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?