Lawrence Biscontini by Lawrence Biscontini

Every November, millions of Americans celebrate a national Thanksgiving Day, setting time away from work to gather with families of choice, of blood or both, and acknowledge the aspects of their lives for which they are most grateful. A growing body of research suggests that such actions done on a regular basis can increase productivity, boost happiness and even improve general health. For group fitness instructors, raising the heights of group experiences by adding an attitude of gratitude can produce similar—and longer lasting—benefits in the lives of all participants.

Making gratitude a part of the group fitness experience can help all participants reap these benefits, while adding the other more traditional physical and mental benefits that occur within the group fitness experience.

“What you focus on expands and the ‘ripple effect’ touches others around you,” says Maureen Hagan, vice president of program innovation and fitness development for GoodLife Fitness in Canada. “When you start focusing on positive things and express gratitude daily (for even the smallest things), your entire outlook changes and more of the same flows back into your [own] direction. Your energy is higher and becomes contagious.”

With such far-reaching goals that gratitude expression provides, incorporating the same into our fitness routines can boost the impact we have on both our clients and our classes. Specifically, the group fitness experience can incorporate gratitude in the following three sections of class and, furthermore, can invite participants to continue that beyond the class itself.

From the Get-go

Many instructors find it appropriate to take a moment during the start of class to set an intention for that day’s practice. From yoga to boot camp, taking a moment to be grateful for something—even while doing preparatory movements like stationary back-bending or running in place—can help participants check in with the present moment, their bodies, and the intensity at which they will want to work for that session.

During the warm-up, as part of one’s intention for the day’s workout, consider inviting participants to ponder three things in their lives for which they are most grateful. This not only helps them focus on the present moment as a traditional centering exercise, but can also offer additional benefits, such as increasing one’s self-awareness.

Yury Rockit an ACE Certified Movement and Life Coach based in Hanoi, Vietnam, agrees. “Gratitude, similarly to breath, has a potential to make us more present so that we experience life fully, moment by moment,” he says. “I recommend starting many classes with gratitude because it helps [us] focus, connect to the present moment, and transcend the boundaries of the class limited to just movement by making us aware of what’s really going on in our lives for which we should be thankful. There is no way to be unhappy about something outside of class in the past if you completely invoke something in the present for which you’re grateful.” In other words, gratitude exercises can help people stay present.

Gratitude pauses at the start of sessions can work both ways.Hagan suggests telling students that you are thankful for them, which invites a back-and-forth experience of gratitude. “While there are many times you can express a moment of gratitude,” she says, “I find right at the beginning and at the very end are two of the best times to acknowledge what you are grateful for. This includes thanking your participants for coming and for their commitment, energy and sweat!”

June Kahn is founder of Kahn’s Bodyworks, in Boulder, Colo., and  an IDEA World Award Recipient. “Gratefulness needs to be reciprocal,” she says. “Nothing makes me feel better than when I can acknowledge my gratefulness to someone. It is here where compassion builds and gratefulness comes full circle. The first step is being aware in the present. The enhanced awareness of all that surrounds me is what practicing gratitude has done for my everyday life.”

Kahn knows this first-hand from personal events. “My world turned upside down when I lost my son. Daily meditation has been a new-found source of renewal for me. In as little as five or 10 minutes a day, taking the time to focus on me has been life changing. My practice begins in the morning, with soft relaxing music where I check in with my breath, and how it affects my body. If my mind trails off, I acknowledge it and then go back to my breath and what is happening in every aspect of my body. Then I bring awareness to what I am grateful for.”

Here’s another way to invoke gratitude at the start of a session: Invite participants and clients to dedicate the intensity of that day’s workout to something for which they are particularly grateful. This can serve to boost their motivation, appreciation and intensity. Try suggesting phrases such as “Let the amount of your gratitude determine the amount of your physical intensity today” to help participants link gratitude with their class experience.

During Class

Periodically throughout the class experience, remind participants to check in with their gratitude list for that day. This not only helps to re-center them, but also helps bring them back if their minds start drifting. Furthermore, this can also help them refocus both their energy and intensity.

Whitney Chapman, fitness production manager at the JCC in New York City, incorporates gratitude practice during some disciplines like yoga and Pilates. “Being in NYC, where people tend to close off, invoking gratitude several times during class requires us to stay open, to look for things we wouldn’t notice, and even think about how we can uplift others,” says Chapman. “This helps us in group fitness to stay connected, both to ourselves and our community.”

After and Outside of Class

Rockit invites each participant after class to return to work or home and deposit into a “gratitude bank” a piece of paper on which he or she has written something particularly grateful from that session or practice. “I suggest that they never repeat the same thing in exactly the same way when they write things down to keep them focusing on their gratitude,” he says. “The gratitude bank can be as simple as a paper bag into which they toss their statements.”

Similarly, Chapman also encourages participants to perform a written exercise. “I recommend a 30-day gratitude challenge, where we write down three different things daily for which we are grateful. I did this during a very difficult time in my life and it enabled me to see the silver lining on a regular basis and got me out of what I believe could have been a much deeper depression.”

Mary Yoke, Ph.D., is a doctoral candidate and associate instructor at Indiana University and the School of Public Health, and author of 101 Nice-to-Know Facts About Happiness (Healthy Learning, 2016). During many of her classes, she teaches the “Avalanche of Appreciate” technique, and then encourages her participants to practice it outside of class. She explains the technique: “It's simple: I say to myself, ‘I appreciate ____________, and I appreciate _____________, and I'm so glad that ____________, and I really like the way ______________, and I can't believe how beautiful ______________ is, and I'm so grateful for ______________.’ I usually do this at least once per day, generally when I'm walking to and from my car (I park a mile away from campus on purpose to get more steps).”

Hagan encourages taking one’s most important gratitude expressions and invoking them regularly. “I laminated a number of cue cards with personalized gratitude statements on them and recite them each morning and night,” she explains. “I carry them with me in my wallet so that I see them daily, allowing my incorporation of gratitude to transcend just the classroom.” If that seems too difficult, just creating a note in your smartphone to  to refer regularly can work in the same way. Additionally, there are many paid and free apps available that feature gratitude prompts or journals.

Bringing gratitude to the group fitness world serves as one way to empower class participants beyond the physical realm alone. According to Yoke, imbuing gratitude into group fitness can expand the entire experience, for everyone. “Gratitude thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences, improves self-worth and self-esteem, helps us better cope with stress, trauma and difficult times, encourages moral behavior, produces feelings of greater connectedness and social bonding, helps prevent destructive comparisons with others, diminishes feelings of anger, bitterness, and greed, and keeps us from taking the good things in our lives for granted.”

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