Group fitness is, for some, the best part of the day. They look forward to lacing up their sneakers and completing an inspiring workout. For others, group fitness classes are seen as daunting and, therefore, best avoided. Our goal as fitness instructors is to create a welcoming and inclusive environment that fosters success and positive energy around movement for people of all abilities. Here are some things you can do to help make your classes more inviting and make everyone feel at home, regardless of experience, fitness level or identity.
First Impressions Matter
An inclusive environment starts from the moment the participant begins to contemplate attending class. The first experience a potential client may have is likely online, so make sure your class description is clear and helps prospective participants know exactly what to expect. Focus on the goals of the class, the format of the instruction and the experience you will provide. A specific statement that welcomes all levels and abilities is also a good idea. To a potential participant, this inclusive statement alone can reduce fear and help them decide to try a class. If your class is more advanced, be specific and state that as well.
Create a Welcoming Space
You have the ability to create a welcoming space in the fitness studio, which is often the club inside the club. Make it a point to arrive early, set the mood in the room and distribute smiles at the door. If someone looks confused or intimidated, provide some relief by helping him or her select equipment or by explaining what to expect in class. Assure the new participant that you will provide many options for the exercises and that he or she can choose the version that feels most appropriate. This step alone can reduce the anxiety associated with the fear of embarrassment often associated with uncertainty.
If you notice participants who might need special considerations, such as an individual wearing a brace or assistive device, a pregnant woman or any other concern, take time to ask them about any precautions their doctor may have provided and even walk them through a couple of modifications that they can utilize during your class as necessary. Do not be afraid to adapt or change the exercise all together to allow everyone to continue to participate in some way. You can even utilize props like ballet bars, chairs, walls or balls to help each person find the most appropriate version of the exercise. If an exercise needs to be adapted or regressed, try to make the movement fit in. If the group is performing a standing exercise, provide a different standing exercise. For example, if a participant has limited movement overhead, allow him or her to perform an upright or bent-over row instead. Most people do not like to be singled out in groups, so allowing them to look similar to others might make them more comfortable.
At the official start of class, clearly introduce yourself and describe the plan for the day. By doing so, participants know what to expect, rather than fear what comes next. In your introduction, make a statement suggesting that participants listen to their bodies and modify or change any exercise as needed. In other words, remove the pressure of performing at the same level as the instructor or other classmates, and encourage personal body awareness.
Tell, Show and Do
During class, make sure to tell, show and do every exercise to connect with people in their preferred learning styles. Clear verbal instruction paired with a sharp demonstration assures that those who may have visual or auditory impairments will feel included and comfortable. Make sure to show modifications and adaptations for high-impact or high-intensity exercises. Demonstrate all levels of the exercise, rather than sticking with the highest intensity. Present the variations as options or choices, rather than levels. Ranking modifications from easiest to hardest, or by levels one, two and three, creates unnecessary competition and insecurity. One variation is not better than the other; it’s just a different way of performing the exercise. Encourage participants to choose the version of the exercise that suits them best in order to build success and inclusion, regardless of experience or fitness level.
When it comes to coaching, aim to utilize inclusive words like “we,” “let’s,” “ours” and “us,” which help create a team mentality. These words signify that everyone is working together rather than alone and group camaraderie is born. It is also a good idea to stick with gender-neutral terms to welcome and include diverse participants. It is unnecessary to specify gender when instructing group fitness. Utilize words like “everybody,” “team,” “group,” “squad,” etc. Place focus on effort rather than competition and help participants tune into the intrinsic rewards of exercise. Feeling strong or energetic helps encourage a healthy lifestyle. External or superficial motivation creates competition, judgement and isolation, which reduce the cohesion of a class experience.
Finally, use your closing statement to celebrate the hard work completed together. Guide participants in a short reflection around how great it feels to finish a workout. Allow them a moment to celebrate and build community. A suggested high five or fist bump with a neighbor can be a great way to seal the experience. We all want to connect; we all want to be included. Use your power as a fitness instructor to create a space where everyone can feel successful and united in the team experience of movement.