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How Can Fitness Instructors Help Prevent Body Shaming?

Welcoming group fitness class without any body shaming

Body shaming is widespread in the history of the fitness industry — many professionals have earned their fortunes by making people feel bad about their bodies. Last week, 2015 Playmate of the Year Dani Mathers posted an inappropriate and invasive Snapchat shaming the body of another woman changing in the locker room at her gym. As with the rest of the internet, this story got me boiling mad. We are smack dap in the middle of a body positive revolution, and yet, some people are too slow to embrace this new way of thinking.

Especially frustrating for me is that this takes place in a gym – what I consider a safe haven and my personal stomping grounds, but for so many others what feels more like a fun house bursting with distorting mirrors and scary clowns. Folks are finally starting to face their fears and step foot in the gym, in part because of the new wave of body positive mentality. But, Mathers’ Snapchat proves we still have so far to go before everyone can have the same experience I do at a gym.

My fellow group fitness instructors and personal trainers, we are role models at our respective gyms, so it’s our responsibility to create an inclusive environment for everyone that wants to work out.

Here are a few ways we can help create an atmosphere in our classes and on the gym floor that will stifle body shaming and allow everyone to feel welcome.

Don’t use body image as a motivational technique.

Most of us work out for many different reasons, including our desire to achieve a healthy lifestyle, be able to do activities we love, prolong our lives, and look a certain way. While it’s perfectly okay to exercise to achieve a certain look, it doesn’t have to be a motivation that we focus on as leaders.

For example, you can encourage participants in your spin class during a sprint by telling them this effort will make them faster and stronger, instead of talking about how great their butt will look after they’re done.

Don’t talk about food.

Most of the time when I hear a fitness instructor or personal trainer talking about food, it’s associated with being overweight.

For example, I’ve heard someone say, “After this class, you can go eat that burger.” But if you read between the lines, what they’re actually saying is, “After this class, you can go eat that burger and not get fat.” I’ve also heard remarks like, “Let’s burn off all the extra calories from that 4th of July BBQ last weekend.”

Instead of comments like these, let’s allow us all to enjoy our treats and celebrations without linking it to some sacrifice (read: exercise). Ultimately, this just makes us feel guilty and gives us a negative relationship with food and fitness.

Try to work on changing your mindset to think of eating and exercising as a privilege instead. As something that you enjoy doing as two separate, wonderful entities of life. And personally, I just avoid talking about food in my fitness classes entirely, because it’s such a tricky topic to navigate.

Offer modifications that are easy and inconspicuous.

In my experience, participants will take advantage of modifications most often when they’re not able to see themselves in the mirror. For example, once we all lay on our backs to do chest press or supine bridges, nobody can see each other unless they get out of position and look around the room. This is the perfect time for members to make those modifications you suggest without feeling embarrassed.

I look forward to a time where everyone feels comfortable coming to a gym to exercise and body shaming is dead. Until then, fitness instructors and personal trainers will need to be extra conscious of the environment they create and how they are leading participants through safe, effective exercises.

For more advice, check out the group exercise ideas and tips page.