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  • Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
    Lisa Cowen tries to lead her fitness classes with a body-positive message, focusing on healthy, achievable goals.

  • Cowen leads her class at The Fitness Studio.
September 20, 2016 1:03 AM

Empowering with fitness

Local instructors say positive, healthy message key

Kimberly Dupps Truesdell | The Journal Gazette

Before Lisa Cowen was a personal trainer and fitness instructor, she was a mom who was trying to reclaim herself and lose the weight she gained after her 2-year-old daughter had died.

She began by going to the fitness center in the middle of the day and eventually started taking fitness classes, where she fell in love. Cowen moved from the back row to the front row and then to the front of the room, picking up classes as a substitute and then as a regular instructor. 

“(My participants) relate well with me because I have been there and everywhere in between. I like to tell people (about my story) because I don’t like to stand up in front of people and push them and give them advice,” Cowen says. “I like them to understand.”

Describing her teaching style as positive and accountability-focused, the Angola woman who teaches classes there and at The Fitness Studio on Dupont Road says she wants her clients to exercise safely and to listen to their bodies. 

But that hasn’t always been the case in the fitness industry. 

Group fitness classes have long been synonymous with drill sergeant-style putdowns (“My grandma can do more pushups than you”) and body-shaming warnings (“Work! Your body won’t tone itself”). 

“When I first started … (there was an) instructor who thought it was a good thing to vomit. ‘I’m going to make you vomit. You are going to work so hard that you vomit.’ And a participant did. The participant pushed themselves so hard that they went to the trash can to vomit and ended up passing out,” Cowen says. “It’s so dangerous to do something like that.”

However, some instructors and researchers are promoting a change of message aimed at empowering clients, relieving stress and fueling students with confidence.

“Body shaming and focusing on appearance and comparing yourself to other people, we absolutely know that’s harmful for women,” said Renee Engeln, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has been studying messaging in fitness classes.

“The more you’re exercising to look good or to lose weight, the less you tend to enjoy it, the less you tend to stick with it. Whereas women who exercise because of how it makes them feel – healthier, stronger, less stressed – they tend to get more out of exercise and they tend to stick with it longer.”

Katie Hake, a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at several gyms in Fort Wayne, says when she began taking classes at the age of 12, she was drawn to sessions where the atmosphere was more social and encouraging. Instructors whose message was “If you’re not hurting, you’re not working” were a turn-off and made her feel discouraged. 

Now, it’s the Fort Wayne woman’s mission to empower clients through movement and lead classes that focus on the positive – not “you can’t” or “you’re doing it wrong.”

“I try to tell people, ‘Don’t you feel strong. Don’t you have so much energy now,’ ” she says. 

Engeln recently surveyed hundreds of women who worked out in various types of classes and asked them to list their least favorite motivating comments. Around half said they hated comments that focused on appearance. Topping the list of loathed comments were those urging women to get a bikini body, look like a celebrity or endure punishment to atone for yesterday’s dessert.

“You still go into most group fitness classes and the lowest common denominator conversation is like ‘bikini body ladies, July Fourth is around the corner, what did you eat last night?’ ” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a New York fitness instructor and assistant professor of history at The New School who has been studying feminism and group fitness.

Hake, who is also a master trainer for PiYo and TurboKick, says that she tries to avoid telling her participants to “feel the calorie burn.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m here to burn off my calories, I’m here to burn off my food,” Hake says. “I want them to have a positive and healthy relationship with food and exercise. It might be a part of the reason they’re there but not the focus.”

But it’s a difficult shift for instructors to make, particularly because the lingo is so ingrained not just in the fitness world, but also with the rise of social media where body photos are relentlessly dissected.

“The days of eat less and exercise more are gone,” Cowen says. “ … I encourage my clients, especially in the middle-age range who have come from that eat less and exercise more and I want to be skinny, … to come up with a goal that makes them feel healthy. They still need to feel healthy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

kdupps@jg.net