Kelsey Graham by Kelsey Graham
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Exercise can be a great tool to enhance self-esteem. While feelings of incompetency or negative comparison in the group fitness setting can actually diminish confidence, positive self-esteem has, in fact, been linked with greater exercise participation, lower rates of depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction.  

Clearly, the group fitness setting offers a unique platform to improve or impede participant self-esteem. When not carefully worded, well-meaning comments aimed at pushing participants’ limits or encouraging safety can have a negative impact. But when thoughtfully conveyed, these comments can boost confidence and morale.

Here are six ways to improve participant self-esteem in your group fitness classes.

Encourage autonomy and choice.

All human beings crave autonomy—a sense of control over his or her own life. Feelings of autonomy boost self-esteem. To encourage these feelings, give participants some control by asking about their specific goals for a class session or what they hope to achieve in class over time. Ask which of your exercises or class strategies participants enjoy most and encourage recommendations for other workout components, such as music selection or class theme. Be explicit in stating this is each individual’s workout, and you are simply there to act as a guide.

Provide unranked modifications.

It’s common to think of exercises in terms of base movements, regressions and progressions. But labeling them as such can make clients who choose the easier option feel inferior. Remember that every person possesses different needs, goals and capabilities, and that these may vary from day to day. Rather than showing an exercise and providing a regression with phrases like, “If that’s too hard…” or “If you can’t do that…,” try cues such as, “Another option is…,” “If that doesn’t feel good today…” or “If jumping bothers your knees, hips or back….” Though subtle, these changes can completely alter the way a person feels about an exercise he or she is performing.

Allow for mastery experience.

We often want to prove our merit by delivering demanding and rigorous classes. We relish comments about grueling workouts and pat ourselves on the back when participants marvel over a challenging class. While it’s important to push participants past their comfort levels, consistently doing so robs them of the chance to feel successful (not to mention enhancing the likelihood of injury). Mastery experiences enhance self-efficacy—feelings of confidence in a certain activity. Exercise-related self-efficacy helps participants feel good about themselves in the fitness setting. To foster this feeling, provide challenges that are appropriately matched to the class fitness level and allow opportunities for all participants to succeed. Harder, faster and sweatier is not always better.

Loud praise, quiet critiques.

While it’s necessary to provide form cues and critiques to ensure participant safety, the manner of delivery can impact a participant’s internal response. Singling out individuals for specific form correction in front of the class can cause embarrassment and weaken confidence. Instead, deliver these comments in the general area of individuals who are struggling. If that doesn’t work, get the whole class moving before addressing individual form issues off the microphone as needed. If this can’t be done in the class setting and the deviation isn’t immediately dangerous, speak with the individual after class and let him or her know what you spotted. This can demonstrate that you care about the participant’s wellbeing, rather than embarrassing him or her in front of the class. For praise, both in-class and after-class commendations can effectively boost confidence.  

Learn and use participant names.

When I first became a group fitness instructor, there seemed to be many more important things to worry about than remembering the names of individuals in class. As I became more comfortable teaching and was able to learn and use participant names, I realized the tremendous impact of this small act. Using names in class lets participants know they're important and can establish a sense of belonging and group cohesion. As Dayle Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People put it, “A person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Encourage positive reflection.

Often “success” with exercise is measured in terms of weight loss or muscle gain. While these measures of progress take time to accomplish, there are other more immediate forms of achievement that often go unnoticed. Have you seen a rider build stamina and work capacity in cycling class? Or watched a female participant perform her first on-the-toes push-up? How about those who used to hide in the back of class and now set up front and center? These are all forms of success worthy of praise, which may be overlooked by the individual. Look for and point out these achievements. As class is wrapping up, cue gratitude—give participants a moment to appreciate and thank their bodies for the gift of movement. Depending on class size, you can even have participants share something they did well with the class or the person next to them. This ensures they leave class feeling a little better about themselves than when they walked in.

Self-esteem is a strong factor in individuals’ overall wellbeing and happiness. As an instructor, you have an incredible opportunity to improve the self-esteem of every individual who walks through your door.  

With a group fitness instructor certification, you have the ability to get the most people moving, every day, and to make a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of your community. Find out more about ACE’s Group Fitness Instructor Certification. 

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