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Create a healthy emotional environment

This is an excerpt from Methods of Group Exercise Instruction, Third Edition by Carol Kennedy-Armbruster.


In addition to being positive role models, group exercise instructors need to establish a comfortable emotional environment for their participants. Education, motivation, and creative class content are not the only factors that keep participants coming back to group exercise. Tapping into participants’ feelings is necessary to affect adherence. Bain, Wilson, and Chaikind (1989) performed a research study on overweight women taking part in an organized exercise program. The authors found that 35% of the participants who were overweight dropped out, while only 7% of the participants who were at their recommended weight quit the program. Although factors such as safety, comfort, and quality of instruction affected the women’s exercise behaviors, the most powerful influences seemed to be the social circumstances of the exercise setting, especially concerns about visibility, embarrassment, and judgment by others. As the instructor, you should acknowledge all the participants—from the ones you know to the ones who always hide at the back of the room. What you do and say can affect class atmosphere, and a simple hello can make all the difference to a newcomer in group exercise. Ornish (1998) believes that interpersonal interaction might be the single most important ingredient for creating an accepting environment in a group exercise experience. Seligman (2011) created a Positive Psychology Center in 2005 based on his belief that schools need to teach skills of well-being as well as achievement. Apply Seligman’s ideas to group exercise and we see that teaching movement patterns will improve health, but teaching and modeling a healthy emotional environment while instructing may also teach happiness life skills.

Goleman (2006) suggests that having social and emotional intelligence in any group setting dictates the success of the group experience. Goleman believes that “the emotional economy is the sum total of the exchanges of feeling among us. In subtle (or not so subtle) ways, we all make each other feel a bit better (or a lot worse) as part of any contact we have; every encounter can be weighted along a scale from emotionally toxic to nourishing” (1998, p. 165). A specific example of supporting others within a group exercise setting is to announce before class how great it feels to be there, improving overall health and well-being. Contrast this with telling the class how you ate two desserts the night before that you intend to work off during the session. The first statement leaves participants with a health-related sense of purpose for the workout. The second statement can send a message that punishment through exercise is recommended after overindulging. Seidman (2007) believes the most powerful form of human influence to be inspiration. The first syllable of inspiration is “in,” signifying that the conduct is internal and intrinsic. Coercion and motivation happen to you; inspiration happens in you. Learn how to inspire your participants, and you will help create a healthy emotional environment.

A study on group dynamics in physical activity by Fox, Rejeski, and Gauvin (2000) found that enjoyment during physical activity is optimized when a positive and supportive leadership style is coupled with an enriched and supportive group environment. Instructors affect adherence and may be an important predictor of exercise behavior. We help create a sense of community that can often be what brings adults to our group exercise experience. Using social intelligence (Goleman 2006) as well as emotional intelligence in any group setting dictates the success of the group experience. A specific example of failing to apply social intelligence in a group exercise setting would be if you stayed in the front of the room and talked only to participants in the front row. The participants in the middle and back rows might feel unacknowledged. If instead you knew the names of everyone, greeted all the participants when they came into class, and moved around the room to encourage them throughout the workout, you would be creating a healthier emotional and social atmosphere. Social intelligence is a key ingredient for being a positive role model.

An environment where an instructor presents and flaunts a body beautiful can also intimidate participants. Eklund and Crawford (1994) compared two similar video exercise routines in which the instructor’s apparel was different—in one, the instructor wore a thong-style exercise leotard, while in the other the same instructor wore shorts and a T-shirt. Physique-anxious participants rated the thong leotard video more unfavorably than the shorts and T-shirt video. Thus, instructors can help participants become more comfortable with their own bodies and help keep participants exercising by wearing modest exercise clothing. We live in a culture in which a thin and toned body is seen as the ideal. According to Ibbetson (1996), the idea that thinness is beauty is so well accepted that body-image dissatisfaction is remarkably high. Some researchers indicate that body-image disturbance is so prevalent that it can be considered a normal part of the female experience (Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, and Rodin 1987). Evans (1993) makes the following recommendations for enhancing participant and instructor body-image perceptions:

Wear professional attire that is not too revealing and will make all participants feel comfortable.

Display educational materials on body-
image acceptance at strategic locations.

Use positive motivational strategies. For example, encourage activity outside of class.

Choose music that sends a positive message.


Read more from Methods of Group Exercise Instruction, Third Edition by Carol Kennedy-Armbruster.



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