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What Should We Expect from our Fitness Instructors?

In my endless quest to keep fitness “fun” for myself, to make being active a social endeavor instead of a mindless and solitary hour a day on the treadmill, I have spent a lot of time sampling different group fitness classes. The benefits, for me, are several. In addition to a structured hour of just doing what someone tells me to do, upbeat music, and other perky workout peers; there’s a quasi-personal trainer up there, serving as a model, ready to fix it if I’m doing something dangerously wrong. But the model idea takes two forms, for many of us–we don’t just expect that person to demonstrate new moves for us, but to show us what our bodies could potentially look like if we do this kind of activity on a regular basis.

Over time, having had dozens of instructors (and peers) in myriad formats of class, I’ve begun to wonder if that second expectation is a problem. To caveat, of course not everyone expects their fitness instructors or personal trainers to demonstrate the ideal body type to which we’re all supposedly striving at our respective gyms and health clubs, but I think it’s implied in many ways, including in fitness center hiring and in our reactions to walking into a new class.

For several months, I took step aerobics and a women’s weight training class 2-3 days a week, with a woman who was fairly overweight. I was initially taken aback, thinking, “How effective can this class be, if this is what she looks like?” But then I saw how much weight she was lifting and how high she was jumping, both while chirping into her mic so we could all follow along. Ah, I thought–fitness, not skinniness. The simple moral of this story is that: fitness and thinness are different, and once we all accept that explicitly and deep within our psyches, many of society’s problems with everyone else’s weight will be greatly improved.

But some people are in group fitness classes specifically to be thinner. And that’s not the end of the world. You’re allowed to work out to lose weight. My boyfriend, a personal trainer, said that when his clients come in for their intro sessions, they list their training goals. A fairly common one is some variation of “be thinner,” “look good in a swimsuit,” or “lose weight.” He gets excited when someone’s goal is “get stronger” or to train for something specific, but he’s realistic: a lot of people pay for training because they want strategies for looking a certain way.

And to that extent I guess it makes sense that you’d want your fitness instructor or personal trainer to exemplify your own goals: I take this class to be strong, I expect my instructor to know how to become stronger. I take this class to build cardiovascular stamina, so I expect an effective instructor to be able to build her own cardio abilities.

This is also true of coaches: I don’t necessarily expect my track coach to be the fastest or best runner ever, but I expect that s/he has been pretty successful and knows more about training than what Runner’s World can tell me. Eventually a lot of elite athletes will surpass their trainers and coaches in ability, but the coach still has the training expertise to help, and, in theory, the coach got to his/her position of authority by being very, very successful at this particular venture.

The logic of distrusting a non-thin fitness instructor is therefore as follows:

  1. My instructor/coach/trainer is here as someone with more expertise on this than I have.
  2. My purpose in taking this class and this kind of class is to lose weight.
  3. My instructor should be knowledgeable on weight loss and this class should provide that knowledge to me and contribute to my weight loss goal.
  4. Furthermore, someone with the knowledge and fitness required to be thin would naturally want to be thin, and would therefore be thin.
    1. The assumption here, which I think merits some scrutiny but is also natural to make, I would argue, is that anyone able to be thin is thin, because in our society everyone wants to be thin.
    2. A fitness instructor who is not thin is not good at fitness and might not be a good instructor for my needs.

I pointed out above one of the problematic assumptions present in this logic–that everyone wants to be thin and has equal access to being thin, if armed with proper knowledge and exercise opportunities, as we presume a fitness instructor is–but another is that everyone taking a group fitness class is doing so to lose weight. And of course for many, many people this is true. Fitness, in our cultural understanding, means thinness. And, as I said, this is an acceptable goal to have.

The thing we need to consider, though, is that people are in these rooms, participating in these activities, for different reasons, with different goals. Articulating our goals helps us be more aware of how we’re using our class time and also helps us be more conscientious about other people’s goals that might not align with ours. My goal in kickboxing class is always, always, just to spend time with my workout friend. I would never take that class without her. My goal in Zumba is just to dance around sassily and get an hour of constant motion that isn’t running (or worse, the elliptical). But your goals can be even more specific: you have even more power over your class experience than that. Focusing on what you want out of class reminds you that there are a lot of options, and yours can even vary day to day or minute to minute.

I think this is vital for two reasons: we get more out of our time by articulating our own goals, but, more importantly for our interpersonal relationships, when we understand that the purpose of a group fitness class is not specifically weight loss we can better reconcile the fact that the instructor might not exemplify our particular training goals. Probably, though, the expertise required to become a group fitness instructor or personal trainer means that if you were to discuss your particular goals with the instructor, weight loss or otherwise, he or she would happily give you suggestions and help. That’s their job, even if they didn’t go in to it for the same reasons we might have initially imagined.

2 replies on “What Should We Expect from our Fitness Instructors?”

I want to be a group fitness instructor SO BAD, and part of what holds me back from summing up the stones to go for the certification is my lack of looking-the-part. A good friend of my mother’s was my inspiration, but I met her during her pregnancy and now she’s back down to incredibly fierce and fit and it makes me feel less than up to the challenge.

Honestly, this post is giving me some stuff to chew over. Thanks for writing it and getting me all thinky!

I’m glad it’s gotten you thinking! I don’t think you should let not looking the part keep you from pursuing your interests and goals. I’ve had fitness instructions of various body types and effectiveness is a totally separate category than appearance (or even ability! some of my most fit, most capable instructors still make their classes somewhat boring, in my opinion). Also, I was talking to my boyfriend about the trainers at his gym, and he thinks the more “normal-looking” trainers are good for some clients who intimidate easily. And a lot of people going to group fitness classes are there precisely because the gym itself is unfamiliar or intimidating–they want someone to help them. So moral of my comment is that I think if you want to get your certification, you should do it.

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