The Importance of Cultural Awareness

It’s possible that some of your cues and messages, although well-intentioned, are turning participants away.

by Sarah Buck, PhD

As much as we try to make fitness classes challenging but fun, the group fitness studio intimidates some people. Have you ever noticed someone standing outside the door watching your class? Did you wonder why she was reluctant to join? Did she look curious or wistful, or did she seem skeptical?

Part of your job as a fitness instructor is to educate and motivate participants to live healthy lives that include sufficient physical activity. You’re likely to interact with a diverse population that includes people of all shapes, sizes and demographics. Therefore, it’s important to be culturally aware when leading a class.

Obesity and Body Image Among Black Women

Although obesity crosses demographic lines, there’s a disproportionate prevalence in black communities. According to Ogden et al. (2015), the overall level of obesity in women—as defined by body mass index—is 38.3%. Non-Hispanic black women, however, yield the highest rate of overweight and obesity of any racial or ethnic group, at 82.1% (Ogden et al. 2014). Further, black populations report lower rates of leisure-time aerobic activity than whites (Clarke et al. 2017).

This is cause for concern, as it relates to disease risk. Obesity-related conditions—such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer and premature death—affect blacks at greater rates than other groups. For instance, statistics indicate that approximately 34% of the U.S. population has hypertension, compared with 45% of black women (Benjamin et al. 2017). Yet, when weight is viewed through a psychological lens rather than a physical lens, it has been found that, despite the level of overweight/obesity among black women, they report lower levels of body dissatisfaction than their white counterparts.

Further, a wider range of body shapes (including those with BMIs classified as overweight and obese) are acceptable among black females (Hawkins 2007). Molloy and Herzberger (1998) posited that ethnic identity plays a role in the idea that black women have a larger body-size ideal than white women do. Compared with overweight white women, overweight black women report higher feelings of attractiveness, despite having higher BMIs (Chithambo & Huey 2013).

Exercise for Appearance May Be Demotivating

Even without the benefit of this research, it would be inaccurate to presume that every participant takes a class in order to lose weight. Other reasons may include the social aspects, the physical challenge or a desire to maintain weight. Even though appearance can certainly be a driving factor (Blackstone et al. 2017), it’s important to be mindful of your motivational cues so that you minimize or avoid appearance-framed messages. If a participant is satisfied with her current body size, those messages may not be motivating, and she may feel she doesn’t need to exercise.

An instructor who discusses appearance-related issues in class is potentially alienating participants. In fact, it’s possible that the idea of losing weight could make a black woman feel bad about herself, as a thinner body size or shape may not jibe with her cultural ideals. Being “curvy” could be a valued cultural asset for her, and she might be concerned about “losing her curves” if she exercises.

Cultural perspectives suggest that lower levels of body dissatisfaction may be related to decreased motivation and less perceived need for weight loss, resulting in a lower likelihood that a person will exercise. Given that different cultures have different body shape ideals, one’s culture, and the degree to which one subscribes to it, may influence body dissatisfaction and, consequently, the motivation to exercise.

Among women in general, exercise is often used primarily as a way to achieve a body ideal, to fit into “pretty” clothes or to fall within an acceptable body size range, not as a preventive health measure. Much of this mindset is gained from popular media, where the health benefits of exercise are not highlighted. Rather, exercise is seen as a means to achieve a certain appearance—for example, to reduce that “spare tire” or to look like a celebrity. Such emphasis on exercise for appearance devalues other physical (strong cardiovascular system), mental (better focus) and emotional (improved mood) benefits.

This emphasis may also be demotivating, not because the participant feels bad about herself, but because she likes the way she looks, thus reducing her motivation to move. If someone is supposed to exercise to look a certain way, but she already looks that way or does not want to look that way, then exercise may seem to be unnecessary. Importantly, cultural norms influence views not only on body ideals but also on acceptable ranges of body sizes—“acceptable” in a social sense, in this case, not a medical sense. Of the black women in the Hawkins, Tuff & Dudley (2006) study, 90% were satisfied with their appearance, despite half of them being designated as overweight or obese based on BMI.

With the proliferation of appearance-­related messages in popular and social media, instructors may want to counteract these messages with health-related information to educate participants. Pankratow, Berry and McHugh (2013) found that female undergraduate students were influenced by the types of messages they received. That is, those who read health messages as part of the study were more likely to want to exercise for health-related reasons than those who read appearance-related information.

