Woman’s Mission to Make Fitness Inclusive

Your Fitness Gym for all Skills? This teacher makes it possible.

Kelsey Lindell teaches the classes you would expect in a gym – strength training, Barre and high intensity interval training. She broadcasts these workouts online so that students can sweat and get stronger at home.

But there’s a crucial difference between Lindell’s approach and most traditional group sweat sessions. Instead of flashing through a chain of movements where participants are expected to follow, Lindell plans for her classes to include creative modifications for people who might otherwise find things too difficult. If a student cannot grab a barbell, Lindell trains the same muscle with a resistance band. If a wrist health-issue means you can’t do push-ups, Lindell may suggest a forearm plank.

These are great workouts for people facing body challenges, and they are also great workouts for people who don’t. These are just great workouts. And they’re part of Lindell’s Mission to make exercise more inclusive for people of all abilities — the reason she created 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 is granted only if they have all the body movements available. Instead of accepting a narrow definition of how people should move, Lindell says, “I teach through the lens of body neutrality.”

Lindell speaks objectively about his disability, without apology or embarrassment. Her left arm has a radial mass hand, or as she describes it…”my left arm looks like a hook.”The hand curves inward and fingers are not found. As a child, body education was a nightmare. “I hated it,” Lindell says, remembering how the kids would look at her. “It was the class where I felt the most different.”She allegedly almost failed several times and forged signatures to get out of it.

But she soon found another body activity: dancing. “I loved dancing, and I was really good at it,” Lindell says. Best of all, dance teachers would meet her in a way that body education teachers often wouldn’t. Lindell’s love for dance then led to a passion for high-intensity yoga classes. “I fell in love with it too — it felt like I was dancing,” she says. Again, her yoga teachers were flexible and helped Lindell modify poses to feel good about her body. Something clicked. “I thought I hated sports,” she says. “But it turned out that I just hated feeling unsuccessful, and everyone feels it.”

Fast forward to the Beginning of COVID. Lindell was working as a certified fitness and yoga instructor when his gym was closed. Looking for a silver lining on the horizon in the Dreary fitness landscape, she began teaching online exercise classes focused on inclusivity. Students are a mix-some with disabilities, some without disabilities. Lindell considers this model important. “I don’t teach classes for people with disabilities,” she says. “I teach classes for everyone.”

Classes are small – often around five students – so Lindell can give personalized coaching. And they are designed to allow you to do everything at home with minimal equipment like dumbbells, resistance bands or pipes. A lot of the classes are live, which means Lindell can literally give people instructions while they work out in their living room. If the movements need to be changed (power bands are great subs for free weights), it doesn’t matter-Lindell shows you how to do it. “Everyone has to choose a modification option at some point in their life, not just people with disabilities,” Lindell says, referring to athletes recovering from health-issue and weekend warriors battling pain. Their 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 certainly agree.)

Lindell’s classes focus on strength on “attractive and slim.”Her approach avoids overtraining (which comes with its own risks), and she is convinced that most of her students could draw circles around many “elite classes” for a number of influencers and role models.”

Lindell not only teaches her own classes and leads the Shape Society’s collective community, but also spends her time exploring ways traditional gyms can be more inclusive. To begin with, she notes that most classes use only such categories as beginner, intermediate and intermediate. “I would like to see these categorizations go further and say that this applies to someone who is a paraplegic. Or it’s great for someone who has limited lower body mobility,” she says. “If it’s an upper body class, you could call it that. Because if someone is sitting in a wheelchair and cannot move from the hip down, but can do work on the upper body, he wants to go to a class that puts the upper body in the center, but is not always so specific.”

She would also like more sensory classes, which means fewer flashing lights and loud music. Lindell has a TBI or traumatic brain health-issue, and classes with sensory overload can be surprising. She suggests that gyms distribute earplugs that could help people with TBI and people with autism.

Another idea from Lindell: all gyms should have workshops for coaches where you need to draw a particular disability from a hat on Paper, and then “figure out on the spot how to choreograph a workout for this disability.”Workshops like this would raise awareness and help gyms identify their vulnerabilities.

At the end of the day, working for Lindell is about community. There are about 500 students in the Shape Society collective -this is a tight group. “I really care a lot about my students,” Lindell says. “I’m going to call people on their birthday. I’m the first person to tell you when you’re pregnant. I care so much about my people.”