Afolabi Akinola founded his own gym alongside two businesses partners, Emeka Obanye and Joshua Oladimeji, 12 years ago – and they say it has been incredibly difficult to be accepted as Black men in the overwhelmingly white world of fitness.
Beyond the struggles that come with a distinct lack of diversity in the industry, the owners of Elite Evolution are also fighting back against gentrification.
The area in east London where their business is based – Hackney – has become almost unrecognisable over the last decade, and they say the diverse community who call the area home are most at risk.
Afolabi believes that fitness and creating comfortable spaces for minority communities to thrive could revive the spirit of the area, and improve lives. And he says Black-owned gyms and fitness spaces could be a crucial lifeline.
‘With rising evidence of gentrification and health inequalities disproportionately affecting the Black and ethnic minority communities, great expectations are being placed on local businesses and community groups to improve health, and a strong sense of belonging is imperative,’ Afolabi tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Yet, the link between black-owned businesses and the restoration of a traditional community remains largely understated.
‘As a Black-owned fitness and well-being business located in an area undergoing significant waves modernity, we are at the coalface of implementing solutions which look to reverse the impacts of gentrification – which often results in community displacement or a loss in social relations.’
Afolabi is determined to limit the damage that gentrification is wreaking on his local area. At the heart of that is the values that he and his business partners apply to their company. For them, the gym is about so much more than getting shredded.
‘Shifting perceptions and attitudes towards fitness, health, sport and well-being is our most immediate task. But tackling the opportunity deficit – creating an open, socially mobile environment – is our guiding purpose.’
But, it isn’t easy creating opportunities for others when you face systemic discrimination yourselves. Afolabi says that he has been shocked and saddened by how they have been treated over the 12 years of being in business.
‘It has been difficult,’ says Afolabi. ‘There have been a lot of barriers to our success that we have faced because we are Black.
‘We have had our lease removed on a number of occasions and we have been mistreated from one gym space to another. We truly believe if we were white that wouldn’t have happened to us, and we would have been treated with more respect – not as second-class citizens.
‘Even during this pandemic, we were asked to do things financially that others in our exact same situations weren’t, with the presumption that our 12-year business was just a hobby. I think this is because of the colour of our skin and people trying to take advantage of it.
‘We have had to deal with it in a professional manner because that is what we are. But we are also seeking legal support and standing up to a system which we believe is not willing to cater for us.’
Afolabi believes everyone can benefit from fitness and physical activity, and no one should be excluded from these worlds because of discrimination or inflated living costs triggered by gentrification.
Fitness has always been a huge part of his life, which he says has helped him both mentally and physically. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on the benefits of being active.
‘I’ve been playing sports since I was a child and going to gym since secondary school, the benefits I’ve received have been priceless in developing the best version of myself,’ he tells us.
‘What I cherish the most is the transferable skills that I have developed beyond health and fitness. My social skills, communication skills, resilience to things that may be happening in my personal life have all been part of my fitness journey.
‘Fitness has also made me part of a community of people that I’ve developed meaningful relationships with that are my lifelong friends to this day.’
Afolabi also enjoys being able to give something back to his community.
‘I feel that with the knowledge I’ve amassed over the years it’s vital that you teach others and give back,’ he says. ‘I want to be able to give back and create platforms for others to gain similar positive experiences as I have.’
The reality is that Black and ethnic minority groups – at every age – are least likely to take part in physical activity. Data from Sport England also shows that physical inactivity was way more common in minority groups from lower-income households.
‘It is so important we understand the barriers for minority groups accessing fitness and health-promoting resources in order to design solutions, which tackle the racial inequalities within the industry,’ says Afolabi.
‘There are currently distinctions between fitness (like yoga, Pilates, aerobic and HITT classes, which may be perceived as non-essential leisure activities) and sport – that cannot be ignored in the context of race.
‘This is set against a complex backdrop of socioeconomic factors, including the urbanisation of ethnic minority communities, which contributes to the problematic diversity and inclusivity efforts.
‘The lack of diversity and need for inclusivity becomes starkly apparent at more senior levels in fitness. In the UK the top CEO positions are disproportionately filled by white males.’
Afolabi says it’s vital that diversity and inclusion measures are more than just tick-box exercises in the world of fitness. He says we need ‘intentional actions.’
‘Board members must proactively challenge the “BAME” numbers presented within each quarter,’ he says. ‘There should be incentives for those in low-income households to partake in physical activity, measurable against organisations social values and responsibilities.
‘Move away from the idea of “I don’t see colour”, and really work towards becoming an anti-racist organisation.’
This is an issue that is more important than simple representation. The impacts of health and fitness inequalities are long-term, wide-ranging and incredibly dangerous, and impacts both physical and mental health.
‘The benefits of physical activity are vast,’ says Afolabi. ‘We have also seen the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on Black and minority communities, now more than ever, access to physical activity and fitness has to not just be a priority, but a necessity.’
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