Motivating With Cultural Awareness

Participants trust and listen to you as an expert, which gives you an important platform from which to give and receive messages. A lack of cultural awareness may result in inadvertent miscues. Focusing on losing weight to “look good” may actually insult a person who comes from a culture that values a larger body size. Instead, the message should be about exercising for health rather than appearance. Although this is true across all demographics, understanding the factors that drive motivation across cultures can help instructors be more effective. As a public health measure, efforts to address obesity must incorporate sensitivity to and awareness of cultural body ideal preferences in order to promote exercise as a prophylactic to conditions related to being overfat.

For instance, based on evidence from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a waist size greater than 35 inches in women has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Focusing on weight loss for appearance for a woman of this size, particularly a black woman, may be construed as insensitive. The best public health approach is to stress exercise (and weight loss, if necessary) for preventive health and health maintenance reasons, rather than strictly for the purpose of pursuing a body ideal.

The message is clear: Exercise motives that are based strictly on appearance or weight loss may negatively affect a person’s body image (Vartanian, Wharton & Green 2012). Although many people want to look “attractive,” how that term is defined differs across cultures. Fitness instructors have a direct impact on helping people live healthy lives. Let your teaching focus be positive and health-oriented.

Focus on Health, Not Appearance

Being “curvy” may be a valued cultural asset for her, and she might be concerned about “losing her curves” if she exercises.

Be more inclusive in your classes with the following tips:

  • Avoid using appearance-related cues such as “get flat abs,” “reduce your spare tire,” “get rid of your batwings” or “have a tight booty.” These may be a turnoff to someone who sees no problem in having extra weight around the middle or on the backside.
  • Teach the health benefits of all forms of exercise, including cardio, strength and flexibility. Keep the focus on health rather than on losing weight, and use functional fitness examples when possible. For instance, explain how resistance training helps us carry our groceries or children or how staying flexible aids in our ability to get in and out of a car, especially as we age.
  • When appropriate, disseminate information about the health risks of being overfat, such as the higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome or other diseases related to obesity (e.g., type 2 diabetes, hypertension). This is an important public health message, as these diseases can affect everyone. Unless you are a trained health professional, be sure to have handy a few research-based resources or reliable websites (e.g., those of the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that you can provide to interested persons.
  • Be sensitive to the values of different cultures in terms of body shape. Not everyone wants to look a certain way.
  • Teach with the understanding that thin does not necessarily mean healthy and that fat does not necessarily mean unhealthy. Cardiovascular health goes a long way.


Benjamin, E.J., et al. 2017. Heart disease and stroke statistics: 2017 update. Circulation, 135 (10), e146–e603.

Blackstone, S.R., et al. 2017. A qualitative inquiry of motivations to participate in group exercise among women. American Journal of Health Studies, 32, 78–89.

Chithambo, T.P., & Huey, S.J. 2013. Black/white differences in perceived weight and attractiveness among overweight women. Journal of Obesity, 2013 (320326). doi:10.1155/2013/32036.

Clarke, T.C., Schiller, M.P.H., and Norris T. 2017. Early release of selected estimates based on data from the ­January–June 2017 National Health Interview Survey. Accessed Apr. 27, 2018: 201712.pdf.

Hawkins, B., Tuff, R.A., & Dudley, G. 2006. African American women, body composition, and physical activity. Journal of African American Studies, 10 (1), 44–56.

Hawkins, B. 2007. African American women and obesity: From explanations to prevention. Journal of African American Studies, 11, 79–93.

Molloy, B.L., & Herzberger, S.D. 1998. Body image and self-esteem: A comparison of African-American and Caucasian women. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 38 (718), 1–11.

NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). n.d. Classification of overweight and obesity by BMI, waist circumference, and associated disease risks. Accessed July 8, 2018:

Ogden, C.L., et al. 2014. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011–2012. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 311 (8), 806–14.

Ogden, C.L, et al. 2015. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2011–2014. NCHS Data Brief No. 219. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Pankratow, M., Berry, T.R., & McHugh, T-L.F. 2013. Effects of reading health and appearance exercise magazine articles on perceptions of attractiveness and reasons for exercise. PLOS One, 8 (4), e61894.

Vartanian, L.R., Wharton, C.M., & Green, E.B. 2012. Appearance vs. health motives for exercise and for weight loss. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13 (3), 251–56.

Meet our experts

Author_Buck_bw SARAH BUCK, PHD, , is an associate professor in the Department of Secondary Education, Professional Studies and Recreation at Chicago State University and an AFAA-certified instructor.

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