Lauren Licatesi, MS, RD
Did you know that physical activity can improve brain health, help manage metabolic disorders, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, strengthen bones, and improve one’s ability to do everyday activities? We’ve all heard how crucial it is to stay active, however, it’s just as important to stay mindful of the environment we choose to be physically active in and how it contributes to our mental health. In this blog post, we will discuss some of the inadvertent contributions the fitness industry has on body image and beauty standards. We will also discuss the power certain words or comments have on an individuals experience in exercise classes.
1. Proper Language
“Lets burn off that pizza we ate last night!”
Have you ever heard this comment in a workout class? Did you walk out of that class feeling ashamed? Although the comment was likely unintentional, fitness instructors often use language that can have detrimental effects on an individuals relationship with their body. This type of language labels pizza as “bad” or “unhealthy,” insinuating that those should feel shameful about pizza consumption. You may also have heard, “let’s burn those calories” or “let’s get rid of that belly fat we can’t seem to shed.” These statements can lead one to believe that exercise is solely encouraged for weight loss, instead of promoting the sizeable benefits of physical activity discussed above. Instead, such language like, “let’s boost those endorphins!” help to promote the positive effects exercise has on our mental health.
2. Reducing Comparisons
“Look at her abs! We all need abs like those!”
Have you ever felt ashamed of your body because you compared yourself to another individual in your workout class from a comment like this? It’s time fitness instructors help to promote an inclusive and supportive environment. Unfortunately, some instructors unknowingly contribute to body shaming by making comparisons to those in the class. Today, these comparisons can contribute to negative self-esteem, lack of confidence and body dysmorphia. As dietitians, it’s important we continue to share the message that all body types are beautiful no matter what shape or size.
3. Representation is Key
“Let’s get that Gigi Hadid summer body!”
Have you ever heard your fitness instructor say something about the “ideal” body? Although the fitness space has made incredible strides to promote inclusive spaces as discussed in _____ blog, there is still a lot of work to be done. When the fitness world encourages only one body type as ideal, it can isolate those who may not fit the mold. The key to representation is to find an instructor who fits many molds. This will lead to a decrease in negative body image and limit those feelings of exclusion.
4. Overemphasis on Apperance
“One more push up for that hourglass shape!”
Have you ever had a fitness instructor encourage you to work harder for appearance purposes? By shifting the narrative away from appearance driven goals, individuals can focus on the importance exercise has on our mind and mood. A study done by Northwestern University in 2018, had participants randomly assigned to either a fitness class that featured an “appearance-focused” motivational comment by the instructor (e.g., “Blast that cellulite!”) or “function-focused” comments (e.g., “Think of how strong you are getting!”). Those in the function-focused class experienced a significantly great increase in body satisfaction than those in the appearance focused class. These findings suggest that a more function-focused class can lead to even greater improvements in women’s mood, body satisfaction, and body surveillance.
“Push through the pain!”
Fitness instructors can be often be forgetful or unaware of how important it is to listen to your body in a workout class. It’s cear that physical activity is connected deeply to our emotional well-being. The fitness industry can be a sensitive place for those struggling with body image or eating disorders. Something as simple as incorporating mindfulness practices such as positive affirmations, meditation, and/or encouraging compassion in the beginning or end of a workout class could make all the difference for some and create a safe environment for those who find it difficult to workout in front of others.
Using the right language, reducing comparisons, proper representation, shifting the mindset from appearance, and practicing mindfulness are all imperative in creating a safe fitness environment and help motivate individuals on the functional focus of exercise. It’s time to shift the narrative and spend time in workout classes that promote positivity, well-being, and self-love.
Dobrich, E. O. (2022). Rethinking conceptions of body image in group fitness education, culture, and contexts: Recommendations for perspective transformation and innovations in instructional methods. Frontiers in Education, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.1008461
Hurd Anyaso, H. (2023, June 8). Fitness instructors’ comments shape women’s body satisfaction. Northwestern Now. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2018/december/fitness-instructors-comments-shape-womens-body-satisfaction/
Mathisen, T. F., Aambø, J., Bratland-Sanda, S., Sundgot-Borgen, C., Svantorp-Tveiten, K., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2020). Body figure idealization and body appearance pressure in fitness instructors. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.585901