Does “Work Off” Equal Workout Motivation?

As an avid group fitness fan and recently-minted certified group fitness instructor, I’ve spent tons of time on both sides of the mic in group fitness classes. According to my ClassPass stats, I’ve taken 166 group fitness classes in Chicago and beyond — and that’s not counting free events I’ve attended or classes that I’ve gone to off the ClassPass platform. Plus, since I’ve started working as a group fitness instructor, I’ve already taught upwards of 50 classes (in addition to the ones I shadowed during a three-month internship).

Suffice to say that I’m pretty attuned to what instructors say most often during group fitness classes. Not only that, but I’m also intimately familiar with the internal monologue running through a trainer’s head as you rack your brain to find the perfect combination of non-cheesy motivational cues to string together into sentences.

workout motivation

What an instructor says in class can stick with you not only for the rest of class, but for the rest of the day — and even longer. In fact, one of the reasons I return to my favorite instructors time and time again is because I know I respond well to their cues and teaching style.

And maybe I’m more sensitive to what instructors say than most, but right around Super Bowl weekend, I started noticing one phrase over and over again during class:

“Take that pace up a notch — time to work off those chicken wings!”

“Stay strong these last few reps, guys, only a couple more minutes left to work off those Super Bowl snacks!”

“Work off that weekend, guys, let’s start Monday strong!”

You guys see it too, right? The idea that “working off” a meal or beverage should be major motivation to grab a heavier weight or sprint just a little bit faster on the treadmill.

Now that I’m spending more and more time using a microphone, I’m way more conscious of the phrases I choose to shout during the classes I teach. Here’s why you’ll never catch me encouraging my clients to “work off” that [insert “unhealthy” food item here].

It implies that you should punish yourself for eating food

Asking someone to work off that pint of ice cream sets up a cause and effect relationship. The cause: eating said ice cream pint. The effect: having to do more burpees. Call me crazy, but never have I ever thought of burpees as a “fun” thing that I get to do.

And, even more dangerously, the cause/effect thought process is similar to that of someone with disordered eating habits. People suffering from anorexia, for example, tend to associate food with punishing stimuli like excessive exercise or self-starvation.

This seemingly innocent phrase, to someone with a history of disordered eating or struggling with healthy body image, can set up a dangerous relationship with food and exercise that lasts well beyond a one-hour workout.

It encourages “reducing” or “less of” yourself

Similar to telling someone “you look skinny,” asking someone to work off that chicken wing implies that they’re more valuable if there’s physically less of them there. It’s a reductive command that rewards taking up less space in the world.

As an alternative, the aSweatLife brain trust wants you to set goals that focus on making you more of yourself — whether that’s more push-ups, more community involvement, more meditation, whatever. The point is to be anything but a do-nothing-b*tch.

It focuses on how exercise makes you look, not how it makes you feel

I’m fairly sure that everyone reading this blog has had moments (or, more likely, long stretches of time) where they’ve only exercised because they care about how it makes them look. Maybe you wanted to look good in a bathing suit on a college spring break, or maybe you were concerned about wearing a strapless gown on your wedding day. There’s no shame in admitting that — we’ve all been there, myself included, and that’s the view of exercise that’s promoted by the “work it off” mindset.

But now, more and more trainers, athletes and influencers are talking about exercising for the way it makes you feel. That’s the kind of motivational cue I try to rely on in my classes. Usually, towards the end of the class, I’ll ask my clients to think back to why they walked in that door and what motivated them to sign up for class today, asking them to pinpoint how they want to feel when they finish class and reminding them they’ve got these last few minutes to work towards that feeling.

If you focus on exercising for looks, there’s really only one underlying motivation: you’re exercising to fit into society’s expectation of what your body should look like. But if you focus on how exercise makes you feel, there’s hundreds of different “whys” for you to choose from: to feel confident, to feel powerful, to relieve your stress or even simply to turn off your phone for an hour and disconnect.


Going forward, that’s my challenge to trainers and group fitness attendees alike: step away from how exercise makes your body look and lean into how exercise makes you feel. After all, our bodies can only change so much; tapping into your intrinsic motivation for exercising is what will keep you active for life.

Happiness Think & Feel

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.

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