The Instructor’s Role in Group Exercise for Individuals Living with Impairment

There are many barriers that make it more difficult for individuals living with impairments to participate in physical activity: Barriers such as transportation, cost, and accessibility can all negatively impact participation in both individual exercise and group fitness classes. These barriers are discussed in great lengths by researchers such as Rimmer (2012) and Martin (2013). As an instructor in a group fitness class, other than picking the most accessible space to run the class, the environmental barriers are out of the instructor’s control much of the time. However, there are numerous facilitators to exercise that the instructor can influence to encourage a positive experience within a group class and that will encourage participation over a long period of time. Facilitators include social support, social interaction, self-efficacy, and having opportunities to listen to their individual bodies (Kayes et al. 2011; Stroud et al. 2009). The impact of creating positive and meaningful relationships and interactions, feelings of success, and opportunity for meaningful choice on perceived self-efficacy are what we will discuss in this article. Supporting these facilitators is the role and responsibility of the group exercise class instructor.

Defining Facilitators

Facilitators to exercise are factors or perceived benefits that positively contribute to the physical activity experience and encourage continued participation. Facilitators can be both intrinsic and extrinsic. One internal facilitator is the individual’s perceived self-efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy is how capable and successful a participant feels he or she will be at an activity (Stroud et al., 2009). For an individual to have high self-efficacy, the environment that has to be highly supportive and positive so that he or she can gain confidence. This support can come from social interaction and relationships that are formed in the class. These interactions can be between other participants in the class and with the instructor. Additionally, meaningful relationships are the relationships that are built with other participants and the relationship that is built with the instructor. These relationships are imperative to group fitness for individuals living with impairments.

The Instructor’s Role in the Group Class

Being an instructor in a group exercise class for individuals living with impairment is a crucial role which aids in supporting continued participation, enjoyment and success in the group class. A purposefully supportive and encouraging environment must be created by the instructor. Building relationships with each participant in the class is crucial for the participant’s continued participation. To achieve this requires more than just saying hello and asking how your participants are doing; building a meaningful relationship means that the instructor is willing to be open and vulnerable. This allows for the instructor to become more than just the person who is running the group class. It means the instructor will notice if someone is having a bad day or is not in class, and can then become a source of support. This allows for a connection to be formed which is imperative to supporting all of the other facilitators to exercise. Connection between the instructor and participants creates an environment that is supportive of building relationships. The role of the instructor is to then facilitate relationships among participants in the class. These supportive relationships facilitate positive social interactions. Positive social interactions are considered to be one of the highest ranked perceived benefits to physical activity (Stroud et al., 2009). Positive relationships and interactions facilitate the confidence and feelings of success for your participants.


One measurement of success in a group class is connected to how participants feel when they leave the class. As an example, there is research which discusses how individuals living with MS expressed that listening to their body was important to their participation in physical activity (Kayes et al. 2011). Working with individuals who have different experiences with physical activity from day to day requires measurements of success within the group that are supportive of differing abilities, energy levels, or emotional states. For example, an instructor who does not rely on the amount of weight and the increase in weight as a measure of success can create a more supportive and encouraging environment. In this instance, the instructor can reinforce how adjustments are made when cues are being given, rather than commenting on the weight being used in the exercise. This gives the participant a feeling of success because the instructor noticed the effort that is being put into the exercise. The amount of weight is not the measure of effort or success, therefore each participant can be successful.
Providing exercises for all ability levels is imperative for success. This means being able to provide numerous adaptations and options for each exercise. How these adaptations and options are presented is important to consider for feelings of success. Different options for exercises should be presented in a way that makes all exercises equal and one not more acceptable than another. This means that the individual’s choice is then meaningful and is equally successful no matter which exercise option is chosen. Having this meaningful choice increases the control each participant has over their workout.

The positive and meaningful relationships and interactions, feelings of success, and opportunity for meaningful choice are all influenced and supported by the instructor of the group fitness class. Supporting all of these factors creates an environment that aids in the feeling of perceived self-efficacy, which will help keep the individuals in the class participating over a longer time. Building self-efficacy in the individuals in the group class takes the effort and support of the instructor.

Five Ways to Facilitate Continued Physical Activity in Group Exercise Classes:

1. Form meaningful relationships with the individuals in the class
2. Facilitate relationships between the participants in the class
3. Provide opportunity for meaningful choice
4. Make all adaptations and options for exercises equal and acceptable in the class
5. Create a positive and supportive environment

When instructing a group fitness class for individuals living with impairment, there are more considerations than just providing exercises for the participants to do and encouraging them to do them. The environment that is created, the relationships that are built, and how successful and confident individuals feel when they leave are all considerations that need to be carefully thought through by the instructor. The experience individuals have in a group class can either facilitate physical activity or become a perceived barrier to future physical activity.

—Samantha Chaput, BPE
The University of Alberta, Steadward Centre

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This article appeared in the February edition of the Fitness Informer

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