25 Fitness Truths I’ve Learned After Teaching for 25 Years
The advent of 2021 marks my 25th year teaching and working in fitness. I’m not really sure how that’s even possible since, in my head, I’m only 25.
But alas, it’s true. It was 1996 when I embarked on my teaching career as a step aerobics instructor when I was just finishing up high school and starting college. I was a mere 18 years old and always the youngest in the room and on staff. I was young and hungry and just wanted to move and learn. Over the years I would teach everything from step to hi/lo aerobics, PiYo, Pilates mat, outdoor bootcamps, indoor bootcamps, strength classes, cycle classes, yoga classes, TRX classes, and hybrids of all of the things. I’ve created my own formats. I’ve worked for big gyms, universities, small studios, boutique studios, events, big brands, tech companies, myself, and everything in between.
Now at 43, I’m always one of the oldest in the (virtual) room or on staff. But I’m still hungry and still only want to move. The old adage about age and wisdom is actually true. That wisdom comes from many years of many mistakes and so much learning the hard way. But if you’re lucky enough to endure and pay attention along the way, at some point you get to be the wise one in the room who has some advice to pass down.
Hi, it me.
To mark my 25th year in the field, here are 25 fitness truths that I’ve learned. While most of these are things I’ve learned teaching in front of the class, I’ve also been an avid participant for just as many years. A lot of these lessons will hold true whether you are the teacher or the participant. And some are just generally good principles that can apply outside of the fitness industry as well. Here they are in no particular order.
1. It’s bigger than fitness.
It’s bigger than “transforming” bodies. (Transforming in quotes because while it’s a widely used industry term, you are not a Transformer; your body doesn’t need transforming). It’s bigger than the number of followers, features, or dollars you have. These are people’s lives and health that we are working with. Our role often influences the health of society, the strength of a community, and even the longevity of generations. It’s SO much bigger than “just” fitness.
2. Take care of your body.
If you’re in this industry, it’s part of your job. If you inhabit a body, it’s also kind of your job. That means moving your body, eating well, getting the proper sleep, focusing on recovery, taking care of your mental health, taking rest days and time off, and everything else that contributes to your health. (Of course, look at all these behaviors as an overall, big-picture goal, rather than having to achieve perfection in each aspect all day everyday.)
3. Safety first, safety first, safety first.
When I step into a room, I am always safety first, form second, fun factor last. Going over-the-top fun without the basis of safety first is a recipe for disaster that I have seen play out in some horrible ways. Running all over the room and jumping on the back of treadmills to hype up the class may seem fun, but it can be extremely dangerous to both trainer and client. An example of not keeping it safe can also be cracking jokes to be funny that may be hurtful to someone in the class. As a client, you should always feel safe physically and emotionally in a class or session.
4. Know your lane.
You can swerve all over that lane, but don’t jump into another one when you don’t have the expertise without educating yourself first. For example, if you are not a registered dietitian, be mindful of what nutrition advice you are and aren’t qualified to give. Have a qualified professional ready to refer to when your clients ask. On that note, if you, as the client, have a question about eating or nutrition, ask your trainer for their recommendations for someone they trust that you can contact.
5. Be aware that the industry has been built around ableism.
Assumptions about what it means to be “healthy,” that any and all issues can be solved by eating “better” or working out more, and that you can tell what is happening in someone’s body or mind just by looking at them are just the tip of the iceberg. Stay aware and make an effort to be inclusive as much as you can. The whole industry is geared toward able-bodied people with set “ideals” that are not inclusive. We all need to do better with this.
6. There are more benefits to fitness and movement than any potential changes in appearance.
The fitness industry is set up to focus on aesthetics over everything. Don’t get caught in the trap. Aesthetics do not necessarily equate to mental or physical health outcomes. Chronic disease prevention and longer lifespan are also kind of cool in my opinion.
People’s health, wellness, and well-being are our jobs; you cannot disassociate wanting to help people live healthier lives from the reality of their life in the body they inhabit
8. If you start to feel robotic, chances are you are coming off as robotic.
Something needs to change. That might mean even taking a little time off to refresh yourself. It’s best to get to the root of this feeling sooner rather than later. For me this generally means changing up when I teach or what type of class I teach to break the monotony. If changing those isn’t possible, I might change up the structure of the class or pick all of my favorite songs for a playlist.
9. As a fitness professional, it’s not about you—it’s about them.
It’s not your workout; it’s theirs. Show up with your own exercise either done or completely out of your mind until you are finished teaching or training. If you’re a participant, take note whether your teacher seems more concerned with getting in their own workout during class rather than how you or the rest of the class is responding to the programming.
