The Importance of Empathy as Group Fitness Instructor

Many people feel awkward and self-conscious attending a group fitness class. And I totally get it. Because I struggle with anxiety myself.

Even if I didn’t struggle with anxiety, I’d try to empathize with their feelings– as should all Group Fitness Instructors (GFIs). While I suspect few would say this out loud to participants and colleagues, many express their disdain for such anxious feelings in the safety of online discussion forums. And this disdain is a big pet peeve of mine.


Acknowledge their Frame of Reference [Often Self-Conscious]

GFIs should know that many participants feel self-conscious. And if you care at all about them having a pleasant experience in your class and coming back, then you should bear this in mind. That means acknowledging and understanding their view, then making an effort to be welcoming, warm, and reassuring.

So yes, I’m looking at you, all of my colleagues who have “called out” someone for modifying or taking a break, and made them feel humiliated. You’re making it a million times worse. And you’re likely hurting the entire group ex program… because if people experience humiliation from you, they’re that much less likely to come try a class with me.

Pushing through the discomfort in order to try new things like taking classes is simply a necessity for those of us with anxiety. Often, the comfort level comes in time. Why would we GFIs not try to help with that acclimation?

Group Fitness Instructor or Therapist?

I am not suggesting that we GFIs act as therapists. “Fixing” the anxiety of our participants isn’t our responsibility. We simply need to be welcoming and warm, and avoid anything that will increase their feelings of anxiety.

So, what does that look like?

Be Welcoming

  • Greet them. Ask, “Are you here for Body Sculpt?”
    • You’d be surprised how many people are pleased to get confirmation that they’re in the right place at the right time. And sometimes they are not in the right place, so you can direct them to the correct studio.
  • Have you done it before?
  • I’m Meg, Welcome. You need XYZ equipment. I’ll be standing here, so you can set up wherever you like.
    • Again, they have no idea where to stand, where the instructor stands, what equipment, if any, they need. Giving out that info (without waiting to be asked) goes a long way to being welcoming, reassuring, and alleviating their anxieties.
  • Did you have any questions or specific requests?

Sure, I don’t always get to do this for every participant. And I don’t do this for regulars (They know it all!) But I make an effort. I’ve even done this for newbies coming into the studio for a class I’m not teaching! (If I’m on my way out & see them looking distinctly lost.)

I even let people know it’s OK to show up late or leave early, so long as they do their own warm-up, and/or cool-down and stretch. If you can’t make all 60 min of class, 50 is much better than 0.

And yes, I even say this in yoga. If you can’t focus with people walking around you, do yoga at home by yourself. Because *I,* as the teacher, walk around the studio during class.

Encourage Modifications

Show modifications during class. ENCOURAGE THE USE of modifications.

As I say, I want people to feel entitled and empowered to do what works for them each day.

Entitled = They know it is OK to modify. They’re not a failure or disruption for modifying.

Empowered = They know HOW to modify, what to do if they can’t do the move I’m demonstrating.

Again, giving out info before waiting to be asked helps put people at ease. Often people don’t even know what Qs they ought to ask! So serving as their guide on this fitness journey is our responsibility.

I’d love to hear comments – do you feel self-conscious in classes? Would these steps help you feel more comfortable? Fellow GFIs, do you bear these things in mind?

This entry was posted in Group Fitness, Motivation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Importance of Empathy as Group Fitness Instructor

  1. Rose says:

    Good post Megan. You are a great fitness instructor who follows all your advice above!

    Rose from your Sat am Step and Strong class at the Y in Abingdon

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  5. Igor Butorsky says:

    This was such an exceptionally insightful and well-thought out yet concise article to address the spectrum of insecurities and anxieties which many people have to confront. Even immensely suffer through, at times. It vibes with me on so many levels. Just like you, I can directly relate, being an exercise/fitness professional, myself. And likewise, I find myself appalled when I run into random social-media threads of some of my exercise/fitness colleagues who then take such client-trainer experienes (which should even be confidential, in many cases, anyway!) and exploit them callously, by lampooning and even berating the attendies behind their backs. It borders on bullying, really, if not actually so. What if one of the targets of this insensitive ridicule happens to pop up within the thread to find that their experiences are up for public display as a form of cheap entertainment for others? At THEIR expense, of course.

    So much have you touched upon my own positions, in fact, that at multiple points along reading this, I kept thinking – “Meg, get out of my head and stop reading my mind!” Hah.

    Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. The plight of the empath. I would even go as far as saying that this piece you’ve authored should become standard-issue content included within the pages of a trainer’s/instructor’s manual for certification as well as continuing-ed revisiting. I adore it that much.

    Thank you, kindly, from one empath to another!

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