Select Page


Follow these steps to enhance the class experience using the power of emotion.

We’ve all been there: You’re teaching a well-designed class with a killer playlist, and your expectation is that everyone is going to be as excited to take your class as you are to be teaching it. But something’s missing—there’s a vague disconnection that you can’t quite pinpoint. Everyone is moving (it’s not your choreography or timing), but you’re falling short of creating a collective “zone.” In the art of teaching a fitness class, use of emotion can be instrumental to motivating participants and crafting an amazing experience. But while you may want people to “be happy” whenever they’re in class, especially in group exercise, feeling happy may not be the best way for them to achieve their goals. Here’s how you can leverage emotions effectively to offer the ultimate growth environment.

Harnessing Emotion for Motion

Research has found that when it comes to where individuals place their attention and focus, what matters most is motivational intensity—the extent to which someone feels compelled to move toward or away from something. Eddie Harmon-Jones, PhD, a professor at The University of New South Wales, Sydney, compares differences in motivational intensity to the contrast between seeing the whole forest (broad cognitive scope) and seeing the individual trees (narrow cognitive scope). For example, a lower-intensity emotion, such as gratitude, results in a broader cognitive scope, whereas a higher-intensity emotion, such as excitement, leads to a narrower cognitive scope (Harmon-Jones, Price & Gable 2013).

BROAD COGNITIVE SCOPE: If the class goal is for patrons to be aware of their surroundings, see the big picture, and leave feeling that they can creatively tackle their work for the day, eliciting low-level motivational intensity may be advantageous. Positive “low” motivational intensity emotions include relaxation, contentment, satisfaction and some forms of happiness, according to Harmon-Jones.

NARROW COGNITIVE SCOPE: On the other hand, if you want participants to focus on a given muscle group or movement or dig deep to perform at their peak, a higher level of motivational intensity may be best. Harmon-Jones says positive “high” motivational intensity emotions include desire, determination, interest or excitement.

How do you facilitate emotions in participants to create the type of class experience you’re aiming for? To effectively utilize emotions in your instruction, follow this three-step process:

  1. Decide where you want participants to focus their attention.
  2. Choose the method for facilitating the emotion.
  3. Modify emotional strategies throughout the class.

Where to Focus Attention

The question to ask yourself is: Do I want participants to have a broader or narrower scope of attention? The answer depends on a few factors, such as class format (yoga, indoor cycling, etc.); class segment (warmup, main activity, etc.); and purpose (e.g., hitting a one-repetition maximum or experiencing a rejuvenating session). Your task is to choose an appropriate motivational intensity to guide participants in focusing their attention.

For example, in a yoga class, you may want people to begin with a wide scope so they are aware of how their bodies feel on the mat and in relation to the space around them. As they progress through class, you’ll narrow their attention to focus on specific muscle groups or their breathing. At the end of class, you might broaden their scope again by focusing on how they can apply yoga principles to their everyday lives.

For an indoor cycling or interval training session, the broad scope may be more beneficial during times of recovery, whereas the narrow scope could be more helpful during a higher-intensity performance interval. There are many options for altering participants’ cognitive scopes within classes.

Choose a Method

Group exercisers inevitably enter class carrying with them whatever has shaped their day. Although you can’t influence what happened prior to class, there are small actions you can take to potentially elicit certain emotions that will engage your participants in the task at hand. Music, language and tone of voice can all influence emotion.

Music can affect feelings through lyrics, tempo and even instrumentals, explains Haley Perlus, PhD, certified fitness professional and peak performance consultant. The power of sound can be performance-enhancing because music helps individuals associate (tune in) or disassociate (tune out). Perlus feels this quality can be key to crafting the environment you want for your class.

Listen to a few songs on a playlist you have already built to hear how the messages in the music relate directly to your emotions. Really listen to the components of the track. What message is the track trying to convey, and how does a change in instruments or tempo affect you emotionally? Notice that drums or electric guitars may elicit entirely different emotions than violins or a flute. Once you can identify which emotion(s) the track triggers, create categories of tracks and label them with emotions such as “calm” (broad scope, low motivational intensity) or “excitement” (narrow scope, high motivational intensity). When you create a playlist for your class, pick and choose from these music categories to create the ideal emotional environment.

Just as lyrics in music can affect emotion, so can your choice of words and tone of voice. One way to incorporate language is by creating stories around an emotion or even just using a mantra like “stay determined.” It’s not cheating to state the emotion you are trying to elicit, because your words can turn into what participants are thinking about, thus eliciting that emotion. Link these cues and tone of voice to the music to create the strongest impact!

Modify Strategies Throughout Class

Remember that emotions are not “one size fits all.” Something that elicits a specific emotion in one person may have a different effect on another. A track with empowering lyrics and a strong beat that elicits a certain positive emotion in you could be associated with a memory from a troubling period in a participant’s life. Or an event that happened earlier in the day could hinder someone from being in the mindset to experience certain emotions. So it’s crucial to know your participants and be aware of their responses in class.

Luciana Marcial-Vincion, MA, a Spinning® Senior Advisor and Global Master Instructor Team Manager for Mad Dogg Athletics®, agrees that instructors who want to elicit particular emotions need a level of understanding about who their audience is. To develop this, she recommends learning names and welcoming participants to class by shaking hands and maintaining eye contact to build trust in the relationship. Although building rapport takes time, using these strategies can help people feel comfortable and more receptive to certain emotional responses.

Throughout class, adapt emotional cues as you notice what participants are most receptive to. For example, “desire to reach a goal” (e.g., that last rep) and “general excitement” are both emotions that are high in motivational intensity, but individuals may respond to them slightly differently. If you notice that participants are responding more to one than the other, adapt your approach to match.

Being aware of your participants, knowing what is best for them, and adapting your approach throughout class will be the best way to effectively motivate people by using emotions.

Motivational Intensity Influences Results

As you begin to feel more comfortable eliciting emotions, you can play around with the bidirectional relationship between emotions and cognitive scope—meaning that you can not only utilize emotions to direct attention but also direct attention to elicit certain emotions.

For example, Harmon-Jones suggests that focusing narrow attention on one exercise might engender an emotion that could then motivate participants to perform better at another exercise also requiring narrow focus. Likewise, bringing a broader perspective to a certain type of movement could elicit a low-motivation-intensity emotion, such as satisfaction, which could then improve performance of a similar exercise; this could be useful in some forms of yoga.

Emotions are incredibly powerful. The more we are aware of their impact, the more we can influence our participants’ performance—and keep people returning to class.