Do you have a mentor or guru? Someone you turn to for advice or knowledge on certain subjects you use as your primary guide? In some cases, you may be paying an expert like a life coach or financial coach to provide heavy-handed guidance. Diet and exercise are two areas where many of us need advice or motivation. If you go to a gym, you’ll often see a bodybuilder who is the go-to guy. Many beginner exercisers and fitness buffs who take exercise classes regularly, like cycling or kickboxing hang on to every word of their instructors.
According to a sports psychology study, your instructor wields some hefty power with the words he or she delivers to motivate you. Those “motivational comments” made during a spinning class or at the end of a conditioning class can help you to achieve better health or needed weight loss, but those words can also undermine your self-esteem.
Appearance versus function
The Northwestern University study analyzed how 203 female college students felt after taking a 16-minute strength and conditioning class. Half were assigned to an instructor who offered appearance-focused motivational cues like “burn that cellulite,” or “burn those thunder thighs.” The other group was exposed to function-focused comments like “look how strong you are getting,” or “see how you can lift heavier weights now?” Body satisfaction at baseline and then after taking several classes was recorded. Though all participants experienced increased body satisfaction, those in the function-based comments classes experienced higher body satisfaction compared to the other group.
We know that exercise of all types can improve mood and body satisfaction, but this study suggests that different instructor comments yield different results. The study suggests that comments based on health versus appearance are likely to offer better psychological outcomes to the women who take these classes. The results also suggest that if you do the same exercises in the same environment with the same music playlist, how you feel after the class will mostly depend on your instructor during the class.
In fact, the researchers found that women used words like “ashamed” or “disgusted with myself” to describe how they felt after taking the class with the appearance-motivating comments. Women in the function-focused motivational class used terms like “accomplished, strong, empowered,” after the class. Essentially, fitness instructors can use shame or confidence-building language to stoke their class participants.
Why does exercise affect body image?
I used to teach exercise classes. My specialty was kickboxing because it was empowering and fun. But I have strong memories of hearing fellow instructors with bodies that most of us could never achieve – endlessly berate or motivate with harsh, stigmatizing words. For someone like me, who transformed from an obese teen to a strong, muscular woman, I found the approach incredibly undermining and frankly dangerous. Who knows how many women struggling with dieting and poor body image ended up with eating disorders or endless yo-yo dieting cycles “thanks” to the instructor’s words?
I think it’s perfectly fine to nudge class participants – “are you really giving it your all?” prodding personal reflection on efforts and goals. But body centric comments that suggest an ideal body type goal can do harm. A studio where the motivational words are honest but based in health will make the space more inclusive and inspire, and be less likely to cultivate poor self-image. It will also support a healthy body and attitude.
I know exercise can be medicine. For example:
- Aerobic activity can improve heart function and help individuals to lose excess weight.
- Resistance training can build muscle mass and improve metabolic health.
- Yoga can help to lower blood pressure.
- Tai chi can help with balance.
- Karate can improve agility.
A muscular body is a strong body that can face life’s physical challenges. Though we can all appreciate the beauty of a lithe ballerina’s body, it’s a poorly kept secret that many of the dancers have been exposed to brutal body image criticism and eating disorders are rampant among professional dancers.
It may be a well-kept secret but many fitness professionals privately bash their own bodies despite the perfection that we see. Some become instructors because it allows them to justify ridiculous amounts of daily exercise. There are amazing instructors out there, but I have found that some of the ones dishing out appearance-motivating messaging in their classes can have personal struggles with body image. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to “look better.” When that goal is unattainable or unsustainable, and guided by unrealistic physical images, you’re marching down the path to self-body bashing and poor body image.
How to stay positive and motivated
One of the ways to stay committed and motivated is to find trainers and fitness instructors who deliver honest advice. They should celebrate all body types. They should “push” you in class by delivering positive health messaging. A strong body is a healthy body. I’ve personally worked hard to keep my arms and legs toned. They just helped me to do a seven day very physical clean out of my dad’s 22-year old condominium. There is no way at my age that I could have kept pace if I wasn’t committed to daily exercise. Empower yourself to find coaches that support you and build up your self-image. Your commitment to exercise should be celebrated!