Confessions of a Former Group Fitness Instructor

People come to a group fitness class so that someone else will force them to make an effort. As it turns out, the quickest and laziest route to that is food-shaming (which I refused to do).

Mar 1, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

I got my first home workout tape, "Get in Shape Girl," as a birthday gift. It came with a poster and a jump rope. But I can safely say that the greatest workout video of all time is the original "Buns of Steel" with Greg Smithy. My friends and I used to do the tape together to get in shape for spring break. We would die laughing at the part where he would say "Squeeeeeeeze those cheeseburgers out of those thighs.” We probably didn’t realize that such food-for-fitness swapping was laying groundwork for a lifetime of a warped relationship with exercise.

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The good old days


Workout videos have come a long way since then, and for the most part, they've refocused on physical challenge and personal achievement instead of whatever you ate last night. Even Tracy Anderson does most of her food-shaming outside of her workout videos.

Unfortunately, it seems that many live group fitness instructors aren’t making the same progress. I was in a yoga class when the 90-pound instructor told us not to worry about how other people in the class looked. While we all hung out in triangle pose, she shared how she had always been self-conscious about her "pooch" and through yoga she learned that we all had our own pooch to accept. I spent the rest of the class trying not to be annoyed by the moaning and heavy breathing of the guy next to me while trying to erase the vision of the instructor's pooch from my mind. Un-Zen.

And before you kick in with the “why let it bother you” crap, know that there is a cognitive reality that we all must acknowledge, and it’s called ironic processing. Summary: If I tell you not to think about a polar bear, you can’t help but think of a polar bear. Which is why instructors should be more mindful of what they're saying -- “don’t compare yourself to the person next to you” might lead to “OK, I wasn’t -- but now I notice that she has better shoes, and I want to go shoe-shopping, her ankles remind me of Nancy Reagan, am I doing this wrong?,” etc.

Most group classes I've attended started with the instructor announcing it was time to either pay for your food sins or "earn" the ones you were going to commit. Or they’d holler about how other people were out eating and stuffing their faces with fatty happy hour appetizers and we, the holy ones, were inside doing leg lifts. If you didn’t feel like doing another rep, all you had to do was think of that horrible breakfast you had. Bad good, bad good -- I wanted to scream, "Get your anti-cheeseburger agenda out of my fitness class!”

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Work those buns.


Then something unexpected happened. A spin teacher took me under her wing and helped me become an instructor. I quickly learned that people come to a group fit class so that someone else will force them to make an effort. And as it turns out, the quickest and laziest route is food-shaming. I vowed to become a progressive group fitness teacher (Group X, for industry folks) -- aware of the expectations and issues people bring to class. My training taught me that as an instructor you have two main functions: ensure proper form so people don’t pass out, pull or break anything, and motivate the class. A good instructor will make the time fly by, and a really good instructor can do this without any burger-guilt bull-crap.

When I had my class, people would walk in saying, “I was BAD this weekend. I have to take two classes today.” When I’d reply, “It’s better to not think of food as good and bad,” they’d look at me and say, “But a brownie IS bad.”

And the fact is, a lot of people use what they eat or what they want to eat as motivation to get to the gym. We all have to come up with some reason to make us want to participate in something as weird and unnatural as going to a room to perform repetitive motions with a group of strangers. But it isn’t the job of the instructor to assume that everyone wants to go down that food-shame/fitness-guilt road.

Considering the amount of damage this kind of food-for-fitness-swapping can do for people at risk of eating disorders and exercise addiction, it’s a wonder more gyms don’t have policies against it. I know it isn’t discouraged in training. My AFAA manual didn't cover much as far as exercise psychology; most of the personal counseling component was about helping clients set goals using tape measures and fat calipers.  I got certified on a single Saturday afternoon after showing a small group of people a short cardio program, and that I could do sit-ups and explain them at the same time.

It wasn’t until I was in front of a room full of women that I realized how ridiculous it was to say the things I'd always heard from other instructors, like "This will give you that beautiful, long, lean line." Half of that class isn't going to get a long, lean line. For many god-given reasons. Ever. “Time to burn those cheeseburgers off those thighs”? Half the class looked like they had more than one cheeseburger to worry about and the other half probably hadn’t seen a slice of cheese in five years.

The problem with group fitness is that a group includes all kinds of people with all kinds of needs and expectations. If I was going to assume one thing about my class, it wasn’t going to be that they hated themselves because they ate too much; I assumed they wanted positive motivation. I tried to focus on recognizing that it takes effort to get up at 7 am to work out. It was all positive, all the time: “Do your best,” “Really push it,” “Go further than you think you can."

It only took a couple months to realize that the students didn’t even notice, let alone appreciate, my efforts. After one class, as we were putting our purple mini-dumbbells back, I heard some students talking about the afternoon spin instructor and how she really “kicked your ass.” I knew who they were talking about, and it was the instructor that made everyone dedicate their class to something horrible they'd eaten that week.

I haven’t taught Group X in years, and I don't go to many classes now; the last one was the phantom-pooch yoga lady. I wonder how today's instructors are doing, how they're encouraging people to jump, spin, and squeeze their way through guilty rep after rep. Not every fitness teacher is like this, of course, but after being on the other side, I’m convinced that some folks like more than just the physical punishment of working out. They come to group fitness classes in enclosed rooms with hard wood floors and multiple mirrors, like some kind of aerobic BDSM dungeon, everyone sweating and being shamed into compliance. If I stepped back in and tried to start a group fit rebellion, I can't help but wonder who would even show up.