Emotionally fit: Emotional labour and group exercise instructors

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University of New Brunswick


Group fitness classes may appear to be an ordinary place where some people gather, however, this social space does offer a rich site to examine the interface between micro interactions and social structure. Indeed, the group fitness instructors in these fitness classes perform not only physical routines set to music, but also, navigate many social interactions that are emotionally laden. Exploring the emotional lives of group fitness instructors and understanding the impact their emotions have on these interactions, their perceptions of work, their relationships, and themselves as a focus of research, has only very recently come under scholarly attention (Parviainen, 2018; Prochnow et al., 2020). This area of inquiry is an important focus of research because this occupation group is dominated by women and involves work where the emotional labour required is both unpaid and unacknowledged (James, 1989). The emotional experiences of group fitness instructors demonstrate how the embodied fitness instruction, gendered preferences in fitness routines (Dworkin, 2001, 2003), and the informal gender segregation of the fitness gym play a role of in the maintenance of gender norms associated with the binary model of gender (Dworkin, 2003; Dworkin & Wachs, 2009; Hird, 2002). The use of emotions and the emotional toll in providing group fitness experiences is also gendered. This study involved over 500 hours of participant observation, 12 face-to-face, in-depth interviews, and a focus group meeting with seven people. The data was then transcribed verbatim and analyzed via thematic and comparative coding (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Ryan & Bernard, 2003). The findings from the research are grouped into one of three inter-connected conceptual categories developed from the analysis: the embodied nature of emotional labour, emotional labour and sociability, and emotional labour in fitness instruction. These categories conceptualize emotional labour and illustrate the ways in which emotional labour is corporeal. Finally, a key finding in this work is the identification that the group fitness class is a “proximate social structure” where social discourses and relational practices including sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, ageism, and racism are maintained and reproduced (Jacobs & Merolla, 2017, p. 68).