Instructor, Heal Thyself

by Josie Gardiner on Jun 01, 2003


A veteran instructor and cancer survivor urges a new approach to working with people.

Have you checked your attitude lately? Not the surface attitude that displays a smile, although that is important. I’m talking about how you feel and react to your class participants and clients. Do you cue above their heads because you want a good workout for yourself and the more advanced class members? Do you privately belittle those who have a hard time getting started or maybe carry a few extra stubborn pounds? Do you consider people who don’t exercise lazy? It may be time to reevaluate yourself.

Our industry has done a disservice to the large percentage of the population that is not exercising. I think many people who don’t exercise aren’t necessarily lazy; they simply don’t know what to do. Health clubs, advertisements and many fitness professionals intimidate deconditioned people. We spend so much time developing programs to make the fit fitter, when what we really need are “getting started” programs. How do I know? Because I’ve been there.

A Charmed Life

I’ve been involved in the fitness business for more than 30 years as a ballet dancer, an exercise studio owner, a Reebok master trainer, an IDEA five-star presenter, a personal trainer and the 2002 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. I started teaching exercise classes before the word aerobics became popular. We just called it dance exercise, because the classes were based on dance movements. As the world of aerobics evolved, I did too. To do what I loved and get paid for it seemed like a dream come true. Someone is going to pay me to stay in shape? What a great deal!

Before I knew it, I had hundreds of students and not enough space to accommodate them. My attitude was that I was in total control and could do anything. My job was not only to teach classes but also to build a support system. In 1976 I sought out all the little old ladies in my town who sat for hours drinking coffee and I began an exercise class for seniors. Many of these women are still alive today. I didn’t just care about being the best I could be; I also cared about my students.

Lesson: Find your passion and show people you care; then they will learn to trust you.

Soon I started traveling and presenting all over the world. This was so exciting, even though at times it took a toll on my family life. At one point I was traveling about 50 percent of the time, and my husband said “he did not get married to live by himself.” This was a reality check; I learned I could not say no. Perhaps being asked to present made me feel good about myself and masked my insecurity. I gave my heart and soul to my profession.

Lesson: Nothing matters more in life than family and friends. Give 100 percent when you work, but do not lose sight of what is really important.

A Rude Awakening

In 1997 I started having medical problems while attending a master class. Three days later I saw my doctor, who performed a biopsy. Four days after that, he told me I had cancer and needed surgery that week. How could this happen to me? I was the person everyone thought would live to be 100 years old. I was never sick. I didn’t smoke. I was a healthy eater and, of course, I always exercised. I was so scared and anxious. I felt overwhelmed and out of control. Nothing seemed to matter except one thing: I wanted to live.

Lesson: Without your health you have nothing. Fame and fortune will not make a difference.

After my surgery I had 6 weeks to recover before starting full-torso radiation 5 days a week for 8 weeks. I had 2 weeks off after the radiation and then had to go into the hospital for a radioactive implant. During those weeks I had to stop working and focus all my energy on getting through my treatment. Not working hadn’t occurred to me as an option.

Lesson: Life in the gym went on without me.

The treatments left me so weak that I couldn’t hold up my hands long enough to dry my hair. I lost 18 pounds and looked skeletal. On the last day of treatment I asked my doctor what I should do to get back in shape. He said that I should know better than him—I was the fitness professional. Afraid and anxious, I felt as if I’d been thrown to the wolves. He was right; I did know how to get myself back into shape. But what did all the other cancer patients do when they finished their treatment? I gained a new awareness of what it was like to be truly out of shape.

I made a vow that if I survived I would help other cancer survivors get back in shape. But first I had to find my own way back to fitness. I began by walking. Initially I could walk only about 2.6 miles per hour. Speed was not important; I focused instead on distance and frequency. I learned that anything is better than nothing. Walking is the most underrated form of exercise; from my experience, it’s the number one exercise for cancer patients. I relearned things I had forgotten—for instance, that slow progression is the key to success. You may think you know this, but until you go through it, you don’t realize how true it is.

Lesson: No matter what shape you are in, you can get your muscles back. This is an important concept for someone who wants and needs to work his way back to health.

A New Attitude

Cancer has changed my attitude about life and my approach as a fitness instructor. I believe the true power of fitness is about one word: HOPE, which I say stands for “Help Other People Exercise.” When you feel afraid and out of control, exercise can help. Once you regain your energy and endurance, a positive mind-set returns. This is the mind-body connection. I now understand what this means and how important it is for all instructors to instill this in their students.

Lesson: Every person needs hope. If you have hope, anything is possible.

When someone does something well, inspiring those who follow to do it equally well or better, the first person is said to have “set the bar.” Our industry needs to set the bar for those who really need it. Until we do this, we won’t make a difference.

Lesson: Make a difference in someone else’s life. Be a good listener and understand that unless you have been totally deconditioned, you have no idea what that feels like. What you think is easy may be difficult for the beginner. Start low and go slow and look for the positive in every situation.

Cancer has made me a different person in so many ways. I have lived more in the past 5 years than I did in the previous 51. I am still as dedicated and committed to our industry as I was; however, I am not as compulsive, nor do I expect perfection. I am more sensitive, accepting and compassionate. I am a better listener and am less critical of others and myself. Cancer turned out to be a gift.

As fitness professionals, we need to check our attitudes toward others at the door. Try a fresh approach; gain a new sense of awareness and sensitivity and focus on making a difference. Not only will this have a profound impact on the people you work with, but in the end the biggest impact will be on you.

IDEA Health Fitness Source, Volume 2004, Issue 6

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About the Author

Josie Gardiner

Josie Gardiner IDEA Author/Presenter