I confess I have a bad habit: one of the first things I do in the morning is to wake my brain with my phone’s blue light by checking my emails. This morning, one of them read: “What excuse is standing in your way?” It was from Runkeeper, the ASICS running app, for which I signed up a while ago. What woke me up was not just the light, but the anger I felt at the message.
I used to be a volleyball player. I’ve never been one for long-distance running, but I have an enviable sprint that once shocked a gym enthusiast friend when we were running to catch a bus together and I was ahead by a considerable distance, saving the day. About four years after my arthritis diagnosis, I have decided to train for a 5K as a way to challenge myself and raise money for a good cause. That’s why the app ended up on my phone.
I never expected it to be easy or pain-free, or to run it fast instead of more like a relaxed jog or speed walking (easier on my knees, after all), but I know I am one of the lucky ones when it comes to managing the disease. I feel fortunate not to need to be on multiple drugs to be able to do the basic things most people take for granted.
My training for the 5K was interrupted, though, by two consecutive years with severe chronic bronchitis. If I were to “outrun my excuse” (the slogan on the image that appears upon opening the email), I could face severe, even fatal consequences. While exercising is recommended as a way to improve your breathing after the symptomatic phase has passed, vigorous aerobic exercise such as running appears discouraged in every article that comes up from a search for “running with bronchitis” on a famous search engine.
One might dismiss my concerns with the language used by saying I was not the intended target market. Clearly, as the email goes on, they’re thinking of people who say they are too busy or have no running buddies. That’s fair enough, but it’s still an ableist comment to open by talking about excuses and saying “There’s always a reason not to run. But with a 50 percent off our a Runkeeper Go subscription, you’ll have more tools to rise above your excuses. What’s stopping you?”
You see, I very much consider myself their target market. I still want to tick off the goal of running a 5K off my list, and I would have considered the offer if it hadn’t been put in such shaming terms. They could have said it was a New Year’s offer for people who haven’t used the app for a while, or something about a present to ourselves after a season of gift-giving to others. They could have talked about kickstarting 2020, or go along the lines of the corny “new year, new me” messages. Even an offer to take my running to the next level would have felt less like rubbing salt on a wound.
The fitness industry is not well-known for its inclusivity, but it should be. While some people truly cannot exercise because of their health, everyone else can benefit from some movement commensurate to what they can safely do. Research into fat-shaming has shown us inspirational messages that do not shame people are more effective at achieving the goal of motivating them to act. The same principle translates to fitness. Not only are shaming messages like this email ableist, but they’re also ineffective at supporting everyone regardless of their ability. Instead of accusing people of making excuses not to run, ASICS could have chosen to uplift the demographic that is not already committed to their product.
British gym chain PureGym has been very successful as sending out positive messages. All their emails trying to make people re-join the gym use neutral messages about restarting a fitness journey, and they’re all about what’s on offer rather than anything about your choices. They showcase a diverse range of members’ testimonials, and share articles about how they can help you, whatever your ability. The pressure to sign up is all in the time-sensitive nature of the offer, and not in making you feel guilty.
It really isn’t hard to craft a marketing message that isn’t ableist but instead uplifting and motivational for all. Badly done, Runkeeper, badly done.