Looking (and Feeling) Great is Good for Every Body

We've all experienced it: the fantastically hard-bodied instructor who conducts every class as a frenzied race to outrun his or her own body fat. I fondly recall one instructor who took more pride in showcasing her victory at keeping fat at bay (even with three kids) than she did on using any Energy Zone™ other than Race Day, without warm-up or cool-down. But keeping our heart rates maxed out for the entire class wasn't enough—we would do push-ups on the handlebar while climbing, or contort ourselves with elastic bands while riding the flats. She talked about burning off Twinkies so much that I was practically salivating for a case of them by the end of class.


I don't mean to trivialize the emphasis that we all place on good health; on the contrary, Spinning is a wonderful foundation for health and vitality and we as instructors would be remiss if we did not encourage students to be the best they can be. We are also role models for health and it is our charge to look healthy and fit, especially when appearance drives so many people's motivation to exercise. It is essential, however, to understand that you have the power to send your students off either feeling amazing about themselves, their bodies and their accomplishments, or hanging their heads in discouragement for not being able to punish their body into single-digit body fat. Which will you choose?


Focus on Function. I eventually stopped going to the body fat victor's classes, not because they were dull, but because I got sick of hearing about body fat. Sure, what brings many folks into the Spinning room is a desire to shed pounds, but let them leave that image of themselves at the door. Instead, fill their minds with functional ideals—increased energy throughout the day, razor-sharp mental clarity, a sense of well being, strong muscles for any task that faces them and aerobic conditioning, which is beneficial for everything from walking the dog to romantic encounters.


Promote the Goals of the Ride. As Spinning Instructor Orientation tells us, one of the most difficult things to do is to give people what they need (balanced, fitness goal-driven rides) rather than what they might want (constant high-intensity rides to burn more fat). One of the best ways to give people what they need is to "sell" riders on the benefits of the profile you've chosen for that particular ride. And don't assume a quick sentence—"Endurance rides are good for building a base of fitness"—at the beginning of class will suffice. You need to reiterate the goals and benefits of the profile throughout class. Doing an endurance ride? Repeat a phrase such as, "right now you're building the foundation of a sturdy house. Each pedal stroke makes your house stronger and stronger" several times through the course of the ride. Keep everyone's minds focused on the goal of the ride and that automatically keeps the focus off any negative self-images that may creep into consciousness.


Celebrate All Bodies. A major culprit of students' (and often instructors') obsession with getting and remaining thin is the type of images we're presented with in the media. For the most part, mainstream American culture is unilateral in the type of body that is appealing. Why not celebrate the diversity of body types instead? It's your class, after all.


Rather than chatter endlessly about fat and muscle, I'll target a specific body part—for example, a cavernous midsection to suck in air during a challenging flat into the wind. I might picture track-racing champion Gideon Massie's awe-inspiring quadriceps and use words to describe the strength and power riders should feel as they muscle their way up a steep climb.


Sometimes it can be fun to choose non-human body types to exaggerate the importance of certain physical attributes for a given terrain. For instance, when we do criterium-style races in class, I'll ask participants to imagine that they are cheetahs or greyhounds. Channeling the fleet-footed elegance of these creatures can help riders remain light on their feet. Envisioning themselves as lions, whose explosive speed is directly related to their success in hunting, may help riders explode through the thick resistance of a hill interval.


Highlight Accomplishment. Spinning class has so many opportunities for accomplishment. Concentrating on making the biggest, roundest pedal strokes you can make for 100 revolutions is quite an accomplishment. So is blocking out all thoughts during a five-minute climb, except for pulling up and over with your hamstrings.


During the holidays, I reinforce what an accomplishment it is to make time for exercise. Congratulate participants for showing up during busy times of the year. Call attention to their good form or mental fortitude. Give them a pat on the back for a job well done. Don't underestimate the power of simple comments to support positive body image.


To sum it up, remember that all student in your classes are unique, special human beings. If they engage you to talk about how to reduce their body fat, discuss it with them, but make sure you also help them feel wonderful just the way they are and remind them that they are more than just a collection of fat cells. Compliment them on their ride. Be a role model and encourage them to feel happy about the splendid body they inhabit. Let them see they are capable of taking on any challenge that arises. Make them want to come back to your class again and again, because for reasons they are probably not even aware of, your classes make them feel awesome.

Jesse Piersol has been telling people how great they look on a bike at Level 5 Fitness and Conditioning since 2005. When she's not busy telling her public speaking students how to look great in front of an audience, you can find her cruising the neighborhood on her pink beach cruiser, soy latte in hand. You can reach her at chameleongrey@verizon.net.

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