Stories of fitness pros who successfully strategized career changes—and how you can do the same.
Maybe you find that after carefully mapping out your career path, you actually want to travel in a different direction. Maybe you discover that a career milestone you thought would take years to achieve is now within your grasp. Or maybe you are still blissfully happy in your job but find that outside forces dictate a change.
As the old saying goes, “There is nothing constant but change itself.” Sometimes you find change; sometimes it finds you. While shifting careers within the fitness industry can be extremely exciting, it can also be challenging. Discover how other fitness pros have directed their career changes, and learn how you can best make your own changes when you’re ready or when life throws you a curve.
Earning a Doctorate Degree
At the time her marriage dissolved, Wendy Williamson, PhD, ACE-CES, ACE- and NASM-CPT, was working as a personal trainer and as an adjunct faculty member at a university in Wichita, Kansas. She had long dreamed of going back to school for her doctoral degree and decided to go for it after the divorce. She recently completed her doctorate in philosophy, health and human performance: exercise science at Oklahoma State University.
What Motivated the Change? “I knew that I would never be able to teach at the university level full-time without a PhD,” explains Williamson. “I wanted to improve my knowledge and skill sets and see if I could succeed.”
Challenges. Her degree program took 41/2 years, during which she continued to work full-time. While attending classes at Oklahoma State University, Williamson encountered several challenges. “I commuted 2 hours each way at least once a week for several years,” she says. “I would leave work at noon after training since 5:30 am and arrive home about 11:30 pm. The chair of my PhD committee changed three times during my school tenure, due to retirement and resignations. Emotionally, I learned not to react but to problem-solve.”
Support/Resources That Helped Her. Williamson credits her flexible work schedule as key to completing her doctorate. “Also, having clients who were supportive was wonderful,” she says.
Effect on Personal Life. Her personal life was basically put on hold during her doctoral course work. “Every available minute that I was not working seemed to be spent studying or working on papers, projects, research, etc.,” she says. “I tried to focus on the task at hand and pace myself. I did not skip exercise but often neglected sleep.”
Joys of Working Toward Her Doctorate. Williamson wrote her thesis on how supervised and directed forms of exercise affect low-back pain and functional activity. “There was a great deal of satisfaction to ‘getting into the books’ and getting credit for the work,” she says. “Another joy was sharing my knowledge with the respective faculty of my discipline who were not aware of the opportunities that are available to fitness professionals.”
Tips for Other Fitness Pros. What advice does Williamson have for anyone who wants to pursue an advanced degree? “Be focused [and] serious, plan for the financial impact, pace yourself but don’t take any semesters off, if at all possible. Know that relationships take a beating, and there must be commitments from everyone involved [in order to] survive.”
Impact on Career Satisfaction. She now runs Williamson Fitness Consulting and serves as a senior personal trainer/post-rehabilitation specialist at Genesis Health Clubs in Wichita. And the future looks bright: “The degree will advance my career options and allow me to apply my academic accomplishments,” she says. “The opportunities, though fewer, are tremendous. Few fitness professionals in the ‘active’ career phase have [this] advanced degree.”
Going From Part-Time to Full-Time Personal Trainer
When John Goldsmith attended the IDEA Personal Trainer Institute™ in October 2007, he was working as a residential real estate appraiser and training clients part-time at a gym. Little did he know how this conference would impact his life. Since that pivotal week, he has started his own personal training business—On Fire Fitness Inc., in Miramar, Florida—and now trains clients in their homes.
What Motivated the Change? “A business class taught by Bob Esquerre and a boot camp class led by Todd Durkin at the IDEA conference really inspired me,” says Goldsmith.
Challenges. The biggest challenge for Goldsmith has been promoting his business. “Some days have been rough,” he says. “I invested money in advertising (for magnetic car signs, T-shirts and online ads) and saw no immediate response, but I kept believing that the fitness field was my calling. My current clients have spread the word about me by sharing their experiences, and their referrals have brought me the most business.”
Support/Resources That Helped Him. To start his business he used credit cards, a small loan and some funds from his bank account. “I wish I had known then not to run up credit cards as the primary source of income for my business start-up,” he says. “I now know that a better alternative would have been to get a small-business loan or a home equity line of credit, or to refinance.”
Effect on Personal Life. Starting his own business means that Goldsmith has less of a social life these days. “For example, now I don’t stay out as late on Friday nights so I can be refreshed for running my Saturday morning boot camps. I also confirm [appointments] with my clients during the week and make wake-up calls Saturday morning.”
Joys of Working on His New Business. Goldsmith is excited that he no longer has to “change so many hats” during the day. “I loved creating my company website,” he says. “Would-be clients trust a business with a website more than just a name and number on a card.”
Tips for Other Fitness Pros. Want to start your own personal training business? “Stay determined and focused, and persevere through tough times,” Goldsmith advises.
Impact on Career Satisfaction. While he liked doing real estate appraisals, it doesn’t compare to working full-time in the industry. “I’m now in trainer mode all day, and I love it,” Goldsmith says.
