As amazing as it now seems, back in the 1970s we had to prove that aerobic dance could actually increase your heart rate. “Yes, cardio activity is effective,” our new and growing industry asserted. Once this effectiveness was established, researchers began publishing studies that detailed injuries sustained during aerobics classes. So in the 1980s and 1990s, our adolescent industry committed to making classes safe.
Now our goal must be to ensure that these safe, effective classes are fun so that participants keep coming back. People are craving an experience that takes their minds off the pressures of work and home. They expect us to teach safe, effective movements. However, what will entice participants to return is not your basic class recipe but an offering that adds in some spice. As Peter McLaughlin, keynote speaker at the IDEA® World 2000 convention, told attendees, “Your job is not really to help people build more muscle. You’re there to give them energy and lift their mood.” (For more of McLaughlin’s thoughts on fitness and fun, see the March 2001 issue of IDEA Health & Fitness Source.)
Bottom line in the 2000s? If you want to keep longtime participants and entice newcomers, your classes must truly offer the complete package: fun, safety and effectiveness (with an emphasis on the fun part!). You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian. You must simply create an environment that helps your participants—and you—let loose and have a good time. For ideas on how to accomplish this, instructors known for lifting moods and generating class energy share some of their methods for interjecting fun.
“Don’t just teach exercise; create an adventure,” advises Mindy Mylrea, 1999 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and owner of Jump Inc. in Santa Cruz, California. “Adventures get people to come back.” One way to create adventure is to surprise participants. “Playful surprises help people feel something and not just stay on cruise control,” says Mylrea. Sometimes she randomly tells two people to work out for a minute in the “playground,” an area where she’ll have placed a stability ball and slide.
Another strategy is to “wear a funny hat or dress up out of the blue,” says Gin Miller, 1991 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and a Reebok University master trainer based in Canton, Georgia. “Wear a 10-gallon cowboy hat or a Robin Hood hat for no reason, and add movements that reflect the character of the hat. This is silly, but people enjoy it.” Kendell Hogan, West Coast group fitness director for Crunch, notes that one of his instructors regularly surprises participants by asking them to guess the common theme among several songs (e.g., they’ve all been used in John Travolta movies).
Participants will appreciate your efforts to help them relax and step outside of themselves. This is especially important in mind-body fitness classes. “This work can be hard for participants, especially [those] with little body awareness. Therefore you need to relax them,” says Agneta Lindberg, a mind-body instructor at Lindberg Pilates for Body and Mind and other clubs in London. “For example, when doing a circular pelvic movement seated on a stability ball, the friction between the ball and the floor simulates a familiar, embarrassing sound! So I address this issue directly by acknowledging that it’s normal to make this sound! When I bring into the open embarrassing sounds or positions, participants enjoy the exercise and feel less repressed!”
Stacy McCarthy, regional director of group exercise for eight Frog’s Club One facilities in Southern California, adds, “You don’t need to be funny in a yoga class, but you do need to be lighthearted, because yoga is so intense.”
Mylrea uses fun imagery in all her classes. “For example, when participants are ‘climbing a hill’ in cycling, I tell them to think of passing their high school sweetheart—or someone they wish was their high school sweetheart,” she says. “I cue them to peddle intensely so their sweetheart can see their great butt! This gets them to work out hard and brings in a little fun.” In a step class Mylrea sometimes choreographs a football drill and asks participants to pretend they are high-fiving their neighbors. Then she asks them to repeat after her, “We are the Mighty Ducks” (or some funny team name). This gets them giggly and relaxed.
Miller, who is world renowned for her uninhibited sense of humor, relies on a toolbox of tricks to help participants lighten up. Occasionally she brings in a celebrity photo on which she’s written “Love to Gin’s class from George Clooney” (or whoever the celebrity is). Then she tells the class they’re working out for George and makes several references to him throughout class. From time to time she uses a megaphone in class, something that always makes people laugh.
“People come to class because of the group environment,” says Mylrea. “Help them get to know each other. Think of yourself as a party host.” To be a good “host,” she orchestrates group dynamics. In a step class, for instance, she’ll tell participants that when she says, “Scramble,” they need to run to another step. This reshuffling gives class members a change of scenery and catches them off guard, so they are working out in the moment. Mylrea may also have people get into groups of five and take their steps—and themselves—across the room without their feet ever touching the floor. “They really bond during this because they have to work together,” she says.
When teaching indoor cycling classes, Mylrea divides participants into two groups and gives each group a fun name like “Roy Riders” or “Tommy Tricycles.” She calls the groups by name throughout the session and has them root for each other. During a high-low class, she might split the class into four quadrants and give each quadrant a different move to perform; then she’ll tell everyone to switch quadrants and do the next activity. She might also assign a squad leader to create an activity so everyone is not following her.
