“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.

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