Fitness Instructors: Do No Harm.

Fitness Instructors: Do No Harm.

I was talking to a client about her relationship with food and exercise.

She came back to me for our next session and said, "damn, Julie, I didn't realize how many food/body/exercise shaming messages I get every single day, especially at the gym."

She's right.

Food and body shaming is everywhere... and, honestly? A lot of it comes from a well-intended place. For instance, if you're a fitness instructor, you likely have a mission to empower people to be healthy and strong. That is SUCH a positive intention! Thank you for that! However... if we aren't aware of how our language impacts our class-goers (both in class and on social media) we can be doing much more harm than good. We may be causing people to feel ashamed about their food choices, see exercise as a punishment, and see their bodies as "needing fixed." 

And what does this do? It drives disordered eating and exercise behaviors (or full on eating disorders), body shame, and lots of negative self-talk, body bashing and ultimately lowered self-esteem.

This is a topic I was passionate about from the early days of my fitness career due to my own disordered relationship with my own body. I began teaching boot camp style classes in 2011, from there I got my personal training certification, cycling, and most recently yoga.

I studied this very topic in graduate school: how the language we use in the fitness room impacts things like self-esteem and body image.

I'm writing this post because we have a responsibility to do no harm to our class-goers. We would never want to hurt them physically, and we go LENGTHS to avoid physical injury, however... when it comes to mental and emotional health, we are hurting people every day.

So let's look at our language here, and see how we can empower, rather than shame our class participants. Here are a few rules of thumb:

1. Please, don't use food as a motivator to exercise, or honestly even mention food at all. For instance, saying things about needing to work off the weekend, that burger, the donut, Thanksgiving, Christmas cookies...

When you say this, it subconsciously tells people that they are bad for what they did this weekend/ate, and it shifts the workout from being something positive they are doing for themselves, to something negative: a punishment for "being bad." 

This is a form of food shaming. If you've never experienced a disordered relationship to your body, you probably wouldn't think twice about saying this, you may even just think it's funny. But for anyone in your class who has struggled (and honestly, most do) it reaffirms to them that they should feel ashamed and guilty for their food choices. 

Many people are already very hard on themselves for what they eat already, so when someone in a leadership position (a fitness instructor) says out loud that, yes, they should work off that burger, their inner critic is reinforced and they go deeper into their self-destructive hole: burger, BAD, salad, GOOD. 

When people think they "were bad" for eating certain foods, it encourages a disordered relationship with food, where people attach their morality with their food choices. It keeps them at war with food and their bodies. Likely it will lead to food and body obsession, and a cycle of unhealthy yo-yo dieting.

 2. Avoid motivation using "beach body" language or any other sort of language that turns our bodies into objects to mold and fix.

When we tell people they should work out to look a certain way (or to get ready for the beach), we are objectifying their bodies. We are reaffirming that yes, our society's thin ideal is something we should strive for, that there is a "right" way to look, and that we should want to look that way. It also, therefore, tells us that if we do not have that certain body, that we are not healthy/strong/beautiful. We are telling them that they need to look a certain way to wear a swim suit.

For most people, the thin ideal is physically impossible, so all this language is doing is keeping people obsessed with an unattainable ideal.

Furthermore, we are telling people that ultimately, they are objects, their bodies are objects, and thus, all the amazing things about them who make them truly special don't matter as much if they don't LOOK a certain way. 

We are once again shifting the workout from a positive thing to do for health and feeling good to a negative intention: working out to "fix" your body that apparently is not "good enough" as it is already. The workout again becomes a punishment. 

3. Encourage people to workout to EARN the cookie (or any other food).

This is similar to telling someone to work "off" the food they ate. Telling someone they need to earn their food tells them that they don't deserve to eat unless they exercise enough.

Again, if someone has a harmful relationship with food and exercise, if anyone has ever had an eating disorder, you are then just reinforcing the fact that they do not deserve to eat unless they "earn it."

4. "No pain, no gain."

I'll often hear instructors encouraging participants to push past the pain. This is dangerous. Yes, it is good to motivate people to work hard, and yes, getting uncomfortable is ok, but pain has no place in any class.

So what can you do?

