I think we’ve all felt loneliness at some point over the last three years. Being asked to stop seeing friends, attending church and school, and lose connections with our communities (big or small) goes against the very nature of being human.
It may come as no surprise then to read, just in the last few weeks, the US Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, declared that loneliness is a public health epidemic on the same level as smoking and obesity stating “I want the entire country to understand how profound a public health threat loneliness and isolation pose.” COVID-19 is certainly a factor, however the trend of loneliness was growing even before the pandemic.
In the advisory, the decline of social interaction is detailed in statistics that show: less time spent with friends, less connection with the local community, and more time spent alone.
Group fitness has always been an opportunity for individuals to feel they are part of a community. As an instructor and participant in group fitness, I’ve observed firsthand how connections made in class bring people together and can lead to friendships outside the gym. Feeling a sense of belonging is vital to all of us and group fitness – virtual or in-person – is an amazing tool to fill this need.
Almost every fitness instructor I’ve met cares deeply about creating connection in their classes. It’s something that is discussed endlessly at conferences, workshops, and trainings. Many fitness instructors are former class participants who loved the feeling of community and movement enough to become teachers themselves!
So how can we leverage the sense of belonging that fitness classes offer to help ease some of the loneliness that people are feeling? How can we build community in the studio? What goes into creating great class experiences that people want to come back to?
To delve into the topic, I interviewed Lauren George, a fitness leader I’ve admired ever since I first did a training with her back in 2020. She has a gift for making you feel instantly welcome and included and I knew she would have some great ideas.
All about Lauren George
With over 16 years in the fitness industry, Lauren George has created multiple fitness formats, trained thousands of instructors, and launched several successful businesses, including Clemson Fitness Company, The Fit Biz Club, Pulse Pointe Barre, and LG Fitness Virtual Studio and app. She’s the program creator of Pumped Up Strength & The Musicality Method, Co-Creator of Barre Above, adjunct faculty for Non-Profit Leadership at Clemson University, and consults on numerous fitness projects for other companies.
My Interview with Lauren
What do you feel are the most important elements that go into creating an amazing class experience?
There are a lot of elements that go into creating an amazing class experience, but I think the #1 factor is that the instructor genuinely cares about the participant and programs the class with the participants body, mind, and soul in mind! Group fitness should be about creating magic for the participants, not a time for the instructor to show off.
Other Important elements:
- Music and teaching to the music with intention.
- Pre-planned modifications and progressions so you can get all bodies moving quickly and safely and help each participant self select their own workout.
- Opportunities to create community and encourage interaction between participants.
- An instructor that moves around the room because that allows for a deeper connection between the instructor and the participant because their isn’t always the barrier of the stage or even the front row.
Do you have memories of teachers (fitness or non-fitness) who have inspired you?
100% I can still remember the very first day of fitness instructor training when I was a freshman at Texas A&M. My mentor (who I still talk to all the time and went back and took a class with over spring break), DeAun Woosley, busted out of our storage closet in an 80’s throwback leotard, tights, belt, and braided headband. She then proceeded to tell us the history of aerobics and why were auditioning for the best job in the world.
I can also vividly remember my first fitness conference, SCW Dallas Mania, and taking step classes from Gay Gasper and Deborah Puskarich in gigantic ballrooms. I was so excited and happy to be there I thought I might levitate right off my step. We whooped, mambo cha cha’d and double clapped until we were so tired we could barely walk out of there.
One of my first kinesiology teachers, Kirsten Brekken Shea (KB), showed me just how much of an impact fitness instructors can have on someone’s life. She taught intro to step aerobics, and back then, every student had to take a Kine 199 course, so we had some individuals in there who were not exactly thrilled about it. But thanks to KB, by the end of the semester they learned that fitness can (and should be) fun. She literally helped them make fitness a part of their lives when the possibly never would have.
What is the best fitness class you’ve ever attended or taught? What made it special?
Wow, this is a hard one!
Attended: Step with Gay Gasper, Barre with Tricia Murphy Madden, or a dance class with Alex McClean
Taught: Dance Cardio Party which I team taught with one of my best friends Gretchen in college.
