How a woman feels after leaving a group exercise class is significantly influenced by the instructor’s comments during the session, according to a new study by researchers at Northwestern University.

The findings show that although most women felt better after working out, their mood and body image was even better when the instructor’s motivational comments had focused on strength and health rather than losing weight or changing the appearance of one’s body.

“Our goal was to determine whether the psychological outcomes of a fitness class might vary based on whether the instructor made motivational comments based on health verses appearance,” said Renee Engeln, lead author of the study and professor of instruction in psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.

After taking a 16-minute conditioning class, female participants reported more positive emotions and feeling more satisfied with the shape of their body if the instructor said things like, “This exercise is crucial to developing strength in the legs; these are the muscles that truly help you run, jump, sprint like a super hero!”

On the other hand, women who had been randomly assigned to a class in which the instructor made appearance-focused comments such as, “This exercise blasts fat in the legs, no more thunder thighs for us! Get rid of that cellulite!” didn’t show those same improvements.

“We also asked the women to list three words that described how they felt at the end of class,” said Engeln. “Those who heard appearance-focused comments were much more likely to write things like ‘ashamed’ and ‘disgusted with myself.’

“Those in the health-focused classes were more likely to write things like ‘accomplished’ and ‘strong’.”

Engeln said the study is one more reminder that words really matter.

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

“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.”

The study, titled “Tone it Down: How Fitness Instructors’ Motivational Comments Shape Women’s Body Satisfaction,” is published online in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. In addition to Engeln, co-authors include Margaret Shavlik of Vanderbilt University and Colleen Daly of Northwestern.

Source: Northwestern University