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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Why Middlebury students need accessible fitness culture

In a 2021 winter term independent study about fitness culture on campus, Professor of Anthropology Kristen Bright, Madison Lord ’21 and Madeline Lyons ’22 conducted extensive ethnographic research that consisted of in-depth interviews and mixed-media surveys. The study ultimately illustrated a clear message from students: 80% of students surveyed feel strongly that Middlebury has a need for a more inclusive fitness culture — and non-varsity athletes were eight times more likely to report significant feelings of intimidation in workout spaces at Middlebury.

The main reasons for feelings of intimidation included body insecurity, the presence of male sports teams in workout spaces, inexperience in the gym and a lack of social community. One respondent in the survey expressed that they would leave the athletic center if the lacrosse team was there. Another stated that they felt “a lot of body comparison since there is so little body diversity at Midd.”

In addition, participants shared with the researchers the compounding effects of race, gender, class, athlete status and body image issues embedded within their workout experiences at Middlebury. There are constant barriers to entry to movement on campus, and the need for an intersectional, accessible and inclusive space for movement quickly became apparent. Another important theme that characterized these responses was the internalization of these struggles, as most students tended to place blame on their own insecurities rather than attributing them to larger structural and cultural factors.

For instance, one respondent noted that they felt like an imposter, saying, “I feel ashamed on the rare occasions I use workout spaces because I'm not in shape and everyone else is.” 

After identifying these barriers to movement on campus, Uplift was founded in 2021 by Maddie Lyons, Madison Lord, Emma White, Gracie Getman and Luci Bailey with the following goals in mind: to create a new comprehensive movement platform that encourages and unifies a diverse group of students with aspirations to learn about metabolic movement and active lifestyles, to utilize the unique outdoor environment surrounding Middlebury College and to empower the individual with the skills and confidence to utilize the athletic center, enjoy other Middlebury resources and care for themselves independently on Middlebury’s campus and beyond.

Fast forward to 2023, and Uplift continues working to make movement more accessible on campus. We offer a range of private fitness classes and lifting sessions ranging from introductory to advanced — all with the goal of offering comprehensive, full body workouts. We strive to provide students with a supportive, positive environment in which to get moving. 

Uplift provides a space not only for movement but also a space to build a community. Uplift’s co-president Nebolsine, for example, spent all of high school as a varsity athlete and felt lost coming to Middlebury suddenly being on the other side. She realized she didn't know just how scary going into a gym alone was and knew that she needed to find a group to be able to continue moving. Uplift has given her a community of people that make her feel supported, challenged and inspired. She is in constant awe of the group that has been built and is incredibly grateful to be able to take on more leadership this semester and see the club grow even more.

We recognize that Middlebury’s fitness culture is often characterized by a competitive environment. One survey respondent noted that “not all exercise should be a competition and Midd needs more spaces that simply promote movement for movement's sake.” In an effort to combat these feelings, Uplift held our second ever “Intro Week,” in which we coordinated with other clubs and organizations on campus that are often perceived to be inaccessible and intimidating in order to create more approachable spaces. We break everything down into easily understandable steps, from where to go, to what to bring, what to do, what to wear and everything in between. Our hope for these intro weeks is to expose students to Uplift and other wellness-minded organizations on campus — and to do so in a way that feels comfortable and supportive for everyone. Through running these intro weeks and collaborating so much with other clubs, we hope that we are able to connect people with the form of movement that feels best for them. While Uplift hosts a weekly lift, we recognize that may not be the preferred form of movement for everyone. Intro weeks are held in order to help open the door to all of the different opportunities here at Middlebury.

Uplift will continue throughout the spring, holding weekly lifts at 12 p.m. on Mondays at the Fritz balcony. You can connect with us through GroupMe (go/upliftgroupme) or you can follow us on Instagram @upliftmidd.