How DEI Threatens Exercise Science

Another academic field has been infiltrated by leftist radicals.

I first encountered DEI in exercise science in 2017. That year, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published a position paper titled “Achieving equity in physical activity participation: ACSM experience and next steps.” Because ACSM is the leading professional body of exercise-science professors, students, and practitioners in the U.S., the organization has significant influence over higher-education curricula for exercise-science students. If ACSM was weighing in on a new topic, exercise-science faculty had little choice but to listen.

ACSM’s position paper declared the need to establish “equity in physical activity.” By this, the organization meant that the field should seek to engineer equal rates of physical-activity participation between demographic groups. Why? Because some demographic groups, such as women, black individuals, and individuals without high-school diplomas, are more inactive than their counterparts, with such differences attributed to various “social determinants” of physical activity.

As I explained in a 2018 article, the campaign for equity in physical activity, which represented a shift away from personalized exercise medicine to a top-down, group-based, social-engineering approach, is misguided for several reasons:

  • It assumes without evidence that group differences in physical-activity participation rates are due primarily to social factors such as bias, discrimination, or unequal opportunity.
  • For equity initiatives to achieve their desired outcome of equal physical-activity rates between demographic groups, those who have the highest activity rates will have to not further increase their activity, lest other groups fail to catch up to them. Thus, physical-equity campaigns are discriminatory against individuals of particular demographic groups.
  • The goal of equity in physical activity also fails to recognize that individual people are part of multiple demographic groups. Thus, attempting to engineer equal activity rates between groups is akin to playing Whac-A-Mole. For example, closing the “gender gap” in physical-activity participation is likely to exacerbate other existing “inequities,” such as those between women who have college degrees and women who dropped out of high school.

ACSM’s suggested steps to achieve equity in physical activity do not end with policy recommendations. They extend to educational changes, such as the development of learning materials and training programs for improving “cultural competency.” This will likely require students to complete politicized coursework and answer questions about “cultural competency” on professional certification exams in the future.

A top-down, group-based, social-engineering approach to exercise medicine is misguided.Linked to the idea of increasing physical-activity participation in certain demographic groups is the idea that physical activity is a “right.” By this, exercise academics and activists do not mean that people should be free to move about as they wish (so long as in doing so someone else’s rights are not violated). Instead, they mean that indoor and outdoor spaces and services for exercise should be made available to everyone (at taxpayer expense) and that these spaces should be affordable, high-quality, inclusive, and “culturally appropriate.”

Ironically, the actual right to physical activity—moving about freely without infringing upon the rights of others—was abandoned by governments during the Covid pandemic. Governments mandated lockdowns and restricted access to gyms, parks, and other spaces for recreation. The entirely foreseeable result was reduced rates of physical-activity participation and increased body weight. Moreover, the treasured concept of “inclusivity” was thrown out the window by so-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion advocates, as individuals who elected not to receive the vaccination were specifically excluded from spaces for exercise during the pandemic.

The gender-equity arm of DEI has also been wreaking havoc in exercise science. As indicated earlier, one focus has been to try to engineer equal physical-activity rates between men and women—a goal that stems from a belief that lower physical-activity participation among women is due to social factors, such as unequal opportunity, less funding, minimal news coverage, and other supposed biases. Perhaps less known to readers is the recent outcry related to male and female participation in exercise research.

Some exercise scientists have claimed that women have been largely excluded from participating in exercise research. Such conclusions, however, have been based on simple cross-sectional comparisons of the number of male and female participants in exercise research. When the ratio has not been 50/50, bias or discrimination against women has been assumed to be the cause of this particular “inequity.”

This conclusion ignores the fact that women are generally less interested and willing to participate in exercise studies, as demonstrated in my survey research with Professor Robert Deaner. Moreover, as we have explained elsewhere, claims of female underrepresentation in clinical research have an inaccurate history and are often linked with other forms of gender activism, such as trying to achieve equal numbers of male and female conference speakers, journal editors, etc. These gender-equity campaigns are almost always framed from the perspective that implicit gender bias against women is rampant in the field—a claim that has never been substantiated and that never acknowledges the known problems with implicit-bias tests.

