One role we have as fitness instructors is educating participants about health and fitness. But how much responsibility do we have for the way class participants perceive their own bodies? And what about the way they perceive our bodies? In fact, our influence is so strong that we have an obligation to help participants—and our colleagues—have a healthy outlook on their bodies.
Instructors who field desperate questions from participants about spot reducing and calorie burning know firsthand about people’s preoccupation with body image. And negative body perception runs rampant in our own industry.
“Body image dissatisfaction is very common [among] exercise instructors,” says Michele Scharff Olson, PhD, FASCM, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. Olson says that 40 percent of female instructors in one of her research studies reported a history of disordered eating (Scharff Olson et al. 1996). In a follow-up study, Olson discovered that female instructors under 30 years old showed more body image dissatisfaction than their older colleagues, despite having below-average body fat percentages (Scharff Olson 2000).
Carol Kennedy, MS, program director of fitness and wellness in the division of recreational sports at Indiana University, studied body image among fitness professionals at a regional fitness conference. “I could not believe how hard instructors were on themselves,” she says. Kennedy says that 44 percent of the instructors could be classified as “obligatory exercisers,” meaning they felt a compulsion to work out even when injured or ill and experienced a sense of guilt or anxiety when they did not exercise (Nardini, Raglin & Kennedy 1999).
Of course, instructors aren’t the only ones to report disordered eating and body image dissatisfaction. Several studies have shown that group exercise participants also express a multitude of body concerns (Frederick & Shaw 1995; Maguire & Mansfield 1998; Markula 1995). Although women as a group tend to report greater dissatisfaction, the problem is becoming more prevalent in men (Ben-Tovim & Walker 1991; Hallinan et al. 1991). While this article focuses on female group exercise instructors and participants, the practical actions outlined can be applied to both genders.
Carrie Myers Smith of Landaff, New Hampshire, is a fitness coach, a former fitness instructor and the author of Squeezing Your Size 14 Self Into a Size 6 World: Breaking the Body Mold and Becoming Your Own Personal Best (Champion Press, 2003). “As fitness professionals,” Smith says, “we’re in a perfect position to encourage a change in women’s mind-sets about their bodies.” But to help others, instructors must first address their personal demons about what constitutes the “perfect body.”
Smith, who once struggled with an eating disorder, left the fitness scene for several years to avoid the body- conscious mentality of the industry. “I was always listening to instructors talk about what they ate or didn’t eat, what they weighed or what their body fat was,” she remembers. “When a participant told me, ‘If only I could get a body like yours, I’d be happy,’ I couldn’t deal with her body image issues because I was just trying to deal with my own.”
Fitness instructors who struggle with extreme body image dissatisfaction, overexercising and/or disordered eating are in no position to promote body image satisfaction in their classes. If this sounds like you, closely examine your role as a model of health and fitness. Are you sending the right messages to your participants? For example, do you talk to participants mostly about the external benefits of exercise? Are you spending a lot of extra time working out apart from instructing? Do you teach an excessive number of classes as a way to control your weight? If so, you’ll have to make some changes to your own self-perception before you can help your participants change theirs.
Your influence as a health and fitness role model is crucial in either helping or hindering body image. Below are eight in-class strategies you can use right away to start promoting better body image for your participants, your fitness colleagues—and yourself.
Challenge Physical Stereotypes
Challenging stereotypes and expectations about what a fit body looks like is an important first step in fostering better body image in the group exercise environment. Participants who believe that being fit means squeezing into an impossible physical standard will probably never achieve body image satisfaction. Instructors who reinforce the “thin-equals-fit” axiom through their language and actions are doing a disservice to the fitness industry, its consumers and themselves.
During the study cited earlier, Kennedy and her colleagues found that an instructor’s drive for thinness was the single best predictor of her own body image dissatisfaction (Nardini, Raglin & Kennedy 1999). Examples of how an instructor might express a strong drive for thinness include relying on exercise primarily as a way to lose weight or stay thin or constantly talking about how working out is all about burning calories.
Similar issues revealed themselves as a result of in-depth interviews I conducted for my master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. My thesis topic was body image and the role of the fitness instructor. The study participants were 14 women ranging in age from 23 to 68. My research confirmed that many fitness participants expect that female instructors should be thin and have a proper amount of muscularity. In fact, some of the women went so far as to admit that an instructor’s appearance either validated or discredited her as a leader. Thankfully, others rejected the fit-body stereotype altogether, saying they preferred someone who looked a little more “normal.” (Refer to “Body Image by Association” on page 3 for more on participants’ expectations about an instructor’s appearance.)
Fitness professionals must let participants know that you don’t have to be thin to be fit—and that an ultrathin instructor is no more qualified than any other. If participants question the abilities of instructors who don’t match a stereotypical mold, set those participants straight. Let them know research indicates that regular exercise is a better predictor of good health and fitness than body weight or size is. Remind participants that just as some people are taller than others, some are naturally heavier. Talk to your class members about what their bodies can do, and emphasize function over form. Stress that regular physical activity improves health, whereas restrictive dieting and excessive weight fluctuation are harmful.
Model Healthy Behaviors
It’s no secret that many participants look to their instructors for ways to control weight and change physique. For this reason, Olson encourages instructors to be especially aware of how they act and what they do in front of participants.
Olson says that an instructor who teaches 15 classes a week, then logs even more time burning calories on the cardio equipment is sending a message to clients that this is what it takes to have a good body. Instructors are responsible for letting fitness consumers know—through their words and actions—that being fit does not mean spending umpteen hours in the gym or attending three classes a day.
