Fitness instructors’ motivational comments can make women feel worse about themselves

EVANSTON, III — Joining a fitness class is a great way to boost your odds of hitting the gym more frequently, but it turns out some classes may actually leave you feeling worse about yourself. A new study finds that what a fitness instructor says to motivate women working out may not only shape their abs, but their body image too.

Researchers from Northwestern University say that when a trainer comments about the benefits exercise has on losing weight or changing the appearance of a woman’s body, she’s more likely to be critical of herself and the way she looks. Conversely, words of encouragement that focus on strength and health had the opposite effect and left participants feeling accomplished.

“If we want people to stick with exercise, we need to remove shame from the equation. This study points to an easy and cost-free step that fitness instructors can take to make their classrooms healthier, more inclusive and more inspiring,” says the study’s lead author Renee Engeln, a professor of instruction in psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, in a release.

For the study, researchers recruited 203 college-aged women to participate in one of two randomly assigned 16-minute strength and conditioning group fitness classes. In one class, the instructor made appearance-focused comments to the women, such as, “This exercise blasts fat in the legs, no more thunder thighs for us! Get rid of that cellulite!” In the other class, the trainer presented function-focused comments such as, “This class is intended to help you strengthen your core muscles which are essential for initiating movement, enabling your body to do all the amazing things you enjoy.”

Before and after each class, participants completed a survey that assessed body image. They were also asked to write down three words to describe how they felt after the class and rate the comments made by the instructor. Researchers found that women felt more satisfied with their bodies when the instructor talked about muscles, whereas comments about fat made them feel worse.

“Those who heard appearance-focused comments were much more likely to write things like ‘ashamed’ and ‘disgusted with myself,'” says Englen. “Those in the health-focused classes were more likely to write things like ‘accomplished’ and ‘strong.'”

The takeaway? Words matter, says Engeln. Fitness instructors and personal trainers should be more cognizant of the things they say to gym-goers if they want to help achieve better results.

“The women in this study all did the same exercises, in the same room, with the same music playing,” she says. “Yet just modifying the script the fitness instructor used had a meaningful impact on the way they felt about themselves afterward.”

The study was published online in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology.

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