Being a Group Fitness “Inclusivity Ambassador”

Posted by Joella Hopkins
Indoor Cycling Inspiration

Perception is reality. We tend to believe what we tell ourselves.

We all have insecurities. Even the people that you think are the most secure and successful, struggle with things you know nothing about. Being in the fitness industry for almost 30 years, I have struggled with my own identity, confidence level, and self-esteem. I know many of you have as well. We are surrounded by youth, beauty, lean and fit bodies, and sometimes mean girls (and boys!) – literally like the cliques back in high school. And then, of course, there’s the media. Every airbrush stroke matters. It affects us whether we realize it or not. Every time you see pictures of perfect men and women, you are subconsciously comparing yourself and feeling inadequate. Again, we believe what we tell ourselves.

Looking back, it’s 1984 and I am putting on my cheerleading outfit – there’s a big football game later this evening. I look in the mirror, struggling with the zipper, trying to straighten out my skirt that is probably two sizes too small. Cheerleading skirts back then were not exactly made for girls over a size 4. My mind races thinking about the other cheerleaders. I am probably 4 to 5 inches taller than they are, and at least 20 – 30 pounds bigger. Yes, bigger, bottom of the cheerleading pyramid bigger. It didn’t matter that I could do a zillion back handsprings and aerial cartwheels. It didn’t matter that my thick thighs made me great at track and basketball. What mattered to me at the time was that I was tugging on my sweater all day trying to hide my midriff and crooked skirt that didn’t completely zip all the way to the top. I wanted to be “petite” like they were. I wondered why I was even chosen to be a cheerleader at all.

You get the point. We are all human and we all have our own insecurities.

The one place I wish we could wipe all these insecurities away would be in the group fitness studio. Isn’t this the place where we should all be able to come together (flaws and all) and feel accepted - like we actually belong? Everyone could be a part of the popular crowd – even if it’s just for that one hour. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for everyone entering the group fitness room. A group fitness class can bring back every insecurity you’ve ever had about yourself. My goal is to help instructors realize this is happening. Every day. Every class. Sadly, it starts from the environment the group fitness instructor creates. Most of the time, it is not intentional to make someone feel excluded, but it happens more than you could even imagine. Remember, perception is reality.

It's easy to bond with the people that are like us. The front row members. The ones we know well. The ones that want to be our friend. The ones who can’t wait to talk to you! They love it when you call out their name in class. For others, that would be mortifying! The key is to figure out how to connect to those people – the ones that are new and nervous, and/or are in the back row because they don’t want to be the center of attention. Some people are easier to bond with than others. It’s all about how to connect with people in the way that works for them – not us.

Recently, I took a new class at a boutique studio and felt immediately like I didn’t fit in, and I’m a fitness professional! I felt like everyone’s mom. The fitness coach leading the class was young enough to be my son. I’m sure nobody cared that I wasn’t 25, but I did. It was my own self-talk that caused the insecurity. I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for someone who had to gather up every bit of confidence they had just to be able to walk through the door! You better believe there are people walking in to classes all over the world today that will never come back again because they felt exactly the same way (not young enough, not fit enough, not coordinated enough…basically not “good enough”).

I’ve worked for some rather prestigious health club chains, and have been in every type of environment there is when it comes to group fitness classes. Some I have enjoyed more than others. I’ve had great experiences and amazing opportunities – but not without bumps along the way. There have been times when that high school girl will rear her mean head and take me down a notch or two (or three, or four…).

I remember working for one of the largest group fitness companies in the world and struggling with my weight. Trust me when I say I was trying. It has always been an up and down battle for me. I will never forget when one of my idols looked me straight in the eye one day after class and said to me “Wow, I’m really glad to see you are FINALLY getting your figure back” (huge emphasis on the word “finally”). I smiled and thanked her. What else could I do? Inside though, it was like someone had kicked me straight in the gut and the anxiety I felt came rushing back with a vengeance – like I was 16 again.