1. Focus on the mind-body connection.

You don't have to be in a yoga class to focus on a mind-body connection. Focusing on this connection is hugely beneficial for all class participants. Most people run around their days rushed and thinking about all the things on their to-do list. When we provide time in class for people to check in with themselves, we are empowering them to pay attention to themselves in a whole new way. For all we know, this might be the only time all day when someone asks them to check in with THEMSELVES, to ask themselves what they need. That is powerful!

2. Focus on FEELING good.

Instead of motivating class participants to look good, focus on motivating them to feel good. Ask them to notice how they feel, mentally, physically and emotionally. Then, ask them what they need to do to FEEL GOOD walking out the door. For instance, is there anything in them (stress, frustration) that they want to let out during the class? Do they have good energy they want to harness and share? Or is there a goal they have, something they want to do in class that day? This empowers your class participants to ask themselves what they need on that given day. Sometimes, they might need an emotional release, while other times they might have a physical goal in mind. Allow THEM to decide.

3. Use the power of intention.

At the beginning of class, empower your students to create their own intention. Ask them to focus in on why they're here, what this class gives to them, empowers them to do. Ask them to see their goal, their purpose, the reason for their work out. Encourage them to connect to that intention throughout the workout. When they're needing extra motivation, bring them back to their purpose. "Why are you here?"

*Extra points here if you remind them that calories don't matter, that we are more than our calories in, calories out!

4. Focus on the POSITIVE.

Throughout the class, focus on building positive thoughts, like "YES WE CAN." Sometimes people need that simple reminder that they got this! Other reminders like, "you're stronger than you realize," allow them to feel encouraged that you see their strength, you believe in them... it helps them believe in themselves, it helps them realize their own strength. I've had plenty of people tell me that this message empowers them outside the fitness room, it empowers them to realize that in work, at school, at home, they are stronger than they think, and when life gets tough, this message is gives them the extra strength they need.

5. Use the Adult Tantrum.

In some classes, I'll dedicate a certain song to LETTING SH*T OUT. I'll give my students an outlet to let out their anger. We all have things that piss us off, so this is an opportunity to PHYSICALLY LET IT GO.

After class, a participant came up to me and thanked me for that opportunity, she said, "toddlers are able to have tantrums when they're mad or stressed, they stomp their feet, punch pillows, scream and shout and cry. But as adults, we don't get to do that... but in class we did, you gave us a way to physically let out our stress. It felt SO GOOD."


In yoga, I was taught to always start class by giving a "permission statement." A statement where you give people permission to listen to their bodies. It may sound silly if you always listen to your body, but many people (I used to do this) go to class, and feel the need to do everything the instructor says, even if it doesn't feel good in their body. They feel like if they don't do what the instructor is saying, they're "failing." 

This "permission statement" is so important because you, as the instructor, the leader, give the students permission to listen to their bodies, which is the most important thing of all, and to feel encouraged to leave out anything you say that doesn't feel good in their bodies.

Here is how my permission statement sounds in the yoga room:

"As always, you guys, this is your time. I have a plan for class and will move you through sequences. But please, feel not only empowered but ENCOURAGED to listen to your body. If something doesn't feel good, don't do it. If you're craving something extra, add it. Make this practice uniquely your own and don't worry what anyone else is doing around you." 

*I'll often reinforce this through class by saying, "I love the choices I'm seeing!"

Here is how my permission statement sounds in my cycle class:

"You guys, only YOU know how you feel in your body. I have no idea! So, if anything I tell you to do doesn't feel good, please feel free to opt out! Just don't do it!"

7. The Ultimate Reminder.

I love reminding my students that we are SO LUCKY to have our health and strength and ability to be moving our bodies in this way. We so often take it for granted! I'll use a motivator like, let's push simply because WE CAN. Let's celebrate the fact that our bodies can move!

*I did this last week and had a rider come up to me and thank me. She told me that her mom had passed away a year ago from ALS (a disease that takes away your ability to move your body). She said it really hit her hard, that she is so lucky to move her body, that it's not about the love handles or what she ate, it's about celebrating her ability to move.


Ultimately, as a fitness instructor, you have an amazing opportunity to inspire and empower people every day to live a long, healthy life in and out of class. That is incredible. So let's take this job seriously. Let's start a revolution and build a fitness industry that actually CARES about the mental and emotional well-being of our class participants. It is not just a good thing to do, it's a responsibility we have to support the holistic well-being of all people.

So what do you say: will you be a part of the solution?