommended. However, this can be expensive, and there are long waiting lists and limited services available, especially for those in rural areas.

It is also difficult to seek help if we don’t see ourselves as worthy of care. This can also be true when it comes to engaging with fitness culture.

This struggle with ‘worthiness’ can stem from the tendency to moralise the ways we might engage with health and wellbeing, which has actually been proven to do more harm than good. Research has shown that making health and wellness a solely personal responsibility can result in negative health outcomes due to feelings of shame and stigma if one does not meet the socially imposed standards of being ‘good enough’. Harmful social discourse and media messaging which frame health and wellness in narrow ways can make us feel like we are failures if we don’t hit all the marks or targets.

I’ve been there, and I’m sure many reading this will have been there too. This will no doubt resonate with a lot of people, not just queer and trans folks.

Make the first move

Regardless of our identities or social backgrounds, there are many issues that can hinder us from feeling good about ourselves and from taking action to make ourselves feel better. But if you move away from toxic ‘purity’ culture and unrealistic goals, I guarantee that the hardest part of the journey will just be taking that first step.

Below are just a few tips on getting over that initial hurdle for LGBTI+ people or anyone looking to get more active and get some endorphins going. The most important thing to remember is that making healthier choices and looking after yourself should not feel like punishment. Do things at your own pace, in your own time and at your level, and make sure to make your journey enjoyable for you, whatever way you decide to do it.

Go social

Gyms aren’t your only option. There are also a ton of free or cheap group fitness classes and activities available through local LGBTI+ organisations and peer support groups across Ireland, from yoga to swimming to hiking. Free social running and walking clubs have also been rising in popularity. Find something that piques your interest, and bring a friend if you don’t want to go alone. Not only do you get the benefit of physical activity, but there is also a chance to build community and your support network.

… or go it alone online

If exercising with and around others sounds difficult and daunting (especially if you’ve never done it before) make a start solo. Doing some stretches in your bedroom can be a way to de-stress and relax without going into crowded spaces to do new things. If you’re looking for something a bit more active, but not-so social, there are lots of freely available programmes on YouTube for yoga and other exercises and workouts. There are also many body-positive and LGBTI+-affirmative creators online that make health and wellness content easy and accessible, from recipes to fitness programmes tailored specifically for trans people.

Do compound movements or weight training

Compound movements work a lot of muscle groups at one time, and can help with flexibility and mobility. This includes body weight exercises, such as squats and push ups, but can also incorporate free weights and barbells if you’re in a gym. I have found compound movements are not only an excellent way to build strength, they also help me to do body check-ins without focusing on my body but rather the exercise itself. As a trans person, this has been invaluable in terms of helping me stay grounded.

Gamify your goal

Motivating yourself to do things can be hard when you feel exhausted and down. A fun way to get yourself out doing exercise is to set yourself challenges that have milestones, with an overall goal at the end. You might aim to drink more water, hit your daily steps or even make sure you do your basic self-care every night. You can even use an app like Fantasy Hike to mimic a walk to Mordor, or ‘tip’ yourself along the way when you reach a milestone.

Regular meditation can also help with stress and anxiety. Join us online on 16 May 2024 for an Introduction to Meditation workshop hosted by instructor Niamh Hurney.

El Reid-Buckley
El is a researcher and writer from Limerick City. Formally trained as a sociologist, they often blend their academic interests with arts and activism. They’re passionate about queer and trans theory, media studies, and their rescue greyhound, Frank.


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