A couple of years after that I was asked to submit a video to be the “expert trainer” on a well known, popular daytime TV talk show. My coworkers, friends, and experts in videography jumped in to help me! It was exhilarating, exciting and I just knew in my heart I would get chosen. After all, I had worked so hard for so many years and was at the point of being considered an expert in my field. The video was funny, smart, entertaining, showed off my athleticism, keyed in on my strengths as an expert in helping others attain their fitness goals. Then I got the phone call I was waiting for – I was chosen! They wanted me. I was finally good enough. The only thing the main host asked was that I take a picture of my abs and send it to the producer because they couldn’t really tell in my video how my abdominals looked. WTH??

So I forwarded the picture and the next day got a phone call that last minute they had decided to go with another person. To say I was devastated isn’t the worst of it – I was humiliated, embarrassed and just down right hurt. I’ve never told anyone what happened to this day – until now. You see, even the people that seem to have made it in our industry have their feelings and self-esteem trampled.

Now you may be wondering why in the world am I spilling my deepest insecurities to you, and what does this really have to do with being a group fitness instructor? Because I am also your health club’s member. You are each your health club’s member.

The last thing in the world I ever want to do is make someone feel like they don’t fit in when they come to class. I never want someone to go back to their place of insecurity because of me. We been given a gift and an opportunity every time we step in front of our class to make people feel special. That they matter. That they fit in. As an instructor you need to make sure that happens every time you teach, in every class, and with every person. Never forget – it is an honor that they have chosen to spend their time with you!

Plus – it’s pretty darn cool that we have the chance to make people feel “good enough.”

After reaching far and wide to both regulars who have taken group fitness classes, as well as the instructors that teach the classes all across the globe (thank you to everyone who gave me some great ideas and for letting me share them) – we’ve come up with tangible things you can do as an instructor to create true connection in your classes.

