Fit Femininity

Exploring the intersection of culture, gender, and exercise.

Feeling Guilty About Faking Joy

I am sorry I cannot enjoy exercise.

It‘s the time of the year when one feels a need to make a renewed commitment to exercise. A colleague is going to a Zumba class and asks me to join - it is great fun, she assures. To my surprise I did not enjoy the class and feel almost guilty. What is wrong with me when I cannot join the fun of dancing?

I find that I am not alone with my ambivalent feelings. In her research, Jaana Parviainen accounted her feelings in a Bodypump class:

After most LM classes, I feel sorry that I cannot learn to enjoy doing these simple choreographies without irritation and learn to act out an artificial joy by imitating hyper-brisk instructors. I am mostly embarrassed of [sic] following the energetic instructors’ hard work when they aggressively attempt to perform their class. I feel myself as an outsider to their performance without capabilities to begin any dialogue with them. The LM classes are supposed to fit everybody. (p. 535)

I was happy to find a kindred spirit who was brave enough to publicly confess feeling uncomfortable in a popular exercise class. Parviainen also analyzed, in some depth, reasons for her irritation and embarrassment. Unlike me, however, she did not take the blame, but began to examine deeper why she felt the class was annoying.

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The LM classes (Les Mills programs of Bodyattack, Bodybalance, Bodycombat, Bodyjam, Bodypump, Bodystep, Bodyvive, RPM, Sh’Bam, CSWORX), similar to Zumba, are what Parviainen labels as ‘stardardized’ fitness classes based on pre-choreographed movements. Les Mills, a New Zealand based company, hires expert ‘designers’ who create a new choreography for each class every three months. The instructors all over the world then teach the exact same choreography that they learn from the company’s DVDs. This business strategy has proved so effective that, as Parviainen notes, the company claims for ‘doing for group exercise what McDonald’s did for hamburgers’ (www. lesmills.com, 2009).

Parviainen identifies some principles that have made these standardized exercise classes immensely popular.

• First, LM choreographies consist of movements that most people can learn easily after attending the classes a couple of times.

• Second, the LM classes supply customers all over the world with uniform quality, because the system is based on pre-designed exercise system, not an instructor’s personality or ability.

• Third, because the instructors are required to strictly follow the pre-determined class designs, no large investment is required in instructor training. According to Parviainen, the LM instructors must have the minimum national fitness qualification available in their countries and they have to complete a couple of days of module training to be cleared to instruct in a licensed fitness center. To become further qualified, a videotape of a complete class needs to be submitted for assessment within 12 weeks of teaching the first class (p. 532). This has effectively cut down the employment costs and consequently, Parviainen explains, companies tend to “put more stress on performing skills and proper personality than knowledge and skills in fitness education and experience in fitness training” (p. 532).

This sounds all very attractive to the fitness clubs, but there must be something that makes them popular among the clients as well.

Parviainen sees that standardized fitness classes are based on, in addition to cost effectiveness, on “the production of pleasure and excitement through the experience design of fitness products." ‘Experience design,’ she explains further, “refers to designing products, processes, services, events and environments that are based on the consideration of an individual’s or group’s emotions, perceptions, sensations or imagination” (pp. 527-528). LM classes are designed to attend to the clients’ body as well as their emotions to create an experience. The instructors’ smiling faces, encouraging voices, and attractive personalities are to produce ‘engagement’ and ‘magic moments’ that bind people to exercise routines. This sounds perfect: these standardized fitness classes offer cost effective fitness services that are attractive to clients. Despite these qualities, Parviainen did not enjoy the experience and ponders further:

Do fitness clients learn to fake joy as part of their performance, or are they really thrilled to repeat these routines? Despite my internal conflicts, I am constrained to continue the movements, since standing or refusing to do the movements would insult the instructor and disturb other movers. (p. 535)

To understand her own feelings about LM classes, Parviainen distinguishes between the physical body and the ‘lived-body’ that incorporates individual’s cultural and social meanings about bodily experiences. Most fitness classes, including the stardardized classes, attend to the physical body: build muscles, burn off fat and calories, stretch muscles, and improve cardiovascular functioning. The focus on the physical body combined with the emotional incitement produced by the instructor, music, and co-motion with the group helps to generate endorphins that keep the exercisers going beyond where they would normally give up. Parviainen explains that the endorphins provide pleasure and euphoria and create “feelings of power and control during and straight after the exercise” (p. 538). The LM choreographies effectively generate endorphins and the exercisers learn what they are supposed to feel during the exercise. Parviainen believes that this type of exercise becomes a type of ‘simulated bodily experience’ that is passively adopted by following the standardized instruction designed to release endorphins.

The individual lived body that experiences movement is almost entirely ignored. Not all clients, as Parviainen’s own experience demonstrates, are able to disengage their individual lived body experiences in favor of standardized exercises for the physical body. When the exercises do not fit with the client’s own bodily feelings and intentions, there is an unpleasant feeling of not fitting in the setting. This was obviously Parviainen's experience in LM classes and my brief experience with Zumba.

Parviainen further asserts that these types of exercise classes make exercisers passive followers who expect the programs to "function on their behalf" (p. 537). She assumes, nevertheless, that “most fitness clients and instructors do not see rationalization as a negative feature” but “they can be sure to get the sufficient dose of weekly exercise recommended by health educators” (p. 537) by attending their exercise classes.

At the same time, she argues, the fitness clients become passive participants of the global profit making machine where the “well-shaped, muscular young or well-preserved” instructors (p. 537) are expected to be entertainers alluring the exercisers mindlessly to follow their performance. The instructors’ performance, on the other hand, is strictly controlled by the parent company’s norms of behavior.

Parviainen concludes, rather negatively, that standardized exercise classes are characterized by imitation, impersonal co-motion, and interpassivity instead of interactivity.

If attending to these types of fitness classes is a pre-calculated response to an effective business strategy that makes clients unquestioningly return to more doses of endorphins, does this mean that standardized group exercise classes are a bad thing? Obviously we can still obtain some physical benefits from the classes. We might still get a better workout than exercising on our own.

But Parviainen seems to be worried about the passivity encouraged through such classes: we no longer actively feel what our bodies need. She also seems to imply that without buying into the impersonality, interpassivity, and imitation, one cannot enjoy standardized fitness classes. Yet, these feelings should not result in guilt, but in the realization that these classes are not suitable for everyone – there can be other options that allow for more active engagement of the individual lived body. This is obviously what she expects from her fitness classes. What type of classes would they be? Do they exist?


Pirkko Markula, Ph.D.,
is a professor of socio-cultural studies of physical activity at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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