Going From Fitness Director to Studio Owner
Donna Baia started her fitness career at the Lakeland Hills Family YMCA in New Jersey as a personal trainer and was later promoted to fitness director. Although she enjoyed that position for many years, she always wanted to open a small business. Today she has achieved that goal and is president of Fitness 4 Fun LLC, a personal training studio in Pompton Plains, New Jersey.
What Motivated the Change? Baia has joint custody of her daughter and wanted more control of her work hours. “Having a teenage daughter also motivated me to follow my dream, because I could spend more time with her and stay close to her school,” she says. “I wanted the flexibility to attend to family matters at a moment’s notice without the frustration of [answering to] a higher authority.”
Challenges. One of Baia’s biggest challenges was finding start-up financing. “I also had to get permits and find out what was required to construct the business,” she says. “I had to attend a town council planning board meeting and represent myself. Working closely with contractors, negotiating pricing with contractors and learning how to spend my money wisely were other challenges.”
Support/Resources That Helped Her. Baia says she wouldn’t have been able to handle those challenges without the support of close friends and family members. She also worked with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and secured an SBA-backed loan.
Effect on Personal Life. On the days Baia’s daughter is not living with her, she works about 14 hours a day. “I am the janitor, maintenance crew, president, personal trainer and decision maker,” she notes.
Joys of Creating Her Own Business. Baia loves getting back to where she discovered her passion for fitness—personal training. “When I was the fitness director, I spent so much time with budgets, meetings, scheduling, employees, member concerns and compliments,” she says. “Now I’m able to apply the management skills I learned and practiced as a director. I can also give personal attention to my customers.”
Tips for Other Fitness Pros. Develop a business plan, Baia advises. “Take the time to prepare and ‘run the numbers’ to see if they will work for you. Hire an experienced accountant! Become a better business person, pick a good location and know your competition.”
Impact on Career Satisfaction. Ask Baia how she likes running her own business and she says, “I just love the spirit we are creating at Fitness 4 Fun.”
Starting Your Own Training Studio
After being a successful fitness pro in the 1980s, Nancy L. Jerominski was fired from her job because of out-of-control drinking and drug use. After getting and staying sober (for going on 10 years now), she asked her previous employer for a second chance. When she was reinstated, she felt grateful and had every intention of staying. However, she left that job to become a traveling trainer and now operates a training business out of her home and converted garage. Jerominski, an IDEA Elite Personal Trainer, an ACE-certified personal trainer and a C.H.E.K. Institute lifestyle and exercise coach, is the owner of NLJ Fitness & Wellness Consulting in SeaTac, Washington.
What Motivated the Change? Although Jerominski liked her old job, she was dismayed when some staff claimed certifications they didn’t have. “After sending letters to the managers and owners asking them to address the situation and not having it happen, I felt like I had no choice but to inform [the certification company],” she explains. After this, she found her work environment increasingly stressful, and several months later, she terminated her training agreement.
Challenges. Because Jerominski suddenly left the gym where she’d been working, her challenge was finding new clients. “However, when I ultimately stopped traveling [to train people in their homes], a decent base of clients was willing to come to my home studio,” she says.
Support/Resources That Helped Her. Jerominski used her personal credit cards judiciously to buy new equipment for her home studio, but she hasn’t had to take out a huge business loan. She also credits the managers at her last job for their initial support. “Were it not for their willingness to let me redeem myself, the journey back to coaching and training would have been considerably more difficult.”
Effect on Personal Life. The impact of moving her business to a home studio has been positive. “I’m home with my dogs more, I don’t spend money on gas, and I can actually manage running the house in-between clients,” she says. “I ask potential clients how they feel about dogs, but I’ve yet to have someone not be totally enchanted with our two rat terriers.”
Joys of Creating a Home Studio. Working out of her home and watching her training space evolve is very rewarding to Jerominski. “The only one responsible for where I go now is me,” she says. “I find I prefer to live my life this way; it keeps me sharp.”
Tips for Other Fitness Pros. For fitness pros thinking about opening a home studio, Jerominski advises checking with your family/significant other. “My domestic partner and I agreed on some ground rules so she would feel comfortable while I conduct my business in our home,” she explains.
Impact on Career Satisfaction. “When I started training in 2003, I charged $25 an hour,” she says. “In just a few years, my rates have more than tripled, and my horizons are limitless. Every one of my clients teaches me to become a better person.”
Going From Full-Time to Part-Time
From 2000 to mid 2004, certified fitness trainer Gretchen M. Ashton owned a studio called The Fitness Coach in Carlsbad, California. She loved her studio, her clients and the top-notch team she had assembled. Although Ashton hoped to run the studio for several years, that’s not what happened. She now works in a fitness center part-time and is exploring entrepreneurial opportunities.
What Motivated the Change? When the property owner sold the building that housed the studio to the nearby grocery store, Ashton could not relocate her business within the same shopping center. “Other space in my area was hard to find and expensive,” she says.
As it turned out, not having the responsibility of the storefront for the next couple of years was a good thing. “During this time, I experienced and supported my immediate family members through the death of a spouse, cancer, surgery due to orthopedic complications from arthritis, the birth of a grandchild and my son being injured in military combat,” Ashton explains.
