The Fitness Zone

It’s health and fitness, not crime and punishment

Aug 27, 2022 | by Network

Old-school language using negative ‘motivations’ should be relegated to the history books. It’s time to ditch the perception of exercise as penance for our other lifestyle ‘sins’, writes Mel Morony.

Sandra is talking excitedly with her friends about her upcoming trip to Italy before their class starts. Nearby, the instructor for that class is chatting to somebody else, but overhears the discussion. A few minutes later the instructor starts the class and, after introducing herself and the class, says, “OK, let’s get started, it sounds like we’re going to need to pre-burn some pizza and pasta off!” The participants, including Sandra, laugh as they are used to the fitness professionals at this facility saying this type of thing about exercise. Nevertheless, a few of the patrons wish that the trainers and instructors wouldn’t make exercise appear to be a form of penance. While some of the class participants are exercising for reasons that include weight management, for others, it isn’t even on their radar.

Phrases such as ‘Work off the festive calories’, ‘It takes X hours to work off a doughnut’ and ‘I’m going to work you hard to undo that weekend damage’ are often used in the fitness industry, both by instructors and personal trainers during sessions, and in promotional messaging for services, classes and special offers.

I must admit that I used to use variations of these, especially in my aqua fitness classes if the water was cold: something along the lines of using the class to help me work off the cake, pizza or nachos that I’d enjoyed over the weekend. A while ago, however, I made the decision to stop using such language. Why did I decide to change?

No need for punishment or penance

Suggesting that someone needs to ‘work off’ the food that they enjoyed when they were celebrating or just living life makes it sound like they’ve had their cake (or committed a crime) and now they need to be punished for it. There are a couple of problems with this:

  1. It’s irrelevant to many current participants

The first issue with this messaging is that it limits the use of our fitness product to weight loss/management, which may not be what our participants are exercising for. Studies have indicated that less than a third of people attending exercise facilities have weight loss as their goal.

In addition, weight loss is seldom, if ever, a goal for its own sake. People want to lose weight in order to move better, increase energy levels, manage health conditions or feel good about themselves. For those who exercise to manage stress and improve their mental health; to assist rehabilitation from injury; for sports conditioning; or to increase the strength and stability they need to maintain their independence, language that fixates on ‘burning the fat’ will be far wide of the mark. Not only will the message be irrelevant for them, it can risk making them feel unseen and unheard, especially if it’s the sort of line that is reiterated on a regular basis.

 I’m not interested in buying punishment.

  1. It’s selling punishment rather than positivity

Secondly, we need to consider how trying to sell punishment is likely to get ‘buy in’ from someone who isn’t an exerciser. Will giving our product such a negative spin increase or decrease the likelihood of current non-exercisers deciding to spend their money and exercise with us? It’s no secret that I love to travel. If an airline were to advertise a product with information about what I’ll see and experience in a new destination that they are adding to their offerings, then I would probably add it to my wish list and keep the airline in mind for when the time comes. However, if the airline instead focused on my being squished into a metal tube at altitude, seated next to strangers, with questionable-tasting food and coffee and made it out to be punishment for enjoying the travel experience, I would move on to the next airline. Even though I know I will need to go through those aspects of air travel, I’m not interested in buying punishment.

Given that our patrons, or potential patrons, have a choice as to what they spend their disposable income – and time – on, why would we expect them to invest it in something that is being presented to them as punishment?

Focusing on what people ate – at any time and for whatever reason – has the potential to fat and food shame our patron

Fat and food shaming

Focusing on what people ate – at any time and for whatever reason – has the potential to fat and food shame our patrons. This can foster an unhealthy relationship with food that can lead to eating disorders.

Moreover, demonising certain foods has the potential to create mental health problems. This is especially so in ethnic communities where the family unit often goes well beyond the nuclear and food plays a major part in connecting people.

Consider the flow-on effects on a person of Italian heritage if we were to tell them that they shouldn’t eat pasta, bread or polenta; or the impact on a Kurdish refugee if we were to demonise rice and curry. The mental health impacts, in terms of loss of community with both close and extended family and friends, could result in these individuals becoming increasingly isolated. Pandemic-related lockdowns have highlighted the negative impact of isolation on people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Why would we do anything that might increase the likelihood of someone experiencing this unnecessarily?

Fear of marginalisation

I make a point of knowing which major festivals are coming up around the world. I also make a point of learning the corresponding greeting, often in the main language/s of the ethnicities associated with those festivals. For example, at the end of my classes during Ramadan, I will say ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ and ‘Eid Mubarak’ (that’s ‘Blessed Ramadan/ Eid’ respectively). At Chinese New Year, I will say ‘Gongxi Facai’ and ‘Chúc Mừng Năm Mới’ which are the standard greetings in Mandarin and Vietnamese, respectively.

If I were to focus on what foods myself or my participants might have consumed at Christmas, Easter or the AFL Grand Final weekend as a reason for working them hard in my classes, it stands to reason that patrons with Asian, Persian, Turkish, Tamil, Greek and Armenian backgrounds (to name just a few ethnicities in my classes) may wonder if I’m going to do likewise with the foods associated with their festivals. Doing so, however, might have the effect of marginalising those people. That would be the exact opposite of what my wishing them well for their festival is intended to do, i.e. to acknowledge, respect and include in a positive way. Thus, refraining from referring to ‘working off the damage’ from any festival or event means that no participant will be anxious about being ‘named and shamed’ as the reason for working extra hard in a class. Instead, they can get on with enjoying the music and moves of that session.

My participants can be in my classes for their own reasons rather than a reason that I am putting on them

Exercise as a celebration

Changing from the punishment mentality that is prominent in the fitness industry was hard. It felt counter-cultural and counter-intuitive initially, but the flip-side is that my participants can be in my classes for their own reasons rather than a reason that I am putting on them.

Instead of suggesting that exercise is punishment, I prefer to focus on exercise as being a celebration of what our bodies can do

Instead of suggesting that exercise is punishment, I prefer to focus on exercise being a celebration of what our bodies can do. So now, when the water is cold in an aqua fitness class, I’ll say, ‘Oh the water’s cold, I’d better keep you moving. Luckily, I’ve got some fun, fast-paced music for you today. Some of it might be a bit cheesy, but one person’s cheese slice is another person’s haloumi!’ Focusing on what the body can do, and getting people laughing and expecting to enjoy the experience, gives fitness and exercise a far more positive appeal than the crime and punishment approach – and it might even get a few more people off the couch and moving.

Mel Morony 
Mel is a group fitness instructor based in Eastern Melbourne. She is passionate about raising standards in the area of group fitness, for both participants and instructors.

Network is an education subscription service that offers a broad range of upskilling courses for fitness and wellness professionals. Established in 1987, Network has played a pivotal role in the continual evolution of the fitness industry.

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