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A Message to Group Fitness Instructors from an Eating Disorder Survivor

I love group fitness classes.

For 6 or 7 years now, I’ve regularly done exercise classes a few times a week, from Les Mills BodyStep and BodyPump to yoga, pilates, and indoor cycling.

A well-designed group fitness class can be wonderful in so many ways: I find that good choreography, good music, and the energy from the other participants encourages me to really challenge myself but also have a great time.

Most all of the group fitness instructors I’ve known are wonderful, compassionate people who work really hard for something they love. They truly care about the participants in the classes they teach. In fact, at the point when I was most dangerously thin, one of the instructors at my gym came over to my mat after a yoga class to talk about how worried she was about me and to recommend a doctor I could go see. I was so touched! Her reaching out to me was one of a few events in my life at that time that encouraged me to go seek the help I needed.

Still, what with all of the things I love about group fitness, I have found that occasionally, group fitness classes and their instructors can unintentionally promote a disordered relationship to food and exercise.

If you are a group fitness instructor or considering becoming one, here are a few tips to help promote a safe and healthy space for all your participants, including those who have a history of eating disorder or are at risk for developing an eating disorder.

 

Encourage your participants to know their limits

In one cycling class I went to recently, there was a quote projected on the board at the front of the class:

“Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.”

Thanks for that tidbit of “wisdom,” Jillian Michaels, but I will pass. And I respectfully wish that whoever made the decision to project that quote had passed, as well.

I know the quote is intended to help push people past their comfort zone and that pushing past your comfort zone is a healthy part of fitness. That said, it is possible to die from overexercise in combination with undereating–remember that anorexia is the deadliest of all mental illnesses. Much more commonly, undereating and overexercising puts people at risk for other health problems, such as infertility and osteoperosis.

Plus, many people injure themselves by pushing too hard from exercise, which makes it not only difficult for them to do that exercise, but potentially, to do functional things like haul sacks of groceries or climb the stairs in a building.

I always appreciate it when group fitness instructors give clear instructions about options for lower levels their participants can take, and when they remind their participants that yes, it’s good to push yourself, but it’s also important to know when to back off.

 

Remember that exercise has many benefits beyond burning calories

Several group fitness instructors whose classes I’ve taken over the years have made comments like:

  • “Let’s burn off those Christmas cookies”
  • “We’ve got nothing to lose but calories!”
  • “This move torches fat!”

I’ve even seen group fitness instructors tell the class how many calories their Fitbits said they burned, which seemed to me to be totally inappropriate, not to mention triggering to any participant at risk for an eating disorder. (“But my Fitbit says I only burned xxx!”)

While some participants may be taking a group fitness class as part of an effort to lose weight, remember that others may be trying to gain weight, maintain weight, or even make a conscious effort to be less focused on weight. It is not your role to assume that they are trying to lose weight (or that they should.)

If you’re going to talk about the many health benefits of exercise during a class, please focus on things that will benefit all of your participants, such as cardiovascular health, reduced stress, more energy, etc.

 

Remember that you can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them

The stereotype of someone with an eating disorder is an emaciated woman or someone who suddenly drops a ton of weight. However, eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. It is very possible for someone to have an eating disorder and not lose any weight. Therefore, please be sensitive no matter who you’re talking to.

 

You are a role model

On a final note, I would never argue that a group fitness instructor (or any health professional) is responsible for causing someone to develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are caused by a complex set of circumstances, different for every individual person. Rather, please be aware that you are a role model to your participants, and being sensitive to what you’re saying and doing at the front of the class can help all your participants have a healthy relationship to exercise and their bodies.

 

Linking up with Amanda at Thinking Out Loud Thursdays to share these thoughts.

 

Do you enjoy group fitness? Are you, or have you ever considered becoming, an instructor?

Have you ever noticed a health professional or role model promoting a disordered relationship to food and exercise?

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13 comments

  1. Cora says:

    Whether a participant has an eating disorder or not, I just think the global trend of how we frame our minds in terms of “calories burned” needs to be continually adjusted. If a participant is not ill, this kind of talk will only put those nasty thoughts and beliefs into their head (which could then turn into something)… which is what we are trying to get AWAY from.
    I wish that all fitness instructors would come at their classes with a sense of “lets have fun and move our bodies so we can feel energized for the rest of the day” and just leave ALL talk of food and calories out of it. I love a good fitness class that leaves me feeling energized and limber.

