Being a Group Fitness Instructor during the COVID-19 Crisis: Navigating Professional Identity, Social Distancing, and Community | A Summary

Karin Andersson1 & Jesper Andreasson2
1 Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University;
2 Department of Sport Science, Linnaeus University

More than a year has passed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during this year, various sporting community’s reliance on external forces, such as media funding and unique one-time live events, have been revealed like never before. Adding to this, restrictions of movement, closed sporting facilities, and canceled competitions have resulted in strong reactions. Campaigns such as Nike’s current slogan, “You can’t stop us” manifest how physical activity is conceived of as a prerogative of a democratic society. The commercial sector consisting of gyms and private sport associations suffer severely, and a third of all gyms worldwide have taken a time-out, which has caused global protests—the #touchepasmasalle (do not touch my room) campaign from France has spread rapidly as a backlash against closed fitness facilities, conveying the message that “gyms are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Against this backdrop, the forced pause of the global fitness community carries consequences on various levels. For example, group fitness instructors, who work in gyms, have needed to rethink how they can teach fitness, and who for. Fitness enthusiasts who enjoy visiting classes have perhaps heard of Les Mills exercise programs such as BodypumpTM, BodyattackTM, and SprintTM. These programs are released anew every third month by the world’s currently biggest provider of pre-choreographed fitness classes—the New Zealand-based Les Mills International (1997). Self-proclaimed, they do not merely offer standardized fitness classes, but a global community for their instructors built on a shared love of movement, music, and togetherness. Their classes are licensed and taught in more than a hundred countries, and they have more than 130,000 active instructors worldwide. Consequently, the closure of gyms has put this group fitness community at a standstill. Not only are the instructors restricted by closed gyms and COVID-19 restrictions, limiting how many people can come together physically, but the music they need for teaching classes may not be used outside a licensed studio. When push comes to shove, they are left with few choices—either relocating their instructorhood, offering illegal services, or quitting the profession.

In this context, I initiated a global qualitative longitudinal study in April 2020, with the purpose of understanding how a global phenomenon like fitness instructing was influenced by a global anomaly—the COVID-19 pandemic. I gathered respondents from my ongoing ethnography on Les Mills fitness instructors, and arranged online focus group discussions with fourteen Les Mills instructors from nine different countries. The first conversations took place in April 2020, the second round in November 2020, and a third round in March 2021. To interpret changes in professional identity, the sociological concepts ritual chains (Collins, 2004), professional vision (Goodwin, 1994), and emotional labor (Hochschild, 1983) were employed.

Pekka, a Finnish instructor based in Helsinki narrates, “I decided I was not gonna lie on my couch and feel sorry for the world, this was my time to be better.”

The results show that being a Les Mills instructor seems to have changed focus; from being an entertainer on stage to a motivator from home. Most informants have also switched roles; from being actively teaching instructors to being participants, since the majority do not offer virtual fitness classes but merely attend them. Furthermore, respondents report that an excess of spare time and increased anxiety urge them to exercise more than before, which is described as both a stress-relieving and disciplining practice.

Both fitness teaching and participation has spatially transitioned to digital platforms, which is construed as an unsatisfactory alternative to face-to-face classes, although it allows their practices to continue. As a matter of fact, only three respondents tried online teaching, and they admit that it requires more effort on their part. There is little emotional payback, since participants hardly switch on their cameras. Joy, a Brazilian instructor who teaches in Washington DC comments, “to bring enough energy that it reaches into someone else’s living room is really difficult, and afterwards you turn the lights off and you’re by yourself.” Effectively, the social component of group fitness is a central concern to most instructors who, therefore, refuse online teaching. In the words of Klaus, a part-time instructor in Vienna, “it’s called group fitness for a reason.”

Unable to teach or visit gyms, at the outset of the pandemic, many informants said that they were preparing for afterwards, using the forced interruption as an opportunity to improve as fitness inspirators, and, perhaps, to increase their value on the competitive fitness market. Pekka, a Finnish instructor based in Helsinki narrates, “I decided I was not gonna lie on my couch and feel sorry for the world, this was my time to be better.” However, during the second round of conversations months later, some had lost their initial motivation. Linda, an instructor who had just received her license before the first lockdown says, “it feels like I stopped being an instructor a long time ago.” Respondents who were active on online forums with former participants and fellow instructors, render that they need to motivate people to exercise. Put by Jamal, a trainer in Jordan, “as fitness leaders we have to do something to members, if you think about the cause—for a fitter planet—that means we need to move and make people move.”

Apart from the intriguing lived experiences that are narrated within the study, it discusses how the fitness industry is transforming amid the pandemic. While social distancing is still practiced, gyms need to find new ways of promoting their services that go beyond selling movement as “a cool lifestyle choice.” Presently, gyms are compelled to be seen as essential businesses in order to remain open, which has led to discourses relying on fear of a third pandemic—obesity as a result of sedentary behaviors. The study shows that group fitness instructors appear to be a target group for such messages, and several informants willingly immerse into subject positions that allow them to emerge as determined unafraid fitness supporters, who, despite harsh restrictions, wage a war against the virus by tending to their physiques. In the words of Pekka, “fuck corona.”

Copyright © Karin Andersson & Jesper Andreasson 2021

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