In all of these, it was all about bringing the party and having a good time. No rules, no judgment, just pure enjoyment and camaraderie.
Sometimes as teachers, we are so stressed and worried about the content that we lose track of the truth in that famous quote “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Do you have any ideas for how instructors can focus on the people in front of them, and worry less about everything else?
I love this question because it is the topic I preach upon the most. Yes, a great workout is important, but unless you are training Olympic athletes, the most important thing is that people enjoy the workout so they want to keep doing it.
I always tell instructors that the 45-60 minutes their participants spend in their class may be the only time that entire day they get for themselves. It needs to be just as much about feeding their mind and soul as it is about training their body.
Tip #1 would be to not take yourself too seriously and give yourself permission to have fun in class. If you are truly having fun, so will your students! If you mess up, let it roll off you and just keep going (but you don’t have to tell your students and definitely don’t make a big deal about it).
Plan your classes with fun at the core. Theme playlist, games, planned engagement between participants, after class meet-ups all go into helping students feel like part of a community and when you feel like you are part of a family, you are more likely to relax, let go and have fun!
What can make someone who is shy or having a bad day feel really welcome, like they belong in class?
If at all possible, position yourself by the door so you can greet students (new and old) as they come in. Thank them for being there and if possible ask them about their life, or try to learn something new about them whenever possible. People like to feel seen and like they belong.
If you can, add their favorite song to the playlist or if they have a favorite piece of equipment, move, or track, add those to make them feel a little extra special.
For new students who are shy, set them up close to a friendly and talkative regular and then introduce them before you go back to the door or front of the room (bonus points if you can point out something they have in common).
How do you stay inspired as a fitness instructor and educator?
One of my favorite things about working in fitness is that there is always something new to learn. I try to take at least one new course or workshop every quarter and pop into other instructors classes whenever possible. Since I live in a small town without a lot of fitness options, I always pre-plan where I am going to go take class on vacation so I can fit in as many as possible. Attending conferences and online classes/workshops are also awesome ways to stay inspired.
Since I own a virtual studio, it would be really easy to pre-record a bunch of workouts and just drip them out week by week but that is not very engaging or inspiring. I try to help my members stay excited about their workouts by doing themed challenges every month that focus on a different area of their fitness like strength, flexibility, or just staying active during the busy holiday season with 20 minute express workouts.
Any resources (books, websites, podcasts) that you love for teaching?
The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal
Let’s Get Physical by Danielle Friedman
Better with Dr. Stephanie Podcast
The Pilates Journal Online
Pilates Anytime for taking top notch online Pilates classes
Finally, do you still get nervous before you teach?
Most definitely! I get nervous anytime I am teaching to a new group or subbing and especially when I’m presenting at conferences. Sometimes (more times than not), I get so nervous I give myself a migraine and actually have to carry around shots I can self administer of my medicine.
I actually almost stopped teaching in the beginning and then again almost quit presenting because I would get migraines after every workshop for about the first 2 years because of nerves. It happens less often now, but still a few times a year.
Petra Kolber once said that, “nerves are just a sign that you really respect your audience and want to give them your best.”
First, a huge thank you to Lauren for sharing her knowledge, ideas and experience. I feel like I’ve lucked out in both my professions because fitness and librarianship are both such giving and supportive communities!
I think the more we can recognize and appreciate the variety of needs in our participants, the more we can help to build community. Yes, they come primarily for a workout, but they also come to find time for themselves (as Lauren mentions), to be social, and to find motivation and support.
I would love to hear your thoughts too! How do you create community in your classes? Or, if you are a participant, what makes you feel connected in a fitness class?
2 responses to “the “loneliness epidemic” and how group fitness can help – featuring Lauren George!”
I loved this interview and how Lauren and yourself are helping normalize the intense nerves that can sometimes cause instructors to doubt their abilities (I may know something about that…) as no one is perfect (not even Lauren George!). I appreciate how you focused upon the community aspect of fitness; the importance of which has become recognized to be so impactful for mental health even in an online class (live or not live- I believe we still feel the connection of a caring instructor). Thanks!
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Thank you Kimberley! I’m so happy that it spoke to you – we are so hard on ourselves and don’t always see how others see and appreciate our efforts as instructors!