Best Practices Shared

  1. Make a personal connection with every person at some point during class! If you’ve left one person out, you haven’t done your job.
    1. Smile – a lot! It matters.
    2. Learn names. Some people struggle with this - but it’s important! Be careful of overusing certain peoples’ names in class.
    3. Use a notebook or your phone to write down new names you learn each class – set a goal of at least 2 per class. You can also add notes to help you remember.
    4. Learn to connect with people that are different than you (i.e., introvert vs. extroverts). Not everybody wants to be the “center of attention” or have their name called out. The best connectors learn how their participants each need to connect. Sometimes just a single nod, smile, wink or thumbs up is all it takes to make someone feel included.
    5. Even if someone is late to class, welcome them in and let them know you are glad they made it! Many instructors ignore someone coming in after class has started. Ideally members would always be on time, but sometime life gets in the way. You don’t know what kind of day they’ve had or how hard they may have tried to be on time!
    6. Remember personal facts about your members. For example, a race they ran in, their kid’s school event, or a trip they just returned from. This makes people feel like you personally care about them. Write them down in that notebook so you remember to ask the next time you see them.
  2. You never want someone to feel like your class is “too advanced” for them.
    1. Do not embarrass people coming to your class by saying, “This is an advanced class,” or “We’ve been working on this routine for weeks so you might struggle.” This is not the way to make someone feel included. In fact, it’s just downright rude. There are better ways to communicate this with a member, privately.
    2. Make sure people know, and are encouraged, to take breaks when needed.
    3. Let them know it typically takes 3 to 4 classes to even start to feel comfortable in a new class or format. Remind them that everyone in the room felt this way when they started.
    4. Be careful of cues like “Turn to face Nancy,” or “Over on Sue’s side,” as this can make someone feel ostracized and not part of the group.
    5. Be sure to tell them how great they did afterwards and invite them back.
    6. Give them a “tip for next time” on technique or something that they can take away to make sure they come back.
  3. Introduce them to a friendly member – a new “buddy.”
    1. Some members love to help the instructor. It’s a win/win – they feel special, and you get the help you need so you can attend to other members as well.
    2. At the beginning or end of class, ask participants to find one person they don’t know and introduce themselves. It’s great for new people to meet each other, but even more importantly it causes the regulars to meet people outside of their “clique.”
    3. Have class members learn a fun fact about another class member they don’t know yet. Tell them there’ll be a quiz at the end of class!
    4. Have them give a compliment to someone standing nearby them.
  4. Teach to the different areas of the room – move around instead of just standing up front.  
    1. Moving around the room when you teach and focusing attention on different people is a great way to connect to everyone.
    2. Be cognizant that some people are at the back for a reason and be careful not to invade their space or make them the center of attention.
  5. Try not to use words like “guys,” “ladies,” “girls” – if you want to be all-inclusive use words like “team” or “friends.”  
    1. Words like we, us, and together also create an environment of inclusivity.
    2. Be careful not to use elitist style coaching or projecting an air of superiority.
    3. Keep your body language open.
    4. Make the environment welcoming from the start. Try greeting people as they enter the studio, playing music to create ambiance, helping members set up their equipment and introducing them to each other.
  6. When coaching, use body positive language and avoid referring to exercise as a punishment.  
    1. Phrases or questions like, “Don’t you want to be skinny?” or “Let’s burn off that muffin top,” or even, “Who wants a beach body?” may not be the best way to motivate. It could even end up having the opposite effect.
    2. Exercise should not be a punishment. Exercise should always be presented as a fun, good for you thing to do.
    3. Use positive affirmations. Try to highlight a new one each week. Make an effort to share positivity with your members about body image, self-image, energy, kindness, or empathy. Start your class with an intention that relates to the new affirmation.
  7. Make sure modifications are shown and do not make someone feel “less than” for having to use them. Make it about a choice – and celebrate whatever they are able to do!  
    1. Never embarrass or “shame” someone because they are unable to do specific exercises (or have to leave early).
    2. Praise, praise and more praise! Every effort counts. Encouragement is everything.
    3. Pay attention to the improvements you see members make. Celebrate successes, both big and small.
  8. Find creative ways to identify new class participants.  
    1. Instead of asking, “Is anyone new?” try saying something like “If we have any people here for the first time, thank you for coming, and here is some of what you can expect from class today. I’ll also be available after class if you have any questions.”
  9. Seek feedback– even if it isn’t positive!  
    1. Feedback is tough, but it lets members know that what they want and feel matters to you (and the gym).
    2. If a member makes a suggestion, take it seriously.
  10. Face your members. Learn to mirror your participants.  
    1. Eye contact enhances connection. It’s also not the same looking at them in the mirror!
    2. There are also times when you need to go “with the members” to break down intricate choreography to make it easier to follow be adept at flip-flopping between views.
  11. Wear appropriate clothing when teaching.  
    1. Take pride in how you look.
    2. Modesty is a good policy. You can motivate and remain professional.
    3. Be humble. You are not there to show off or intimidate others because you think you look amazing.
  12. Be human.  
    1. Let them know you are “real” and that you struggle at times too.
    2. Do part of the workout with the members. Get in the trenches and show them you’re working hard as well.
    3. Make it about a team effort – not you just barking orders.
  13. Adopt the approach of teaching to everyone like they’re a family member or a close friend.  
    1. Treat your members like you would want someone to treat your loved one. We are given the privilege of helping them care for their health and well-being – they trust us with this.
    2. Most of them feel incredibly vulnerable so they need to be made to feel like the most important and cared for person in the world.
    3. They need to know they matter to you.
  14. Lastly, never say negative things about your own body.  
    1. You are a role model. If you want members to feel “good enough” than lighten up on yourself and realize YOU are “good enough.”
    2. The way we talk about our bodies affects our members. How can we expect our members to accept and love their bodies if we are unable to do the same?

Give some of these a try! Please like and share this post so that we can get the discussion going. We need more “Inclusivity Ambassadors” in our group fitness studios!

Never be that instructor where someone walks out of your class feeling inadequate. You never know who got picked last for gym class or who was bullied growing up. Now is your chance to make everyone feel accepted.

Topics: CPT

About the Author:

Joella Hopkins is the Vice President of Group Fitness for EOS Fitness. She has been in the fitness industry managing gyms for the past 28+ years, with an expertise in group fitness. Joella has presented master classes, workshops, business seminars, and instructor educational sessions at the most influential and respected fitness conferences in the world. She is a huge animal lover and currently lives in Oceanside, California with her 3 dogs (Rottweiler, husky and chihuahua) and cat.

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