A Letter to Fitness Instructors

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Hey all! I hope you are having a great week! This post is a way for me to get out something that has been weighing on my mind lately and to hopefully make a difference.

I have been taking some awesome group fitness classes at the same studio(s) for the past 3 years. I can't even believe I have been going that long since I was so scared to go in the first place but here I am, still taking my place at the barre most days of the week. They offer a wide variety of classes, none of which are easy. They are fast-paced, high energy, kind of addictive and I like them. Maybe I like them too much. I started because I wasn't happy with my body but I've continued because it makes me stronger and better in many other ways. I've mixed up my schedule over the past 3 years with different classes, different times and different instructors trying to find which ones suit me best. I have a few instructors that I prefer and I few that I tend to avoid, but I think that is the same for most everyone. I need someone that plays great music, can keep my attention for the full hour and puts me in a great mindset. I don't think that is too much to ask for (eye wink, tongue out emoji).

Over the last year or so I have been paying much more attention to what is said by the instructors during classes, and it's mostly great. But there have been times that I've thought to myself, "wow, did you really need to say that"? Maybe because of my work with Intuitive Eating. Maybe because I feel that no one should feel guilty about their body size or what they ate or drank last night. Maybe because I feel exercise is not a form of punishment. I am more aware of my previous disordered eating and thinking toward food and exercise, maybe even some orthorexia behaviors. This has made me a little more sensitive to the words spoken during these fitness classes. I know that I am not the only one that is dealing with orthorexia and disordered eating. There could also be some women in the classes with a full-blown eating disorder. So, words matter. They matter a lot to someone who could very easily be triggered by those words to continue the disordered behavior.  

So what kinds of things might be unmotivating or triggering in a fitness class? 

  1. Talking about being there to workout because of something you ate or drank the day(s) before. Food shaming. 
  2. The instructor talking about their own guilt due to eating or drinking habits.
  3. Talking about burning calories as motivation to keep going. 
  4. Showing or talking about a big calorie burn after class. 
  5. Saying that cardio is the most important part of the class. 
  6. Talking about needing to earn something by working harder (earning a meal, a drink, a relaxing day, etc)
  7. Talking about fitting into skinny jeans or a bathing suit and tank top for summer. 

So, I am certainly not saying that these types of comments are causing eating disorders or disordered eating. I am also not saying that I hear them often where I personally do fitness classes. These comments can, however, trigger someone who is already experiencing it to continue with those behaviors. They can change a mindset from positive to negative pretty quickly and put the focus on negative thoughts and behaviors vs. positive ones. And, to the fitness industry, I get it. I get that people are coming in to change their body. I get that people want to be leaner and stronger. I get it. But I think if the focus is on the good stuff, they will want to keep coming back and if they are taking classes like I do, their body will change. 

Here are some eating disorder statistics from The National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Between 3-4% of women and 1% of men will suffer from anorexia at any given time.
  • The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.
  • Among overweight and obese adults, those who experience weight-based stigmatization engage in more frequent binge eating, are at increased risk for eating disorder symptoms and are more likely to have a diagnosis of binge eating disorder.
  • There is a strong link between exercise compulsion and various forms of eating disorders. 
  • An estimated 90-95% of college students diagnosed with an eating disorder also belong to a fitness facility. 
  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.
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What are some positive, motivating comments that can be made in fitness classes? There are lots of ways to do this. Dig into the mindset, the psyche, and the heart. We all go to work out for different reasons but we all have a heart and mind in addition to our body. I reached out to one of my fitness instructors a while back to thank her for having positive comments on mind, body, and soul instead of how we look. She nails it every single class! She made a comment in last week's class that she is "bored with focusing on looks" and instead we should be "loving ourselves and our people well", which I totally appreciated. Here are some other ways to provide motivation in a positive way:

  • Share a positive quote or a word to think about for the day
  • Encourage participants to set a goal or intention for the class 
  • Tell the class how great they are doing or how strong they look. It doesn't have to be individualized. 
  • Talk about how lucky/grateful they are to be moving their able bodies.
  • Tell them it is just as effective to do a modified form of the exercise. 
  • Anything else motivating and encouraging that doesn't talk about looks, size or calories/food. 

I love fitness and I love being part of a fitness community. I have my own reasons for going to work out and they might be different from the next person. No matter what those reasons are, we deserve to feel good, positive vibes each time we walk through those doors. Let's put the focus on well-being and not just on calories, food shame and body size. Words do matter and can make a difference in someone's life and their struggles.

Positively,

Lin