How One Trainer Blends HIIT and Activism for High-Impact Results
Chicago workout instructor Caullen Hudson uses film and fitness to make a difference on a local level.
Motivational speaking, encouraging others to action and inciting change in his community—whether he’s teaching HIIT classes or using film to call attention to social injustices, Caullen Hudson is constantly on the move.
At first glance, fitness classes and grassroots activism might not seem to have much in common. One, after all, is all about structure and routine, while the other is about challenging the status quo. But for Hudson, the common ground begins with a desire for change—whether in your body or your mind.
The two worlds first intersected at DePaul University in Chicago, where Hudson studied film. He was working a student job at the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center on campus when a friend challenged him to join a 60-day high-intensity interval-training program. Hudson rose to the occasion. The experience turned him on to the importance of motivation in achieving fitness goals, and he started teaching group classes at the gym. “It helped that I had a background in athletics and sports training,” he explains, noting that not many other group fitness instructors had that kind of experience at the time.
After graduation, Hudson found work as a freelance video producer, a job that allowed him to continue teaching group fitness classes on the side. Eventually, he founded SoapBox Productions and Organizing, a film and social activism non-profit with a mission to show truth and inspire action.
“The films most people watch that have some social message to them—documentaries and such—no matter how touching they are, there’s not a clear action plan after the film,” he says. “I wanted to pair filmmaking, documentary making, and scripted fiction with radical grassroots organizing.”
Specifically, he wanted to make change happen in his own community. “Soapbox intervenes as a mediator between activists and journalists,” says Hudson. “We make awesome films, and then we use those stories to work with folks on the ground to help create change.”
Seizing the Moment
While SoapBox’s first projects covered heady issues like American gangster rap criticism and youth homelessness, Hudson recognized the current moment’s significance and pushed SoapBox forward, covering the George Floyd protests as well as movements to defund the police. “Our goal is to curate work in the voice of what’s happening,” he says. “It’s easier for there to be a clear narrative when it’s coming from the folks who are on the ground.”
Another topic that’s hot right now: How to make wellness accessible to everybody, and how to best serve low-income communities that are in food deserts or where residents can’t afford a boutique fitness class. Hudson quickly saw an opportunity for change that blended his specific passions. “I thought, ‘I have these resources in the fitness and wellness world, and fitness, wellness and health are directly correlated to challenging certain harmful systems,’” he says. “‘Why can’t I blend these two worlds? How can we uproot these systems and change them for the better?’”
And so Fitness Against Fascism was born. Hudson and his fellow organizers offer a class to the public that pairs a high-intensity workout with a trauma-informed yoga flow, finishing with a community discussion around holistic health, structural injustices and exclusivity in wellness. The specific sequence of events is intentional, notes Hudson. “We see these activist images showing angry people with lots of energy— and yeah, that’s part of it,” he says. “But the other part of activism is taking care of yourself and your community—self-care.”
Bringing Activism to Exercise
So while you might not view your favorite spin class as a political act, Hudson wants you to rethink that. “Everything is political when it comes to our bodies and our health, physically and mentally,” he argues. “Not everyone has the same access to fitness and health spaces. Not everyone has the same time to explore fitness or wellness as much as they’d like to.” The systems that prevent everyone from having equitable access to fitness, he continues, need to be recognized and fought.
To that end, Hudson encourages fitness enthusiasts to take a critical look at the studios, trainers and brands they support. “Do they have a wellness approach you appreciate?” he asks. “Are they specific about the importance of community? Do they align with your values, whether it’s the nonprofits they work with or a pricing model that is more equitable?”
There are actions trainers and studio owners can take, too, to make fitness more accessible for all. Word choice—whether in branded email communications or terms an instructor uses for certain moves—speaks volumes about a gym and its political perspective, he believes. “Language is a big thing, especially in the fitness space,” says Hudson. “It can be really toxic. Even a small word like calling a move the ‘Man Maker’ can make women feel excluded, especially when the word is used so casually. How we talk about exercise matters.”
Gym owners can also make it a point to partner with nonprofits that are actively working to uproot systemic racism, and to hire socially conscious trainers. “Talking to people is an important part of being a trainer,” says Hudson. “You want people in your space who represent your organization and understand what emotions people might be bringing into the studio. The best trainers should be empathetic and able to push people physically and mentally. You’ve got to understand where your clients are coming from and what their daily stressors are.”