While group fitness classes and training sessions offer motivation you might not get if you worked out by yourself, sometimes the way the instructor motivates can be counterproductive — even when they have the best intentions. The difference between how you feel after class might have more to do with the words the instructor is using — and less to do with you.
FOCUS ON APPEARANCE OR FUNCTION
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology last April, 203 college women participated in a group fitness class. For one set of women, the instructor used appearance-focused motivational comments like “Blast that muffin top!” and “Get rid of those love handles.” For the other group, the instructor used function-focused motivational comments like “You’re so strong!” and “Your body is capable of such amazing things.”
Although both groups reported more body satisfaction afterward, those who heard function-focused comments experienced greater satisfaction. “Exercise boosts your positive mood; we already know that,” says study author Renee Engeln, PhD, psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of “Beauty Sick.” “But the women in the class that focused on health and fitness were even happier and more confident about how they looked.”
Additionally, during class, they were less likely to monitor how their bodies looked in the mirror. “There is no reason, in a fitness class, to be thinking about how you look. You should be focused on your form, enjoying yourself and listening to the instructor,” Engeln says.
While we may not realize it, “earn your brunch” types of comments are externally focused, and therefore only motivating in the short term, says Dani Tsukerman, owner and founder of Very Personal Training in Brooklyn, New York.
“When a fitness instructor or trainer tells you to work out harder to fit into your skinny jeans, they’re basically sending you the message that we work out because of guilt. Anyone who has ever felt guilty knows that it’s an icky feeling that they try to avoid,” she says.
Working out for external reasons can also lead to basing your self-worth on how hard you exercised, she adds. You may start to feel like you “need” to work out or work out “hard,” so you go through class focusing on quantity rather than quality and aren’t truly present in your body. This can eventually lead to poor results and burnout.
FOCUS ON THE RIGHT THINGS
To help make exercise a consistent habit you enjoy, focus on internal motivators, such as how strong you feel and how working out allows you to do all the things in life that you enjoy. “Working out can be so much bigger than [how many calories you burn] and can change the way you live your life and think about yourself,” Tsukerman says. We all have days when we don’t feel great or think we could have pushed harder, and that’s OK. “You can think, ‘That was hard, but I can work on this and get better at it, and I will feel amazing when I do,’” Tsukerman says.
Engeln and Tsukerman agree most instructors likely aren’t aware the words they use can have a negative effect. “It’s unfortunate because the instructor is missing an amazing opportunity to shape the way their clients live and think about themselves,” Tsukerman says.
So the next time an instructor says something about getting a bikini body, notice how you feel about yourself during and after class. If the answer is some version of “ashamed” or “disgusted,” you may consider finding another teacher who motivates you to get a great workout.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“You might feel exhausted after class, but you should feel proud that you went,” Engeln says. “If something in your fitness setting is making you feel ashamed, it’s time to move on.” There are other instructors out there who will push you to be your best without feeling bad about your body.