After more than 15 years of working in the fitness industry, I recently walked away from teaching indoor cycling classes. Leaving the fitness industry was one of the most difficult, heart-wrenching, and stressful experiences I’ve had. But it was also one of my biggest acts of self-care. The lessons from my experience are lessons from which any woman can benefit.
Fitness instructors have a reputation of being energetic, happy, and always “on.” At times, that’s been a struggle for me to live up to. I’ve pasted a smile on my face and taught while battling debilitating depression and anxiety as well as some severe body-image demons. I’ve worked for gyms that would fire you if you had to cancel a class because you were sick. That sends the message that an instructor isn’t a real human who occasionally requires self-care, but rather a robot whose sole purpose is to perform for others. I’ll never forget the time I showed up for a yoga class at a local gym, and the teacher was so ill she had to rest on her mat in the corner. Another student “taught” the class — all so the instructor wouldn’t get fired for having to cancel.
There are also expected physical attributes of an instructor’s physique, namely weight. For the last few years, I’ve been a larger-than-average fitness instructor. And at points in my fitness career, I’ve been a size zero, thanks to a very restrictive diet. My body has not always met the ideal standard of someone who, for a living, tells others how to exercise properly. This has been hard on me mentally and emotionally. I pushed through feelings of inadequacy while trying to convince myself I was changing the landscape of what fitness instructors can look like.
Obviously, a fitness instructor has to be able to perform up to a certain standard physically. We train and test to achieve certifications and are required to participate in continuing education regularly to maintain those certifications. (At least that’s the case for reputable fitness establishments!) And that is for good reason. It’s up to us to model perfect form and safety.
But it’s also a fact that as we age and our bodies change, perfection may not be realistic. I went through years of physical pain to just walk before I went under the knife twice in one year to fuse my subtalar joints in each foot. I continued to teach full classes. My knees are arthritic, and I have spondylolisthesis in my lower back. And yet I can still teach killer sweat fests if I’m allowed to modify what works for my body and not perform to some corporate standard made up to go along with a branding scheme. I’m carrying around 30+ extra pounds, and I can still motivate a room full of indoor cyclists like nobodies business. My body is the norm for 40+-year-old women — but not necessarily the women in spandex leading your gym classes.
Comparisons Really are the Thief of Joy
However, because I felt I fell short when comparing myself to other instructors, stepping on stage to teach often felt fraudulent. For years, I ignored those feelings because I truly loved what I did. When the music kicked in, all the doubts faded away as I got to sweat, motivate, and teach in gyms across Northern Colorado. And my students often told me it was refreshing to have an instructor who looked more like them.
But as my body changed and my priorities shifted, so did my feelings about teaching in the fitness industry. Instead of feeling more confident as time went on, I felt less. With the onslaught of perfectly arranged social media posts from fitness establishments and “fitspo” coaches, I doubled down on my unhealthy comparisons to them.
Leaving the Fitness Industry
The thought crossed my mind that remaining an instructor may not be in the best interest of my mental health. It was even scarier to think about leaving the fitness industry, since it had become ingrained in my identity. But I was losing myself and pushing through for all the wrong reasons. I was letting my fear of what I would be if I wasn’t an instructor override what I knew in my heart. I needed to walk away and re-focus on accepting myself without the pressures of performing, striving to alter my body, or acting in inauthentic ways.
The good news is that we’re more aware now that thin does not equal fit, and that bodies of all abilities have a place in the fitness world. And thank goodness for that. Since leaving the fitness industry, I don’t feel the same pressure. My joy has returned. The lessons I learned as I walked away from teaching are lessons from which any woman grappling with body and exercise issues can benefit.
Lessons to live by:
- Find YOUR right place. Most cities are teeming with yoga or cycling studios, full-service gyms, CrossFit boxes, swim teams, martial arts classes …. the list goes on and on. It might take some trial-and-error, but it’s crucial to find what sparks a bit of joy in you while you’re in there. You should not pay to drag yourself to a place you hate or feel you “should” go to. Stop “should-ing” yourself.
- Find your people. Once you’ve figured out a modality or two that makes you feel good, it’ll take some more trial-and-error to find the instructors and fellow class-goers with whom you click. You should feel rejuvenated and inspired in your classes, not separate from or left questioning your worth. And for god’s sake, if you hear an instructor try to pump you up by telling you to work harder to earn your dessert, walk the fuck out the door. You earn your food because you are a human who needs fuel, end of story.
- It’s okay if people aren’t your thing. I love the group energy of the cycling classes I take now. But I also love putting on my headphones, blasting Mumford & Sons, and lifting weights by myself at the gym down my street. There are lots of solo exercise options, too. Sometimes the solitude is a necessary respite from our busy and people-filled lives.
- Scrub your social media. This was huge for me. I used to follow lots of trainers and fitness “influencers.” I told myself it was because I wanted fresh ideas for my workouts. But that was bullshit. I was still looking for the silver bullet that would magically make me look the way I thought I should look. All it was really doing was making me feel less-than, and I don’t have time for that anymore.
- Let go of the concept of loving your body. Sounds weird, right? But I found that working toward body acceptance was an easier concept for me than loving it. There are days when I think I look okay, but most days, I do not. And that’s just the truth of the matter. But can I accept that I am how I am? Absolutely. I can be grateful for the things my body can do. I find this makes it easier to take care of my body in healthy ways. In time, may just lead to that elusive body-love after all.
- Honor your boundaries by learning to hear your body. I spent years eating and exercising in certain ways because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. My body was talking to me this whole time, telling me what didn’t feel good, but I wasn’t listening. Now I take care of myself by modifying things that hurt or sometimes just doing my own thing in a class because it’s what I want to do! Taking care of myself MY WAY allows me to feel more confident. Listen to your body – she is wise.
Even though I may not be on stage with a microphone anymore, I’ll still be in the rooms sweating away with my fellow ladies, building my self-worth while I build connections, and striving to change the story around what it means to be fit and fabulous.
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“And for god’s sake, if you hear an instructor try to pump you up by telling you to work harder to earn your dessert, walk the fuck out the door.” YES TO THIS! Thank you for sharing your story. Our fitness industry truly needs an overhaul. Fitness is not about looking a certain way or punishing our bodies, it’s about compassion, resilience, energy, and fun.