Challenges. Upon closing the studio, she moved The Fitness Coach into two different facilities to accommodate her clients. Although her clients did follow her, factors such as higher fees and different membership requirements ultimately made the situation less than ideal. Ashton now works at a large facility, and some longtime clients still train with her. “After 2 years of trying to make inroads at this facility, I am disappointed to learn that it lacks many industry standards and ethics,” she says. “I have gradually cut my hours from 30 to 10 or less and have begun to train clients in their homes.”
Support/Resources That Helped Her. Ashton credits her husband for providing incredible support. “Also, keeping my credentials up-to-date has been the best resource for maintaining my identity and self-worth in the industry,” she says.
Effect on Personal Life. Going part-time had a significant impact on Ashton’s financial contribution to her family. However, “the potential income for an in-home personal trainer is much greater than other jobs,” she says. “I’m grateful that when the family events occurred, I had this career to rely on.”
Joys of Working Part-Time. A flexible schedule has allowed Ashton to spend quality time with her loved ones. “Family has always been my first priority,” she says. “To be able to work at something I love and still be there for my family is ideal.”
Tips for Other Fitness Pros. What advice does Ashton have for trainers who go part-time for family reasons? “Maintain your certifications and gain as much knowledge and experience as possible through continuing education and practical application,” she urges. “Go to fitness events and keep [learning from] others in the industry.”
Impact on Career Satisfaction. Ashton says that, career-wise, owning her own studio was highly satisfying. “However, even the good things in life have their price,” she explains. “As the owner, I worked about 60 hours a week.” And she feels she is settling well into her new arrangement: “I’ve come to realize that in my area, with my current options, I’m happier and more equipped to manage my family’s needs when working privately with clients [than I am when working a lot of hours at a gym]. I’ve developed a blossoming writing career and plan to bring fitness to life in the scuba diving community.”
SIDEBAR: Tips for Creating Change
Do you want to make changes in your fitness career? Kate Larsen, PCC, executive coach of Winning LifeStyles Inc., in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and author of Progress Not Perfection (Expert Publishing Inc. 2007) offers these suggestions:
Before You Change. How do you know if you are ready to make a change in your career? Ask yourself these questions:
- What else have I seen that looks interesting, would enhance my current experience and is something I could do?
- What are the financial implications of my change? What do I need to monitor, save, raise and budget for to make this change?
- What about this decision might I regret? What would lead to the least amount of regret?
- What is the best thing that could happen if I stayed with what I’m doing? What is the best thing that could happen if I made the change?
Lessening Downsides to Change. Have you decided that you want to make a change? These strategies may alleviate any potential negatives you may encounter.
- Make a step-by-step plan. You may want to hire a business coach to help you articulate your vision and hold you accountable.
- Align yourself with others who are also eager to try something new. They don’t have to be in the fitness industry. Attend networking lunches. Contact other people you know who have taken a risk in their careers. List 3–4 questions, and ask if you can interview them over a cup of coffee.
- Keep your dream alive with something tangible to re-energize you. Suggestions include a picture, a logo posted where you can see it or a photo collage of possibilities.
- Practice healthy habits, such as smart eating, exercise and sleep. It’s easy to go on overdrive and burn out when you are trying to make something happen.
- Be realistic, and manage your expectations.
SIDEBAR: When You Need to Move
Sometimes you make changes in your career because your significant other wants to change. This is often the case when one partner is offered a new job in another town and the family has to relocate. For example, Teri Bladen, MS, ACSM-certified health/fitness instructor and ACE-certified personal trainer, has lived in four cities in the past 10 years. Her husband, who works in higher-education administration, has been offered great job opportunities that meant moving every few years. Here’s how Bladen navigates the ups and downs of changing and relocating.
Biggest Challenges. Starting over in each new area is a challenge. “To get a head start, I let my colleagues know when I’m on the move and ask if they have any contacts in the new area,” Bladen says. “In one case, an equipment vendor gave me a contact at a university that led to a job interview. I also check a list of employment websites on a regular basis, including local university and community colleges, corporate wellness sites and the fitness industry. While finding management positions might be a challenge, I’ve never had trouble finding employment in general. When I move, I look for instructor positions. I love to teach and want to get to know the local community and discover what other opportunities might exist.”
Joys of Moving. Although starting all over can be a challenge, Bladen has found it invigorating as well. “Moving to a new place has given me the opportunity to continue to evaluate what I love about our industry and what direction I may want to go in next,” she says. “I’ve broadened my experiences greatly, getting to do fitness programming at four different large universities, working in corporate fitness and teaching academically. I love that we’ve lived in many beautiful places: south-central Indiana, Colorado, Arizona and now gorgeous Mountain Green, Utah. It’s a privilege to experience so many interesting environments.”
Tips for Fitness Pros Who Need to Move. Bladen’s advice? “Stay current with trends, knowledge and skill sets. Research new areas of interest to see if they’re something you want to pursue. See what insights colleagues can share. Keep an open mind . . . what new ways can you use your skill set that will bring you joy and income?”
April Durrett, an IDEA contributing editor, is an award-winning health, fitness and lifestyle writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.