Qualitative research focused on how people experience the social and material environments in which they exercise has the potential to inform public health agendas in all sorts of ways. This commentary takes up the claim made by Stephanie Coen that such research should begin with an ‘equity lens’ and place a greater emphasis on ‘critique’ than we did in the ‘Exercise and Environment’ special issue to which she responds. At its best qualitative research reveals new ways of thinking about the social and material contexts at hand. As such, it has the potential to highlight important dimensions of the lived experience of popular fitness practices that may have hitherto been relatively overlooked. Always starting with the overt aim of applying an ‘equity lens’ truncates the possibility of discovering such dimensions. Furthermore, being too wedded to an overtly critical stance may end up hindering, rather than encouraging, the most positive dialogue between those studying the cotemporary exercise experience and those involved in public health.