An Open Letter to Fitness Instructors
I haven’t taught a group fitness class since last year, but I did do it several times a week for a couple years, so this is a subject that was always on my mind while coaching a diverse group of attendees. I have begun to see more publications focus on this subject recently, which helps me feel more validated that I wasn’t abnormal for teaching my classes this way.
Sidenote: I realized after writing this that I actually wrote a similar post about shame in the fitness community back in 2016. Looks like we still have some work to do…
Dear fitness instructors:
I greatly appreciate what you do, I really do. I’ve been there for the early mornings, the late evenings, and everything in between. While it may not be your full time career, it definitely feels like a full time job to program workouts and craft the perfect playlist. Those playlists take FOREVER and I know that not everyone understands that. It’s a lot of work.
You’re a great source of inspiration and motivation for those of us who show up looking to find a better version of ourselves. What I’m here to say, however, is that everyone’s better version of themselves does not always translate to what you’re trying to sell us.
I’ve been to countless classes that tell us the only way we can enjoy ourselves this weekend is if we “earn our calories.” It’s then a little confusing for us to feel like we have earned the right to have fun, only to be told on Monday that we need to “sweat out the weekend.” I thought you said we were allowed to eat a piece of pizza or go out with friends? Were we not supposed to do that?
Being more culturally aware about who comes to your classes might keep them coming back. Not everyone is looking to lose weight, although that desire isn’t inherently bad either. A specific body type in one culture might be more favorable than in another. For someone who simply wants to get healthy, finding themselves in a class where they are made to feel like there’s something wrong with the way they look can be a jarring experience.
Many of my clients from different backgrounds and cultures than my own do not exercise to fit into a specific mold. They exercise to be healthy, to get stronger, and a number of other reasons that have nothing to do with a mirror. The reasons you offer people in your classes are notably shallow and self-absorbed and no one should leave a class where they gave their all feeling worse than when they came in.
I’m happy to push myself, but not so that I can fit in a pair of jeans. Not so that I can “treat myself” to something that I was probably going to eat anyway. Not so that I can look like you.
I don’t work out to look like everyone else. Sure, there was a time where I thought that would bring me happiness, but I realized time and again that the closer I got to that ideal, the more unhappy I got. I listened to you when you told me to “tighten my booty” and that going all out would “melt away the pounds.” I exercised as a punishment and not as a celebration that I even could. I fed into the negative messages that I was served and kept coming back until I was anxious, injured, and unhappy.
The job of a fitness instructor, as mentioned previously, is to inspire and motivate. The best, and most sustainable, way to do that is through positivity. Commend people for coming to a class at 5 am. Emphasize health and strength as you’re pushing them to run a little bit faster on that treadmill. Let them know that you notice how much they’ve improved since they started coming. All of these things have much longer positive benefits than making someone feel shame for what they do outside of the gym or how they look.
Personally, I have found fitness most sustainable when I don’t do it for you. I do it for me. I do it to spend time with an amazing group of friends that I’ve made through it all. I do it because it’s helped me a TON through this pregnancy and I know that it’ll make my recovery better. I do it because of all the benefits I’ve seen outside of appearance. That’s only one part of a very multi-faceted life, and one that I know won’t bring me happiness alone.
In conclusion, thank you for all that you do, but I’m offering you a gentle nudge to be more conscious about how you present yourself and a person’s relationship to fitness. Consider that your reasons may not be everyone’s reasons and think of ways to speak to your classes that unites people rather than alienates them. Also, keep making those banging playlists. 🙂