  2. It’s a coincidence – and a great one at that, showing me I’m not the only one pondering this – you’re talking about this. First off, I -think- these kind of things are less common in Germany vs. the US. Actually – I’ll keep it short despite having many thoughts on this – I find the level of diet culture prominent in everyday life is way lower. Fat talk? I’ve hardly ever witnessed it before.
    The idea of fitness instructors – knowingly or unknowingly – pushing their class attendants beyond healthy limits or using guilt as a motivator? Ugh. Those certainly aren’t all that great instructors. If they were doing a good job they’d remind people of how healthy exercise is beyond the obvious calorie burn and encourage personal progress rather than how hard somebody’s going.

    1. Joyce says:

      That’s really interesting, Miss Polkadot. I hadn’t thought about fat talk and diet culture being less prevalent in Germany than in the U.S.–good for Germany! It’s a very cool nation in many ways–even if the trains are a bit frustrating sometimes. πŸ˜‰
      As I said in the post, I’ve had many wonderful group fitness instructors, even some of the ones who maybe sometimes said some things that were less than 100% healthy. I think it’s important for me to keep in mind that group fitness instructors are often under the same kind of pressure to be skinny and burn calories as their participants. I don’t know, but I hypothesize that in some cases, that’s what motivates them to say these things as much as anything else.

  3. Diane Wahto says:

    My water aeroblics instructor is great. She’s personable and happy. She doesn’t care if we “drop out” every so often to catch our breath. She also doesn’t care if we chat with each other during the exercises. At one time, we had an instructor who got upset with us for doing that. I know some types of exercise aren’t conducive to talking, but water aerobics allows people to talk a little as they exercise.

    One of my friends did faint when she and I decided to take an intensive aerobics class together. This friend is in good shape, so I guess she just pushed herself too hard. I decided, after the instructor had us running up and down the Y stairs, that I needed to drop out. I didn’t faint, but I knew I couldn’t keep that up. I’m not interested in being the most fit person on the planet, but I’m interested in keeping myself healthy. The water aerobics classes, with the walking on do three for four days a week, keep me in a good mood and as physically fit as someone my age can be. You’re right. Calories aren’t the prime reason for exercising. There are many more benefits from exercise that cutting calories.

  4. Alyssa says:

    Lately I’ve been getting pretty fed up with fitness instructors. I had an annoying experience two months ago at yoga where the teacher told us to hold a plank longer to burn off those Thanksgiving calories… very frustrating. I love my soulcycle instructors though. Because the focus is never burning off calories; but moving in a way that feels GOOD for our bodies and ourselves.

    1. Joyce says:

      Sorry about the yoga experience–but glad you’re loving Soulcycle and the the instructors are focusing on such positive things. Group fitness can be such fun!

  5. Evangeline says:

    Our culture as a whole needs to stop with the whole “calories burned” thing. Maybe I’m extra sensitive, but whether you’re trying to lose weight or not, exercising with the mindset that the sole purpose of your activity is to burn calories, instantly zaps all the joy out of moving your body. It makes it a chore. Instructors should be required to spend an extra few hours reading over material like this. I think a lot of the time, they’re just unaware that their comments could be harmful, but they should be aware. Like you said, they’re looked on as role models.

    1. Joyce says:

      I so agree, Evangeline–when it’s all about the calories, it sucks a ton of joy out of it. And it should be fun!

  6. These are great tips! I’m in the process of starting a whole new career in fitness and I do plan on getting certified. But, I really want to coach in a CrossFit gym and boy, do crossfitters have a different attitude about food! And proper nutrition and fueling habits are frequently discussed and often included in an “on boarding program” (if you’re in a good gym). Exercise is not just about burning calories, it’s about building strength, burning of steam, gaining muscles, feeling good, and being HEALTHY! And, when I’m finally certified and coaching, I hope someone like you comes up and corrects me if something ridiculous comes out of my mouth. πŸ™‚

    1. Joyce says:

      That’s awesome, Jennifer–best wishes on becoming a CrossFit instructor! That’s no small task. πŸ™‚

  7. Sarah says:

    This hits on so many of the reasons why I stopped splurging on a membership at the local gym last year. I loved taking the group fitness classes but I never felt “good” after leaving them. It may have been the emphasis on weight loss and calories (which I wasn’t there for) or the lack of modification for us obvious newbies but the focus always seemed to be o something more or beyond the work we had just put in.

    1. Joyce says:

      I’m so sorry that you’ve had some not so good experiences with group fitness. That makes me sad to hear. πŸ™

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