Just FYI: It’s Not Your Fault if Group Fitness Classes Feel Defeating

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A couple of years ago, I went to a dance class I was thrilled for. From the class description to the number of participants to the instructor’s introduction, I could tell I was going to have a good time. Bring on the sexy moves, lots of sass, well-loved pop songs, and a group of energized students.

A few songs in, however, I began to understand why group fitness classes can feel defeating. Despite Britney Spears’s iconic music and all my favorite moves being incorporated, I worried I wouldn’t make it through the whole class. I was huffing and puffing—again, only a few songs in, and as a dance lover—and didn’t have the energy to put my all into the moves, like I enjoy doing. Perhaps even worse, some of the people around me—who had literally just finished another dance class—seemed to be living their best lives, doing the moves with ease and having fun, all at the same time.

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Needless to say, I was flooded with emotions. I felt embarrassed that I couldn't keep up. I worried if I tried to slip out, someone would see me, and I would inevitably feel guilty and insecure. I also felt disappointed at the fact that a class I was so excited about turned out to be a bust. Why couldn’t I just keep up like everyone else?

Why group fitness classes can feel defeating

I've had many experiences like that one, and my friends have, too. There’s the cycling instructor who pushes too hard, the Zumba instructor who seemingly never gets out of breath, the yoga teacher who corrects you in front of the whole class, and the weightlifting class where there’s just way too many people or people who can handle much heavier weights. Been there, done that, (hopefully) never again.

If you’ve found yourself in similar situations, you may have also wondered if you’re not “fit enough” or feel convinced everyone is judging you, which could be why group fitness classes feel defeating to you.

In which case, hear this: Your body is not the problem, and you’re not alone. “If a class feels overwhelming for you, it’s not your fault!” affirms Emily Decker, CPT, an intuitive movement coach and fitness trainer. “If you feel like that, other people have, too.”

In a set of graphics she posted on Instagram, she validated how even group fitness classes that are advertised for “everyone” aren’t always accessible for everyone—and again, that’s not on you. It's one of the reasons why group fitness classes can feel defeating. Decker shared examples such as trainers who don’t demonstrate the movement, give alternative options, or create a safe space for rest, as well as gyms that aren’t ADA-compliant.

“I encourage you to ask yourself what the class itself would need to change to actually work for your body,” Decker tells Well+Good. “That can help shift the mindset from ‘I’m not good enough’ to ‘This is not good enough for me.’ You shouldn’t have to have been working out for months prior in order to take a class that is labeled for all levels.”

What to do when you feel defeated by a group fitness class

As much as it can feel like it, that bad experience doesn’t mean you can never do group fitness in any form again. You have a few options on how to proceed. They aren’t cure-all solutions, unfortunately, but can reduce the possibility you’re stuck in a not-fun workout environment.

Talk to the instructor

“The first thing I’d do if you aren’t feeling a group fitness class is tell the instructor and ask for different options,” Decker suggests. “While this can feel vulnerable, a good instructor actually wants you to do this.” (And other participants will probably be grateful you asked.)

If you’re like me, you want to be able to do this but don’t think you’ll be able to push yourself to. If so, Decker encourages practicing by yourself or asking for options in advance before class. “If they are unable or unwilling to give you alternatives that feel good for your body, you have every right to preserve your relationship with movement by leaving,” she adds.

Try a class you feel better about

For this one, ask yourself a couple of questions. Does this class’s description make me feel excited or nervous? Is there an easier version of this class?

For example, maybe you start with gentle yoga versus “regular” yoga. Maybe you want something high energy and opt for a Zumba class since you’ve taken them before. Keeping the volume of the class (how many reps and sets you'll be asked to do in a given amount of time) in mind is also a smart move (pun intended) as that can affect your mental health.

And again, no shame if those options are overwhelming, too!

Look for recommendations

Get advice from people who have similar feelings about or experience with group fitness as you do. I'm particularly a fan of Facebook groups for this when I don’t have friends in the area to ask. In my experience, these groups usually have names that include the word “women” or “social” or “group” and the name of the city or area I'm in.

Then, you can search for posts or create your own, checking about recommendations for (truly) body-positive gyms, gyms that don’t push the “No pain no gain!” narrative, or that employ instructors who are fun, kind, and helpful.

While we all have different levels of what we can and want to handle in a group fitness class, this can be an avenue for getting started.

Redefine “group fitness”

Maybe, as much as you’d like for it to be, group fitness just isn’t your thing. (A room full of strangers? No thank you!) That’s okay, too!

If you want to avoid group fitness classes without feeling like you’re working out completely alone, consider what feels best for you. This may look like working out near people at a gym, exercising solo while a group fitness class plays on YouTube, or going on a walk with a small group of friends.

Signs a class or studio is truly welcoming

If you do go to a class, you may want to have an idea of what it will be like before you go—and we hear that! “A lot of studios will say their workout is for everyone, but the warm-up alone may be exhausting for many people,” Decker validates.

Sometimes, you can find helpful keywords on the website, such as “body positive,” “advanced,” “rigorous,” or “inclusive.” But what if you can’t find any clues (or don’t want to rely on words that may not hold true for you)?

It’s okay to call and ask! Decker shares some key questions:

  • How many people are in the class?
  • How much individual attention is given?
  • What kind of teaching style does the instructor have (“No pain no gain!” or “Your body knows best!”)?
  • How does the instructor respond if someone needs to rest or take it slow?

She also encourages advocating for yourself and your needs. “If you have a specific disability, ask about accommodations for it,” she says. “If you don’t like the answers, move on.”

Feeling overwhelmed in the middle of a class?

Unfortunately, even if you take all the “right” steps, you can still feel defeated. In those instances, Decker recommends taking a minute to breathe or slow down. “Sometimes simply slowing down by itself can really help alleviate anxiety and bring the body to a more comfortable zone, as long as we also actively accept that this is a valid and important option,” she says.

You can also take that moment to ground yourself. Decker recommends checking in with your five senses—what are a few things you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? Notice where the exits are so that, if you decide to leave, you can do so as easily as possible.

Ultimately, what you tell yourself before, during, and after that experience shouldn’t be underestimated, either. “No matter what, we have to start believing that our unique experience matters as much as anyone else, and we deserve to make the choices that feel best for our bodies,” she adds.

Decker also emphasizes that there’s no “right” class for everyone; you have to account for many factors when it comes to finding a good fit. So at the end of the day, remind yourself that if you feel defeated in a group fitness class, it’s not your fault—it just may not be the best fit for your needs.

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