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One Woman’s Mission to Make Fitness Inclusive for Everyone
Does your gym offer fitness classes for all abilities? This instructor is making it possible.
Kelsey Lindell teaches classes that you’d expect to find at a gym—strength training, barre and high-intensity interval training. She streams these workouts online, so students can sweat and get stronger right in their home.
But there’s one key difference between Lindell’s approach and most mainstream group sweat sessions. Instead of blitzing through a chain of moves where participants are expected to keep up or else, Lindell plans her classes to include creative modifications for people who might otherwise find things too challenging. If a student can’t grip a barbell, Lindell will work the same muscle with a resistance band. If a wrist injury means you can’t do push-ups, Lindell might suggest a forearm plank.
These are great workouts for people facing physical challenges, and they’re also great workouts for people who aren’t. They’re just great workouts. And they’re part of Lindell’s mission to make exercise more inclusive for people of all abilities—the reason she founded the Shape Society Collective, an online fitness community.
“As a disabled person, I know how toxic fitness classes can be,” says Lindell, adding that too many gyms practice a form of “ableism,” where access to quality workouts exists only if you have a full range of body movements at your disposal. Instead of accepting a narrow definition of how people should move, says Lindell, “I teach through the lens of body neutrality.”
A New Perspective on Fitness
Lindell speaks of her disability matter-of-factly, without apology or embarrassment. Her left arm has a radial club hand, or as she describes it, “My left arm looks like a hook.” The hand curves inward and is missing fingers. Growing up as a kid, gym class was a nightmare. “I hated it,” says Lindell, recalling how kids would stare at her. “It was the class where I felt the most ‘othered.’” She almost flunked gym multiple times and she forged signatures to get out of it.
But she soon found another physical outlet: Dancing. “I loved dancing, and I was really good at it,” says Lindell. Better still, dance teachers would make accommodations for her in a way that gym teachers often wouldn’t. Lindell’s love of dance later translated into a passion for high intensity yoga classes. “I fell in love with that, too—it felt like I was dancing,” she says. Once again, her yoga teachers were flexible, helping Lindell modify poses in ways that felt good to her body. Something clicked. ”I thought I hated exercise,” she says. “But it turns out, I just hated feeling unsuccessful, and everybody feels that way.”
Fast-forward to the beginning of COVID. Lindell was working as a certified fitness and yoga instructor when her gym shut down. Looking for a silver lining in the bleak fitness landscape, she began teaching online exercise classes with a focus on inclusivity. The students are a mix—some with disabilities, some without disabilities. Lindell thinks that model is important. “I don’t teach classes for disabled people,” she says. “I teach classes for all people.”
A Focus on Strength
The classes are small—often around five students—allowing Lindell to give personalized coaching. And they’re designed so you can do everything from home with minimal equipment, such as dumbbells, resistance bands or tubes. Many of the classes are live, meaning Lindell can literally give instructions to people while they’re working out in their living room. If moves need to be modified (power bands are great subs for free weights), it’s no big deal—Lindell will show you how to do it. “Everybody will need to take a modification option at some point in their life, not just disabled people,” says Lindell, pointing to athletes recovering from injuries and weekend warriors dealing with pain or soreness. Her motto: “The best workout you can do is the best workout you can do.” (Melinda Earnest, co-founder of The Bridge Adaptive Sports and Recreation, would surely agree.)
Lindell’s classes focus on strength over “sexy and slim.” Her approach avoids over-training (which has its own risks), and she’s confident that most of her students could run circles around many of the “elite-type classes for a bunch of influencers and models.”
On top of teaching her own classes and guiding the Shape Society Collective community, Lindell spends her time exploring ways traditional gyms can be more inclusive. For starters, she notes that most classes only use categories like Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. “I would like to see those categorizations go further and say, this is for somebody who is paraplegic. Or this is great for somebody who has limited lower body mobility,” she says. “If it’s an upper-body class, they could label it as such. Because if somebody is in a wheelchair and can’t move from the waist down but can do upper-body work, they’d want to go to a class that’s focused on upper-body but it’s not always specified that way.”
She would also like to see more classes that are sensory-friendly, meaning less flashing lights and loud music. Lindell has a TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury, and classes that have sensory overload can be jarring. She suggests that gyms give out earplugs, which could help those with TBIs as well as people who are autistic.
Another idea of Lindell’s: All gyms should have workshops for trainers where they draw a specific disability written on paper out of a hat and then “they have to figure out, on the spot, how to choreograph a workout for that disability.” Workshops like this would bring awareness, she believes, and help gyms identify their weak spots.
At the end of the day, the work is about the community for Lindell. There are about 500 students in the Shape Society Collective—it’s a close-knit bunch. “I really, genuinely, deeply care about my students,” says Lindell. “I will call people on their birthday. I’m the first person they tell when they’re pregnant. I just care about my people so much.”