It can transform your class, the session, or someone’s experience, so put some (if not a lot of) effort into your selection. Also remember that if the playlist gives YOU energy, that will most likely transfer to your students.
11. Keep honing your craft.
This should go beyond your continuing education requirements. I like to learn about how different modalities approach movement, and I also like to learn about the bigger picture of society and movement. So while I may be required to take a certain number of units for continuing education for a certification I have, I will also hop into lectures or listen to podcasts purely out of curiosity. I never want to lose that intellectual or physical curiosity.
12. Take other people’s classes or train with other trainers.
You will learn SO much about teaching, cues, things you like and don’t like. This also goes for training in modalities outside of what you teach. This is where I have learned the most. If you are a strength and conditioning coach, I guarantee you that if you take a yoga or Pilates class, you will learn some really great cues for how to do some of the movements you coach. You might also see patterns of movement in other people in class that can inform your own coaching. In non-COVID times, I take classes of all kinds because I want to see the difference in coaching even the most basic movements such as squats, lunges, planks, etc. There are gems hidden all over the place about how to do what you do better.
13. Look beyond the trends.
From fashion to equipment to styles of classes to technology to the most popular trainer of the moment, trends are inevitable. Keep your eye on them, participate in them if they resonate with you, but understand that if you rely on one trend only, it might not last. Same goes if you are an avid fitness participant instead of a trainer. Of course try new things if they interest you, but also do some research, ask around, and use your best judgment about whatever latest and greatest thing pops up. And if you like something, stick with it—you don’t need to switch up your workouts just because new modalities keep popping up.
14. Injuries are inevitable.
How you handle them will determine how long you will be down, how likely they are to reoccur, and how you will be able to move in the long run. Also, whether you intend it or not, how you handle your own injuries will model to your students how they should handle theirs. If you try to power through or go against doctor’s orders, that may show them that it’s okay for them to do so as well. Stay mindful.
15. Remain coachable and teachable.
This cannot be said enough, no matter what industry you’re in. There’s always more to learn, ways to grow, things to work on. If you ever get to a point where you feel like you know everything, you made a wrong turn somewhere. Step back, reassess. Find the path of growth, seek feedback, go learn something totally brand new, become a beginner again. Not only will it serve you as a human, as a coach, and as a professional, but it will also serve your clients. Your desire to be coached will show them theirs as well.
16. Expect consistent industry evolution.
Much as 2020 taught us, it’s all about the pivot. Pivoting is SO crucial. Stay on your toes and as many steps ahead as possible.
17. Understand that your words matter and should be chosen wisely.
What you say to people will likely stick. Make sure that the words you speak are the ones you would want to stick. This goes for everything from disparaging comments about your own body or what you ate to talking about getting a certain body type to guilt-laden, shame-inducing comments in any form. We are here to build people up, not break them down.
18. Don’t ever assume you know what’s happening with people.
You don’t know what’s going on in people’s bodies, minds, or life. Refrain from publicly commenting on any of these things without permission. Or maybe at all.
19. Show up ready.
Always put effort into the preparation of your class or session. It’s okay to have notes. I would always rather see a trainer or teacher show up prepared with notes than show up and just wing it.
Not everything you see is exactly how it seems on a feed. Likes do not equate to efficacy, followers do not inherently imply qualifications, trending posts are not necessarily demonstrating the best moves, fans do not necessarily convert to customers, and those with great wisdom don’t always know how to articulate it in a TikTok. Social serves its purpose, especially during a pandemic, but the “real” part of IRL still has no complete replacement.
21. Focus on the fundamentals. Forever.
This is as much about the fundamentals of training as it is about the fundamentals of teaching. Thanks to social media, extreme moves (like a backflip off the wall into burpees over a box ending in one-arm push-ups off a cliff) get a lot of views, but they aren’t necessarily going to help someone learn how to move their body well throughout all phases of life. Same goes for knowing how to program, cue, and create a safe space for your clients. Whether you’re the person teaching or the person learning, make sure you are checking back in with the basics from time to time. Never underestimate the importance of knowing how to properly squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, plank, and communicate.
22. Protect your intellectual property.
This can include your brand name, branded classes, formats, or any products that you create, etc. Be really cautious with the contracts you sign and the innovations you create.
Prep your body for what it’s about to do. Prep your class for what it’s about to do.
24. Never forget your own love of movement.
Always come back to that love. Always.
25. The human body is a GD miracle.
Don’t ever take that for granted, and don’t ever stop celebrating that.
This is an ever-evolving industry with ever-changing rules and norms, but over decades of changes and trends, the above have helped me navigate it all. These fitness truths have also helped me navigate many other parts of my life, which, as we know, is kind of the beauty of movement. It goes beyond just a workout; it has the potential to be the backbone of all that we do.
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