yes we can use positive cueing!

Experience with eating disorders and body image issues led one instructor to banish weight-orientated cues and embrace a positive approach to motivation.

'Burn off that Christmas indulgence! Cinch your waist! Slim your thighs! One more rep!’

I’ve heard each and every one of these lines as a participant in group exercise classes. Whether it’s a weight workout, balance or Pilates class, the temptation to use the motivation of a slimmer body is the easiest option for instructors.

The easiest, but not the best, because it reinforces the idea that group exercise classes are fundamentally about weight loss and punishing the body for indulgences or imperfections. The same motivational tool sells detox kits in the pharmacy, and ‘rapid fat loss’ pills, shakes and books.

The 30-second article
  • Using the motivation of a very slim body in promotional imagery and language reinforces the idea that group exercise is fundamentally about weight loss and punishing the body for indulgences or imperfections
  • For participants to try and compete with each other or their instructor is pointless because we all have different physiology, lifestyles and priorities
  • Societal and media fixations with dieting can be highly damaging to people with a predisposition to anorexia, bulimia or a binge eating disorder
  • The language you use when instructing group exercise is incredibly important in engendering a positive body image.

I have spent a lot of time over the past 15 years in fitness facilities. I began working out at the age of 16, doing my own circuit of the machines. The posters for BODYPUMP™ were alluring though, and I decided to give it a go, initially hiding away down the back in my baggy trackpants and hoping nobody noticed me getting it all wrong. Though I gradually made my way to the front, where I could see and hear the cues and instructions more clearly, I remember vividly what it’s like to feel hugely intimidated in a group exercise class with all these bodies and expectations and agendas in such close proximity!

I now teach BODYPUMP™, Pilates and the class I founded, Ballet Sculpt. I have also survived eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa. I genuinely love Pilates, yoga and dance – all the elements of my class – and not for the long, lean muscles, but for the joy of movement and the ability to really focus and go into a moving meditation while challenging balance, alignment and body awareness. The fact that I feel stronger and maintain my healthy weight is also important to me, of course, but using weight loss and an ideal body image to motivate? Not on.

The environment I try to foster in my Ballet Sculpt class is one in which every participant embraces what they are capable of at that moment, in terms of strength, flexibility and endurance. Trying to compete with one another (or with me) is pointless because we have different builds, different lifestyles, and different priorities. I sometimes hear women lamenting that their stomachs aren’t what they were ‘before the kids’. Perhaps not, but you also couldn’t do a perfect arabesque a year ago, so why not focus on that positive instead?

Lessons learnt from body image battles

An article in Dance magazine this year spoke to several professional dancers about their body image battles. The same advice they shared also applies to group exercise instructors and personal trainers

‘Don’t let thoughts control your body language. Don’t show that you are insecure and maybe you will fool yourself into being secure.’
Sarah Hay

‘You can always improve areas you are weak in. But there is a limit to what you can do physically in terms of changing. Be comfortable in your own skin. If you are insecure with your body, nobody else is going to like it. You have to say, ‘This is who I am.’’
Xiao Nan Yu

‘I learned that imperfections are not to be feared. There is no one mould. Embrace yourself as an artist; that’s what makes you feel beautiful.’
Rachel Sherak


A recent forum on eating disorders in Victoria raised the alarming fact that eating disorders had the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and that one in five sufferers of anorexia nervosa commits suicide. The director of the Butterfly Foundation, Christine Morgan, said societal pressures, a fixation with dieting and photographs of celebrity mothers with washboard stomachs could be poison to someone with a predisposition to anorexia, bulimia or a binge eating disorder.

I view my role as a group exercise instructor as an honour. I get to educate and inform, but I also get to inspire and motivate a diverse group of men and women every day. It is my goal that they walk out of my class feeling good – physically challenged, perhaps a little sore, but also invigorated and excited about what they’ve achieved.

Positive language and cues

This comes back to motivational cues and focus. As a group exercise instructor, the language you use is incredibly important in engendering a positive body image.

While instructors are particularly prone to idealising a super lean and muscular body, we are not popular and successful only because of our body size and shape. To believe that is to be lazy about being skilled and constantly seeking to better our fitness knowledge and teaching methods. Rather than talk about ‘burning off dessert’ or ‘slimming your tum’, I talk about developing grace, co-ordination, style, elegance and expression. I talk about how a movement should feel and which muscles we’re trying to engage. I talk about stability and strength and the benefits of a strong, balanced, extended posture, because it does so much more than make you look leaner – it supports healthy joints, muscular and digestive function. It also makes deep breathing easier, and your movements more graceful and controlled.

Sure, it’s not the glossy two-second marketing trick that ‘whittle your waist!’ is, but long after the body image beat-up that some instructors inflict on their classes is over, my class participants will be back, whatever their size and shape, because they want to be strong, feel confident and challenged, and discover how fantastic it is to be truly fit and at peace in their skin.

Tips for positive motivation
  • Use strength, agility and endurance to motivate.
  • Focus on the target muscles and how it should feel, i.e. ‘You want to focus on contracting through the belly of the bicep to lift...’
  • Avoid using guilt and shame to motivate by banishing phrases such as ‘burn off dessert’, ‘thin your thighs’, ‘hone your hips’ and ‘whittle your waist’
  • Avoid criticising your own appearance or ability – you’re a role model to your class!
  • Encourage participants to praise what they achieved rather than focus on areas they might feel less confident in. Remind them it takes time and patience to make meaningful progress.


Cat Woods founded her Melbourne-based Ballet Sculpt as a barre class that doesn’t require a barre. She is also a writer and blogger with a passion for arts, health, beauty and design. Cat is available to deliver presentations on positive body image and cultivating a healthy and happy culture. and @catty_tweeter