It’s become apparent to me through my years in fitness and more recently coaching that one of the biggest barriers to exercise for people is feeling too nervous to try a class because they are worried they are not fit enough or they don’t look good enough.
This is an important issue to be addressed because a lot of people who need to be reached and encouraged are simply too scared to try their local classes. Unless it’s a particularly niche class for elites, a class is there as a community service to help get the unfit fit as well as pushing on those who are further on in their journey. It’s not always an easy balance to address for a coach.
Feeling like you have to be fit to start a class is an overwhelming mindset that isn’t going to help at all. A class is there to serve YOU and your need to improve your mental and physical well-being and it’s worth bearing this in mind when you are trying to take that all important and brave first step on your fitness journey.
We often assume that the problem is a lack of motivation and whilst this can be the case, I’d hazard a guess that there are a lot of people feeling motivated to start but they need to feel safe too. Quite often classes are advertised in a way which makes them look intimidating e.g. showing off the more experienced members of the group or those that fit the advertising aesthetic. The instructor or coach usually looks fit and strong, which of course is an important aspect of their job and their own health, but it’s worth noting that not all instructors have been fit and strong their whole lives and whilst it’s fine for a coach to be proud of their fitness achievements and to try and inspire others and lead by example, it’s also important that they are approachable in order to attract the trust of beginners.
Exercise can make you feel vulnerable
You have to expose your body in new ways and it can feel uncomfortable. You are putting your trust in a coach/leader to help you through something important and profound in your life. If you are overweight, you can feel exposed moving your body in public. Some people are nervous about how much they sweat, how red their face goes or whether their clothes will be comfortable. Nervous about feeling embarrassed if they simply can’t perform a certain exercise or they hold others back or can’t even finish the class. Nervous about their stress incontinence or an injury or pain they have been experiencing. I also think there is a presumption that women feel this more (and there certainly are reasons for this) but men can feel this vulnerability too.
People naturally compare themselves to others and whilst healthy competitiveness is beneficial in certain situations, I’d say if you are nervous and starting out it’s crucial that you focus on your own journey and improvements. To be blunt, there will always be others better or fitter or stronger. But if you can find an environment you feel welcome and comfortable in and get excited about your own improvements then you can learn to get the amazing benefits from exercise in your life.
From my own perspective, I have exercised in a group whilst overweight and I’ve definitely been the least experienced exerciser at times particularly when I first got back into fitness after having my kids. I’ve made mistakes and been unable to perform a technique in front of others. But I learnt to focus on my own improvements and over time I realised that most people are too focused on their own performance and doubts to notice others so much!
A coach’s perspective
Most coaches welcome and want to reach people who want to improve their lives through fitness and it can be frustrating to hear people don’t feel they are fit enough to get started when your philosophy is getting people started! It’s so rewarding seeing someone grow and improve in fitness no matter where they started. It literally can change lives.
Not many people are motivated to exercise on their own particularly if they don’t know how to begin in the first place. Exercise options can be overwhelming in this age of abundant information and not everyone can afford one to one coaching so group classes are an excellent resource for people wanting to improve their mental and physical well being. So it’s important that coaches look at themselves and strive to ask why people feel unable or too scared to try their class.
Some groups appear or become exclusive just by their longevity if they aren’t actively encouraging new starters. The culture of an organisation is usually established by the leader so it’s important coaches and instructors have a welcoming attitude and demeanour towards new people in the class.
Group settings with an instructor can be such a great place for people to begin so let’s try and address these barriers people feel. As a coach, if you are interested in improving the lives of beginners then I think you need empathy. Your own achievements and physique might be deservedly inspirational and perhaps you started from a difficult base too, but don’t get so absorbed in the glory of fitness that you can’t imagine or you forget what a big leap it can be to step into a new class for the first time as someone who has lost fitness or never had much fitness and who can literally be terrified at the prospect.