Mary Sanders, MS, a water fitness instructor based in Reno, Nevada, and cowinner of the 1997 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award, builds camaraderie by pairing up participants in water classes. “They work as teams and can laugh and communicate with their buddies. I encourage them to talk by making one the ‘coach’ and the other the ‘athlete’ and then having them switch.”
Another way to facilitate camaraderie is to create a structured dialogue. Miller will say, “The answer to today’s secret question is ‘harder than you.’ What’s the answer?” and then she’ll have class members repeat it. Later she’ll say, “Here comes the secret question: ‘How hard are you working?’” and they’ll answer, “Harder than you!” You can be creative and use different questions and answers.
Part of helping participants have fun is letting them know you care about them as individuals. Alison Galvan, MD, group exercise director at Cross Gates Athletic Club in Slidell, Louisiana, says, “I’ve been to classes that felt like a big clique that I was not part of. Even though the regulars were having fun, I felt left out, and that wasn’t fun. So if I don’t recognize someone in my class, I introduce myself before class if there is time. Otherwise, I make eye contact and offer a wink and a smile during class.”
Joanne Bradbury, who teaches at several facilities in Hampshire, England, gently humors individual students. “For instance, 80-year-old Iris regularly attends class,” relates Bradbury. “Once I had to leave class for a few seconds, so I told everyone I was putting Iris in charge and that when I returned I wanted her to report anyone who’d been slacking off!”
One way to make participants feel special is to single out individuals or groups of people. Miller suggests you ask just certain sections of the class to do a particular combination. “You can say, ‘Just the left side, now just the right side, now just the back line, just the front line’ and ‘Now just me,’ which always makes people laugh.”
Another way to make people feel special is to empower them to create part of their own workout. For example, Hogan asks students to strike their own pose on counts 7 and 8 at the end of a combination.
It’s important to tailor the fun component to the type of class you’re teaching, notes McCarthy. “If your words are rapid and loud in a yoga class, for example, that may actually make class less fun, because that’s not the tone students are expecting.”
Where you are teaching can also impact the enjoyment level. “When you instruct water classes from on deck, people may not be able to hear you well because of the acoustics,” notes Bethany Diamond, a group instructor and personal trainer who specializes in water fitness in suburban Atlanta. “You need to speak slowly and show your enthusiasm through body language rather than just words.”
If you need an extra boost to add fun to class, challenge yourself to improve your skills in the following areas:
Risk Taking. To rise above the ordinary, you need to take risks. “To be a risk taker, you must be grounded and comfortable with who you are so you are not worrying about how others perceive you,” says Mylrea. “When we allow our egos to run the show, we remain guarded and choose safer, more mainstream activities.” One risk is showing your own true personality, rather than just mimicking another instructor’s or showing only the “acceptable” aspects of your personality. Another risk is being the first to do what you are asking of your participants. For example, if you want them to exaggerate their movements, you need to show your version first.
Salesmanship. To create fun, you must have confidence in yourself and your “product.” You have to believe you are the ideal candidate to sell this ideal movement approach. “If you say, ‘I had this idea and, oh well, let’s try it,’ participants won’t buy into it,” cautions Mylrea. “You must wholeheartedly sell the idea.”
Mental Flexibility.To Lindberg, teaching is a dynamic process in which she communicates with the group and they communicate with her. Rather than scripting humor too much, she remains flexible and makes stream-of-consciousness jokes about current affairs or daily life. Humor also works for those moments when instructors make an obvious teaching mistake and need to acknowledge it to participants. Theresa Stelly, a longtime instructor in Santa Barbara, California, laughs off miscues and reminds the class, “It’s a good thing I’m leading a step class and not performing brain neurosurgery.”
Openness. “If you are trying to elicit a response and not getting one, don’t be afraid to ask for it, because it will juice you,” says Diamond. “I might say, ‘I need to feel the love!’ to get participants to respond, and then they’ll laugh and have a good time.”
Innovation. Don’t forget to find ways to keep renewing yourself. “When you know that a certain joke or expression creates fun, it can be tempting to use it again and again,” says Lindberg. “Look for new sources of inspiration and find common ground with participants to use for humor.” Play off of what’s happening in each class.
Preparation. As the class leader, you need to take charge of the fun. You can do that, according to McLaughlin, only if you take three to 10 minutes before class to focus your mind and energize yourself. Then you’ll be fully ready to make the most of every class minute!