Kelsey Graham by Kelsey Graham

Last Updated December 22, 2023 (originally published January 17, 2017) 

Exercise has the ability to impact more than just physical health. But, as group fitness instructors, we often engineer our classes with only this aspect in mind. By overlooking participants’ social, cognitive and emotional health, we limit our ability to influence our participants’ overall well-being. Health is holistic, and an excessive focus on the physical can discount or disrupt other areas. 

To have a deeper impact on your participants’ lives, incorporate strategies that target multiple dimensions of health. So, what are the dimensions of health? 

Social Health 

Exercise offers an excellent opportunity for social support, and there is no better venue than the group fitness setting. To maximize social well-being, include strategies that encourage participant interaction. Classes can be designed around games, friendly competition or partner work, allowing individuals to challenge each other and work together. To deepen social connections, allow for interaction outside class, through lunchtime group walks or healthy potlucks and happy hours. You can even establish virtual opportunities for community building via social media, providing a setting for participants to encourage and support one another. Each of these strategies can nurture social health in individual members, while also creating a sense of community in your class as a whole. 

Cognitive Health 

It’s well known that exercise positively impacts brain health and cognitive function. Reinforce this benefit by designing mentally stimulating workouts. Classes can be built around pyramid or ladder sets, where exercisers have to add, subtract or even multiply the number of repetitions they perform as they go. Challenge participants by associating movements with different colors or sound cues. For example, you can pair different exercises with colored placards around the room, so that when participants see the color red, they must perform a squat and when they see the color blue, a push-up is in order. Beeps, whirs or whistles in your playlist can be used in much the same way, so that when a sound cue goes off, participants have to stop and perform an associated exercise. To challenge memory, have participants complete a task as quickly as possible. Then, ask them to remember their time and try to beat it later or in the next class. By including cognitively stimulating components, you may find participants leave class complaining of mental rather than physical exhaustion! 

Emotional Health 

We often think of emotional health in mind/body formats such as yoga, but rarely consider it in other group classes. Though not a common focus, there’s tremendous opportunity to impact emotional health in all fitness formats. Warm-ups and cool-downs are great opportunities to include "emotional cueing." During the warm-up, suggest participants connect the workout to something deeper; this can be a goal they’re working toward or a loved one they wish to honor. Connecting physical movement with personal meaning and value can create a more rewarding exercise experience and fuel long-term adherence. During the cool-down, encourage gratitude. Ask participants to recognize their hard work and for each person to thank their own body for all it accomplished. Take time to connect with participants after class, giving praise for form- or function-related accomplishments that can engender positive feelings. 

Physical Health 

Physical health is about more than creating a challenging workout, but this is often our main focus when structuring classes. With the ubiquity of high-intensity interval training and other popular high-intensity formats, it’s easy to assume that the harder the workout, the better. However, this idea doesn’t consider exercise goals or individual fitness level. High-intensity workouts can be beneficial, but there are other important factors to consider when planning a class. To truly improve participants’ physical health, seek balance. Are you including periods of high- and low-intensity work? Providing an equal amount of pushing and pulling exercises? What about upper- and lower-body work? Other considerations include the use of single- and double-leg exercises, targeting the anterior and posterior chains, and providing adequate rest and recovery throughout the class. It’s easy to deliver heart-pumping workouts that get people sweaty, but it requires thoughtful planning to build balanced classes that improve long-term physical health. 

In Conclusion 

Exercise can do more than build muscle and whittle waistlines. It’s a holistic experience with the capacity to influence the body, mind and soul. To increase your impact on participants’ lives, consider how you can boost not just their physical health, but all dimensions of health. 

If you want to learn more about how to create an environment that empowers everyone to succeed, check out this continuing education course: ACE RRAMP Approach™: Cultivating Behavior Change through Group Fitness (worth 0.1 ACE CECs). 

Or, if you are not yet an ACE Certified Pro, read about how the ACE Group Fitness Instructor Certification can help you create your own path to a rewarding career. From that page, you can choose your study program, start your online learning program and sign up to take the ACE Certification exam. 

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