The claim that gender bias is rampant in exercise science has never been substantiated.Another more recent development from the gender-equity arm of exercise-science DEI has been the idea that exercise-science students should be educated on “gender-based violence.” This was proposed by a group of academics in Australia who proclaimed that the field of exercise science has a “blind spot” regarding the violence that men perpetrate against women at home and in sports environments. Remarkably, the Australian authors provided no evidence that exercise-science students or professionals have such a blind spot. Moreover, the authors adopted the typical one-sided story common among feminists: female victims and male perpetrators. In a letter to the editor of the journal that published the commentary, my coauthors and I summarized the relevant literature, which, for decades, has shown that victimization rates from intimate partner violence—and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in sporting environments—is roughly equal between men and women. Thus, the actual “blind spot” on gender-based violence resided with the Australian authors, not the exercise-science students or professors onto whom they were trying to pass their misguided ideas.

Interestingly, the feminist and gender-equity arm of exercise-science DEI has been silent about the issue of the inclusion of transgender women (biological men) in the female category of competitive sport. Since the rise of transgender participation in 2018, only two commentaries with arguments based in physiology have been published in exercise-science journals, questioning the idea of biological women being required to compete against transgender women in the female category of sport.

Why has there been so little academic output on this important and popular topic? As I recently explained, this silence has likely occurred, in part, because female exercise scientists are caught in a feminist conundrum. If the female exercise scientist values inclusivity over fairness, then she is saying that women should not have their own space for sport. On the other hand, if the female exercise scientist prioritizes fairness over inclusion, then this requires admission that differences in physical abilities between men and women are not socially constructed and that, on average, men are physically superior to women. Neither of these positions is tolerable for the feminist or gender-equity exercise scientist who wants, simultaneously, to advance women’s causes, stand up for inclusivity, and propagate the philosophy of social construction.

Resting just outside the edges of exercise science, in public-health education, are ideas associated with fat activism and concepts such as body-weight stigma and bias. Common undercurrents of this literature are that individuals lack agency (free will) and that their body weights are the product of an “obesogenic environment,” in which junk food is readily available. Consequently, according to this worldview, individuals should not be held personally responsible for their body weights if the environment is what causes obesity. An anonymous editorial published in Lancet Public Health provides evidence of this line of thinking. Sadly, such thinking will cause poorer health outcomes for overweight individuals, because it is not in line with reality. Doctors, nurses, dieticians, exercise physiologists, and mental-health professionals all agree that individual-level factors are the primary contributors to obesity, with genetic and environmental factors secondary.

Doctors, nurses, and exercise physiologists all agree that individual-level factors are the primary contributors to obesity.Nevertheless, the attack on body composition as a component of physical fitness is slowly gaining traction in medical circles. In June of 2023, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced a move away from body mass index (BMI) as a metric of obesity. Exercise scientists and epidemiologists have acknowledged, for many years, that BMI is an imperfect metric of body composition. Nevertheless, because BMI correlates with numerous health outcomes (e.g., diabetes and sleep apnea) and is easy to measure, it serves a role in research and clinical practice. The AMA cited factors such as BMI’s “historical harm” and “use for racist exclusion” (BMI originated from data collected in white individuals) when explaining its de-emphasizing of the metric. Thus politics, not just science, explicitly played a role in the AMA’s decision.

As I have highlighted in this article, the DEI movement in exercise science, as in other fields, is built on ideas that do not withstand critiques based on logic and scientific evidence. DEI is a political not a scientific agenda. In exercise science, this ideology promotes the notions that only certain pre-selected groups are deserving of public-health attention and that individuals cannot control their own health behaviors. These ideas are dangerous and discriminatory, and DEI administrators and academics should be confronted about them. If this is done, perhaps DEI activists will begin to change their tune. My hope is that in the coming years, when I scroll through the pages of exercise- and health-science journals, words like “cell,” “muscle,” and “respiration” will be prominent, while the words “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” will have faded into the annals of medical-science history.

James L. Nuzzo, Ph.D., is an adjunct senior lecturer in the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University. He is the author of over 70 peer-reviewed research articles and the founder of The Nuzzo Letter on Substack.