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“No excuses” no more: Fitness instructing from a place of body positivity (Guest post)

loveLast week, Tracy posted about her transition from indoor to outdoor cycling. In her post, she mentioned some of the things she likes about indoor cycling (everyone stays together, none of the unpredictability of the road, to name a few). She also mentioned some of the things she doesn’t, namely, being stuck right next to me:

“I may have grumbled a little bit about my winter of basement biking on the trainer. I’m not a huge fan of loud music. And one of the reasons I avoid fitness classes is that I get irritated when instructors holler out commands and tell us to work hard.  It motivates some, but it’s not my cup of tea. The other day I had the dreaded spot right beside the instructor. Cheryl is great, but please don’t put me right beside her with the speaker two feet behind me ever again.”

That’s right, I’m the Cheryl that busted Tracy’s eardrums and probably flung sweat on her in our coach’s sweaty basement. I’m also one of her former students, a freelance writer, and a blogger myself at Happy is the New Healthy.

Now, I love it when someone comes up to me after a sweaty spin class and tells me that I really challenged them. But I don’t think of myself as one of the instructors who relishes being told they’re tough as nails or drill-sergeant-esque. I might love it most when I see someone who came into a class with their shoulders rounded forward and head hung leave with their a smile on their face and a little spring in their step. It’s my hope that a fitness class is like a gift that people give to themselves, not a chore that they have to tick off the list for the day. In my opinion, exercise should improve our quality of life, not wear us out. Exercise is about building strength and fitness, not about “fixing” our bodies or making up for what we’ve eaten.

Every time I start a class, I remind the people to take it at their own pace and that “every bike is different and every body is different” when it comes to my suggestions. I throw in that I want people to push their comfort zone, but I also want them to leave feeling like they got whatever it is they needed from their workout that day. I’ve made it my “thing” to promote the kind of healthy that doesn’t come at the expense of our happiness, and while I’m teaching, whether it’s spin or bootcamp or yoga, I hope that I can send a little of that body positivity message to the people in my classes.

But I haven’t always taught with this kind of message in mind. When I first started teaching fitness, I was in a different place. I started to teach fitness when I was nineteen, which was right around the time I found myself struggling with a mix of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. I can remember being angry if someone needed help with their bike during a warm-up to a spin class because it meant I’d have to get off my bike and would need to make up those minutes later. I can remember being almost proud of myself for teaching a hard class the day someone passed out on his way to the water fountain. Hard was a badge of honour and there was no room for “excuses” in my classes. At one point, I remember telling a bootcamp class to do “girl” pushups because they would still help get rid of their arm fat or what I called “Oprah arms”.

Ugh, younger self, ugh.

It’s been six years since I started teaching, and those years have also seen me recover from my eating disorder and start to build a healthy relationship with my body and myself. Along the way, I started to practice and teach yoga classes. It was those classes that showed me that as an instructor, I could have a real effect on people and that I could give them a break or be the facilitator of the best hour of their day. Along the way I also became a life coach, which taught me to really examine the person I’m being in the world and the effect I have on people.

So that’s where the idea of me being one of those shouting instructors irked me! I am glad that Tracy was honest about what she wants in a class, because I realized that in those basement trainer rides, I tried to put on a more “hardcore” hat (or helmet?). When I really thought about why I might not have been giving people the same space to have an easy day here or there that I do in my other classes, a couple of things came to mind. Firstly, I was channeling a fellow instructor who is particularly loud but well-received in trainer classes. Secondly, I was trying to make up for what I perceived to make me seem less credible: I think that since I’m young, people will assume I don’t know what I’m doing (despite my experience in teaching, cycling, and triathlon); and, I think that since I don’t look as mean and lean as I once was, people won’t take me seriously (despite my times being roughly the same as they’ve always been and my health being vastly improved now that I’ve let my eating disorder go).

Fitness instructors can become like gym celebrities. We have people who follow us from gym to gym or class to class and want to know exactly when we’re teaching so they can plan their workouts accordingly. I think with that kind of status comes responsibility. To me, that means it’s really important that I consciously avoid talking about exercises to fix problem areas or burn off calories. It means never calling modified pushups “girl pushups” because there are plenty of men who should be doing them and women who should be on their toes. It means pushing people and challenging them to dig a little deeper than they might if they were alone, but also challenging them to respect their bodies and take care of them. The more instructors who start to create spaces for people to exercise in ways that serve their bodies—not our egos—the more the health and fitness industry can actually be about health.


9 thoughts on ““No excuses” no more: Fitness instructing from a place of body positivity (Guest post)

  1. Oh younger self! I cringe at things I’ve said or done I look back with today’s perspective.
    Thank you for sharing how your framing of exercise has changed over time. It’s easy, as a class participant, to forget that an instructor is changing over time too.

  2. Great post about the evolution of your thoughts about physical activity in general, and how you convey your attitudes about it through teaching. I didn’t mean to be critical of you as much as I meant to be making a comment about my own inability to take loud noise for sustained periods of time (I’m *that* person who asks the restaurant to turn down the music). But I love that my comment made you reflect on your approach to teaching, and it’s interesting that your approach changes a bit in those basement coaching sessions. Your class is awesome, and, I think, even more challenging than your “rival’s” class. 😉
    Thanks for the awesome post, your amazing blog, and teaching classes that pushed me beyond what I’ve ever done before on a bike.

    1. Thanks Tracy, and I mean it when I say that I appreciate knowing what goes on in the people I’m spinning in front of’s heads at least a bit since it’s my job to make the classes work for you guys! 🙂 If I think about all the people who have come to my spin classes in the last 6 years, I think of all the opportunities I’ve had to give someone who is going through the motions or who feels like exercise is a chore the idea that exercise can be fun and can actually be the part of the day they look forward to most…and that’s pretty cool! Thanks for reminding me of that. 🙂

  3. “I also want them to leave feeling like they got whatever it is they needed from their workout that day.”

    For whatever reason, this statement REALLY strikes me this morning. I love it! Sometimes you need a good buttkicking, but sometimes you just need an escape from everything else going on in your life, and maybe a sweaty cycle room is the only place you’ve got.

    Checking out your blog now, Cheryl!

  4. This is a great post! I personally like the “hardcore” classes where the instructor is always pushing you but I realize that is not everyone’s cup of tea! I haven’t been to any classes lately as I am training for a half marathon but on my runs, especially the long ones, I take on the drill sargent, hardcore talk in my head when I am struggling to keep going and I also love to listen to some good rock music when I run! But this is just me. I have tried for years to get into Yoga because I know it would do me good, but I just can’t do it…

  5. I completely understand. As a disorders eater and excessive exerciser I relished those hard instructors. They fed into my self loathing and punishment.

    Now that I am in the path of recovery I teach yoga. Yin yoga. The absolute opposite of what I used to believe in. And I still struggle to not find ways to make the class harder. I still kind of want the class to be impressed.

    But every week I start with a reminder that we are on a journey of self discovery and not self improvement. It is as much for me as them.

    As an aside, there is a yoga ties her at my gym who uses criticism and fear of fat to motivate. She is very popular. I avoided her at all costs.

    It’s sad that so many of us are looking to be beaten into something we think we want.

    Thank you for a fantastic post!


  6. This is so easy to relate to. I used to love all sport and exercise when I was a kid, but when I became a teenager and self conscious about my body, exercise became a means to work off food and keep a flat stomach. I have only recently changed my perspective on exercise, and rediscovered that childhood pleasure I used to have. Exercise should be for health and a balanced mind, but most importantly for enjoyment.

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