Kennedy says that instructors can use their position as role models to reinforce healthy behaviors and attitudes. “What instructors do, what they eat and how they look have an impact on participants,” she says. “Participants observe and imitate their instructors. If an instructor heads to the stepper after teaching a class, so will the participants.” On the other hand, when instructors talk about and demonstrate healthy behaviors, such as going for a bike ride on the weekend, walking instead of always driving, or enjoying a delicious (and not necessarily fat-free) meal without guilt, participants will want to follow their lead.
One of the best ways to divert attention away from appearance-oriented exercise is to highlight other tangible fitness benefits. Talk in terms of increased energy, intensity level, number of repetitions and stabilizing strength, not calories. Focus participants’ efforts, not on losing pounds, but on working up to a heavier set of dumbbells or improving balance on a stability ball.
Directing the group’s gaze away from mirrors can also help. “Too much ‘mirror-looking’ creates body obsessions that may not otherwise exist,” worries Olson. She suggests orienting the class away from their reflections from time to time.
Also, take a hard look at the names of the classes you teach. Are they consistent with the messages you want to send participants about exercise and body image? A class called “Calorie Blast” reflects an image-conscious approach to fitness. Renaming that same class “Cardio Challenge” might be more appropriate. Approach your fitness director with alternate suggestions if you are not comfortable with your class’s description or name.
Promote Body Esteem
I once heard a fitness instructor say to her class, “Smile, you’ll burn more calories.” What about this instead: “Smile, you’ll feel happier and more energetic”? One way to promote body esteem is to help participants recognize the positive things their bodies can do and feel, regardless of how they look. “Studies show that as people get fit and learn to move well, their self-esteem improves,” says Olson.
Boost body esteem during the stretch/ relaxation portion of your classes by inviting participants to imagine two or three ways that regular exercise—not its associated weight loss—improves the quality of their lives. Are they able to play with their kids longer without getting tired? Or hike up a mountain to enjoy the panoramic view? Does working out reduce office-related stress? Participants who leave class with these benefits fresh in their minds will probably feel better than those who head home worrying about the size of their thighs.
Cut Out Image-Conscious Comments & Complaints
Although some women in my thesis study said they felt motivated when an instructor reminded the class that bathing suit season was just around the corner, others were insulted or distressed by image-conscious comments that emphasized calories, weight loss and body perfection.
“Instructors and trainers need to be very sensitive about what they say,” stresses Smith, who recalls feeling especially vulnerable to image-conscious comments when she was struggling with an eating disorder. “You never know how a participant may internalize your words. For women who already feel they don’t measure up, telling them they’re not working hard enough is just defeating.”
Likewise, instructors who express their own body image woes during class must consider how self-conscious participants feel when they hear a fitness leader complain about her “fat hips.” Instructors can avoid adding fuel to the fire of participants’ body image insecurities by refraining from openly griping about their own bodies or referring to certain body parts as “problem areas.”
Advocate Healthy Eating,
Not Food Obsession
Since most participants with poor body image already have food-related worries, how instructors talk about food can ease or exacerbate these concerns as well. “It’s not uncommon for participants to mention how they ‘blew it’ over the weekend because they ‘cheated’ by eating something high fat,” says Smith. And too often, she observes, instructors contribute to the problem by making a reproachful remark or simply raising an eyebrow. Some even help initiate the guilt by insinuating that exercise is punishment for indulging in a calorie-laden Thanksgiving or other holiday meal. “No one should feel like they have ‘cheated’ with food,” says Smith.
When a participant is calorie counting or fussing over food, counter her concerns by saying something like, “Treating yourself now and then isn’t a problem as long as you eat healthy, energizing foods most of the time.” Remind participants that overall healthy eating allows for occasionally consuming higher-fat foods—and that includes Thanksgiving dinner!
Be Sensitive to How Participants Perceive Your Appearance
Almost all the women I interviewed for my master’s research admitted that they compared their bodies to their instructors’ bodies. While some preferred to compare themselves to a hard-body instructor for inspiration, others became anxious about their own bodies and abilities to keep up in class when they encountered a really fit-looking instructor.
“For the overweight client, seeing a muscular, thin teacher may be just the thing that deters her from trying to enter a gym in the first place,” says Olson. “So while a teacher can wear figure-enhancing exercise attire, she should convey a love for helping others with fitness, versus giving [the impression] that she is all about externals.”
Some participants, especially those who are older or deconditioned, may feel especially uncomfortable with their own bodies if the teacher is showing off her fabulous abs in a revealing outfit. Instructors who are sensitive to this dynamic can help foster greater body image satisfaction among participants.
Educate Yourself, Your Colleagues & Your Participants The more equipped you are to discuss body image issues and challenge fit-body stereotypes, the more you’ll be able to ease body image concerns.
To help educate participants and fitness colleagues, approach your group exercise director or fitness manager about organizing body image workshops for members and staff. Occasionally, distribute handouts related to body image in your classes and at staff meetings. (See “Resources” on this page for a list of recently published IDEA Client Handouts on this topic.)
Share an article with another instructor, using it as a springboard to brainstorm even more ways to bolster body image. When you hear participants or fellow instructors obsessing about what they eat or what they hate about their bodies, don’t ignore it or play along. Intervene by sharing your knowledge. For example, you could say, “Fitness is about so much more than just the way you look. When you really focus on how great you feel, it makes you see your body image in a more positive light, too.”
Healing bad body image doesn’t happen overnight, but every effort you make to improve body image in your classes helps participants move one step closer to a more positive relationship with their bodies.