Gym kit for women has a reputation of not being inclusive – whether it’s a limited size range or the general assumption that everyone is comfortable in skin-tight lycra and crop tops. Brands are on the way with more innovative solutions, but comfort and coverage shouldn’t be too much to ask. Stylist’s Sarah Shaffi lists her top picks for modest activewear pieces.
Instead, my gym wear consists of loose sweatpants that have seen better days, a long-sleeved top and then a loose-fitting t-shirt (probably one that I got free from somewhere) or a hoodie. Nothing I’m wearing is super comfortable for working out, and none of it really makes me feel good.
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But I deal with it, because as a Muslim woman who chooses to follow “modest” fashion, my options when it comes to sports wear are limited. My version of modest fashion (and there are as many versions as there are Muslim women) generally means I cover from the neck to the ankles, although I’m happy to leave my forearms bare. I also wouldn’t wear something completely skintight. In my day to day life this translates into trousers and tops, or my failsafe look of dress over leggings. In the world of exercise, it translates to the aforementioned ratty gym outfit.
The fact is that gym wear for women isn’t set up to be inclusive. Walk into any number of high-street retailers, and women’s sports clothing sections are filled with lycra, which is enough to put me off. Some retailers seem to think that all women are comfortable exercising with just a fancy sports bra on their top half. You’ll often find stomach-baring tops, or items of clothing with large see-through mesh panels. There are those t-shirts that fall to your hip bones (meaning the first time you jump they lift up exposing your stomach), or tops that are completely sleeveless, while leggings seem to be the go-to for covering our bottom halves.
None of these work for me. And I’m not alone. Sport England statistics from 2017 show that only 18% of Muslim women do at least four sessions of 30 minutes of exercise a week - the lowest percentage of any faith group. There are many reasons for this, but I would guess, from my own experiences and from unofficial surveys among friends and family, that one of these is the challenge of finding clothing that both covers the amount of skin we want covered and that also functions as a piece of activewear. Yes, companies have started bringing out sports hijabs recently, but head coverings are not the be all and end all of modest dressing, and it’s not just many Muslim women who are affected by the lack of inclusive clothing.
There are plenty of women of all backgrounds, shapes and sizes who want the option of wearing something offering more coverage than a sports bra and leggings at the gym, or on a run or walk. And these women want to feel confident in what they wear. The This Girl Can campaign was set up to encourage more women into sport, and found that it was fear holding women back from participating. “Women were worried about being judged on their appearance during and after exercise; on their ability, whether they were a beginner or ‘too good’; or for spending time exercising instead of prioritising their children, family or work,” says the campaign’s summary document.
Clothing, unlike some of the other things preventing women from regular exercise, should be an easy barrier to fix. The good news is that if you look hard enough, beyond the lycra and crop tops, there are now increasingly more clothing options for women who don’t want or don’t feel comfortable wearing activewear that moulds to the shape of our bodies or shows off body parts we don’t feel comfortable having exposed.
Here, tried and tested (by me, a complete amateur when it comes to exercise, so don’t worry, this isn’t a pro edit), is the best activewear for all your sporting needs
I’ve seen a number of activewear brands popping up set up by Muslim women who found themselves having the same dilemma as me. Many of these are based in the Middle East and Far East, but there are a number globally that ship to the UK.
Best modest brand: Dignitii
I tried Canadian brand Dignitii’s performance tech top in teal (Dignitii, £70.20) and tech loose leggings in black (Dignitii, £54.60), and I fell rapidly in love.
The first time I put the top on, I just felt comfortable. It’s very lightweight, which meant it worked well for in the gym, especially during classes where I tend to get really hot.
Best modest vest: Nimble
For outdoor runs I put Nimble’s Train For It tank top (Nimble, £45) in blue underneath to give me an added layer of warmth.
Best modest sports bra: Nimble
Throughout my search for great activewear I also wore Nimble’s Ready For Action sports bra (Nimble, £50) in brushed blue indigo, which is made using old recycled plastic bottles.
Best for cold-weather runs/walks
Anyone who’s exercised outside in winter will know the dilemma of finding an outfit that is warm enough when you’re standing around but not too hot once you’ve got a couple of kilometres under your belt and are feeling a bit sweaty.
Best modest top: Adidas
On really cold days I wore the Adidas Women’s Run It 3 Stripe Crew (Wiggle, £34.95), which has a fleece lining that’s sweat wicking, and I love the way it looks. It’s slim fit so I didn’t feel it was too revealing, but was too short for me personally to wear on its own (I tried during a high-intensity gym class and ended up spending a lot of time yanking it self-consciously down). For a run though, it’s a perfect underlayer on really, really cold days.
Best modest top: Red Original
For warmer days - which there aren’t a lot of in winter - I loved the Red Original Women’s Performance Top Layer, and not just because it came with zip pockets. (Seriously, the amount of activewear that doesn’t contain pockets where you can slip a gym pass or some keys is unbelievable.) It kept me warm and dry, and the zip top meant I got the décolletage coverage I wanted.
Best modest hoodie: New Balance
I layered both tops with New Balance Women’s Reclaim Hybrid Layer. A sleeveless hoodie, this layer has become my champion of flexible modest dressing; it’s longer length at the back means it covers to the tops of the thighs, so I reached for it whenever I was wearing a top that I felt was a little too short or a little too tight.
Best modest trackies: Mizuno
Because my outside exercise almost solely consists of ParkRun, and because I’m prone to cold legs, I wore the Mizuno heritage rib women’s pants (sportsshoes.com, £47.99) which are slim fitting, thick and super comfortable.
Best for spin classes
Best modest harem pants: Camille
My spin teacher is a chic French woman whose tough classes end with the best ballet-inspired warm downs ever. She also serves as my activewear inspiration, with her collection of harem pants and her layered tops.
So I tried out Camille’s long length harem dance pants to see if they would work for me, and they did (although I’m not turning into an ex-ballet dancer anytime soon). They’re loose fitting at the thighs, but because they’re gathered at the ankles there’s no danger of getting stray fabric caught in the pedals and having some sort of embarrassing (and painful) spin accident. They’re also black, so there’s no need to worry about that awkward bike seat-shaped sweat patch that’s unavoidable after a spin class.
Best modest running top: Nike
I paired the harem pants with Nike’s women’s 1/4 zip running top , which was lightweight.
Best for high-intensity classes
I’ve recently started going to a boxing fitness class, which consists of lots of squats, planks, battle ropes, skipping and star jumps, among many other painful things. What that means is I require clothing that is sweat-wicking, offers full coverage and doesn’t shift around a lot when I’m jumping around.
Much like running outside in the cold, the key to success here was layering, with a tight layer underneath, and then something looser and longer over the top. Unlike my free T-shirts and hoodies, all the clothing I tried is actually purpose-built to offer comfort while exercising.
Best modest top: Domyos
I went for Nimble’s vest again, tucked into the Dignitii leggings. Over the top I wore the Domyos long-sleeved yoga organic cotton T-shirt which is full sleeved (I usually end up pushing the sleeves up to my forearms during a class) and is slightly longer at the back than at the front, covering my backside. It didn’t ride up and I wasn’t constantly pulling it down because I was worried it was too short. A win, and at a really affordable price point too.
Best modest sweater: ILU
I am generally a very cold person, so am always looking for layers. This also applies post-gym, when I’m wary of my body heat dropping too quickly when I step outside. So I slung ILU’s oversized dance sweat over every outfit for the journey home. I love its loose fit, and the large circular hood worked as a type of scarf or as a hood when it was raining.
Images: Getty, courtesy of brands
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.