Leading to Habitual Physical Activity; Leadership and the Novice Exerciser
I did do one aerobics class; it was a drop in at [private facility]. I did a step class and I was totally embarrassed in front of the mirrors. Couldn’t grapevine, step, or anything, was a klutz and I was so embarrassed that I never went back. – Veronica[i]
Over the years, I have interviewed and talked with sedentary women and those struggling with their physical activity adherence. The above quote is one of many I have collected describing the experience of participating in a group fitness class for the first time. As a fitness leader myself, and one that loves leading highly choreographed, advanced classes, it wasn’t until I started interviewing this unrepresented population that I truly understood their frustration and distaste for group fitness. Their stories motivated me to examine my own leadership strategies and the barriers I may be creating through my own beliefs, judgements, and practices. While my intentions were pure and I only wanted to share my passion for exercise, my beliefs about fitness and my own body aesthetic got in the way of positively steering many novice exercisers toward a life of physical activity.
Understanding the Fitness Culture
The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as…”the arts, customs, and institutions of a nation, people, or group.”[ii] The profession of fitness, and the industry that supports it, can be defined by certain cultural customs or practices. These practices include what we wear, how we talk, what we believe and value, how we lead, and the choreography and trends we choose to follow. Unfortunately, even when our heart is in the right place, many of these practices and beliefs can create more barriers to group fitness participation than we may realize. There is no shortage of literature to support the notion that the uniform and physique of the fitness leader may intimidate the novice exerciser.[iii] So what is a fitness leader to do?
It is important to become clear about your interests as a fitness leader. If you love leading advanced fitness classes you may positively influence and motivate your participants by practicing what the fitness culture supports. Conversely, if you are a leader with a passion for leading the novice participant or motivating those yet to join your class, I ask you to seriously consider the following.
She [the instructor] is by far my favourite instructor that I have ever had. She’s great. She knows everybody’s name, she sends email reminders out once a month, little newsletters and you know, she remembers birthdays and stuff. Just really takes time to make everybody feel like they are important and she is really glad to see that one specific person. - Jane[iv]
Fitness Culture and Leadership
How does leadership influence the adherence of the novice group fitness participant? Ultimately, the commitment to exercise rests on the shoulders of the individual but the influence you have on this commitment is strong. What you wear and how you talk about fitness and the body may convey hidden or subconscious messages easily picked up by those new to the group fitness environment.
…because even when I go to these classes and I see little, thin, petite, beautiful, spandex people, I feel insecure even though I am able to keep up. I hated it because everyone was fit, everyone had those latex little spandex bras on. - Veronica[v]
So where do you start? How do you motivate the novice participant to stick with it? It has been noted in the literature that the fitness leader’s appearance can intimidate the first timer.[vi] By illuminating your own fit physique through the latest fitness fashion, you may inadvertently create feelings of exclusion among those starting out. It may be hard to believe, but many sedentary people considering physical activity are intimidated by those wearing yoga pants and matching tanks. In fact, there are fitness facilities that will not allow tank tops and bra tops but only sleeved t-shirts in an attempt to create a more welcoming atmosphere. To enhance feelings of comfort try wearing t-shirts and loose clothing.
…because we want to know that if we dance around for an hour we are going to lose [weight]. We are going to burn this many calories and we are going to lose this much weight and you know, that’s why I go. I would bet that’s why 90% of the people go. That’s why I would go into exercise classes because I thought it would get rid of my stomach. – Natalie[vii]
Become a role model for health. It’s no secret that the fitness industry is built on the promise of a “better” body. Promises of weight loss, firmer arms, and leaner muscles permeate almost all messages of fitness. This is most evident when you “Google” images for “fitness” and for “health”. The differences are not only obvious but may be frustrating for those fitness leaders who don’t represent the “fit” stereotype.
For many novice participants, the primary motive of group fitness participation is weight loss or related physical changes. Unfortunately, when these expectations are not met, discouragement chips away at motivation and the chance of exercise drop out increases.[viii] A focus on health (and exercise enjoyment) rather than weight or physique may enhance the adherence to exercise. A fitness leader who attends to the health benefits of the exercises and less on changing the look of thighs, butts, and abs will not only help to shift the focus to health, but keep participants coming back.
There is no shortage of research to suggest that exercising in a group is one of the most influential factors to life long exercise adherence.[ix] Group fitness can be an inspiring experience if the setting is welcoming, enjoyable, and socially connected. It is important, however, to consider your attire, language, and personal beliefs when leading the inactive through activity. It is only through inclusive leadership that the goal of active communities will be realized. By examining our cultural practices and their influences, we may be more effective agents of change, role models of health, and leaders of community physical activity participation.
Author: Kathi Cameron, MA, BCRPA TFL
Kathi has been a group fitness leader for over 20 years. She is a writer and speaker on health and behaviour change, a sessional lecturer with the University of Victoria, and co-author of “Leading to Life Long Exercise”. For more information, you may contact her at 250.339.8211 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Cameron, K., Wharf-Higgins, J., & Lauzon, L. (2008). Leading to Life Long Exercise; What can group exercise participants tell us about exercise leadership? VDM Verlag: Germany.
[ii] Soanes, C. (Ed.). Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.
[iii] Treasure, D., Lox, C., Lawton, B. (1998). Determinants of Physical Activity in a Sedentary, Obese Female Population. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 20, 1-11.
[iv] Cameron, K., Wharf-Higgins, J., & Lauzon, L. (2008). Leading to Life Long Exercise; What can group exercise participants tell us about exercise leadership? VDM Verlag: Germany.
[v] Cameron, K., Wharf-Higgins, J., & Lauzon, L. (2008). Leading to Life Long Exercise; What can group exercise participants tell us about exercise leadership? VDM Verlag: Germany.
[vi] Carron, A., Hausenblas, H., & Mack, D. (1996). Social influence and exercise: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 18, 1-16.
[vii] Cameron, K., Wharf-Higgins, J., & Lauzon, L. (2008). Leading to Life Long Exercise; What can group exercise participants tell us about exercise leadership? VDM Verlag: Germany
[viii] Crossley, N. (2006). In the Gym: Motives, Meaning and Moral Careers. Body & Society, 12, 23-50.
[ix] Belton, L., Fernandez, L., Henriquez-Roldan, C., & DeVellis, B. (2000). Social Support and Health Behavior Among blue-collar Woman Workers. American Journal of Health Behavior, 24, 1087-3244.