What does the fitness industry look like from the younger generation’s perspective?
About 30 years ago, the first wave of group fitness instructors (known then as aerobics teachers) got their start in an industry yet to be defined. Many of those people are still teaching and training, yet as the industry grows and changes, continuing to shape itself, the need for a steady influx of teachers is evident. Since the world of fitness is radically different now, is the current wave of professionals very different as well? What are their expectations, hopes, challenges, views, motivations and rewards? Their perspective is important, as they will lead the fitness industry into the future.
When the first generation of aerobics instructors started out (there generally weren’t many personal trainers then), most were responding to a problem: lack of exercise options. An entrepreneurial former dancer or gymnast created a program, or a teacher didn’t show up and a student took over and found the experience rewarding. Although many newer professionals are entering the industry to address a specific issue, such as obesity, their reasons also have a lot to do with role models who made a career in fitness look like an enjoyable pursuit.
“I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in global studies when I got my start,” says Camille Eroy-Reveles, who went on to minor in physical education and is now a candidate for a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. “My fitness idol and mentor was Kymberly Williams-Evans. She made teaching seem so fun, while emphasizing that it would be a great skill to accompany my world travel aspirations.” A university mentor also encouraged Nicole Gabriel, an instructor at the Rochester Athletic Club in Minnesota. “I was attending the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and was undecided in my major. After [taking] a high-impact class at the campus recreation center, I was approached by the instructor and encouraged to go through the university instructor-training program. I felt excited and honored, so I agreed.”
Apparently, getting into the business “accidentally” still happens. “One day about a year and a half ago I was working out and the club’s fitness manager approached me,” says Nicholas Klaiber, head trainer at LA Fitness in San Marcos, California. “He asked if I was interested in becoming a personal trainer. To be honest, the thought had never crossed my mind, but I was unhappy working as a restaurant server so I jumped at the opportunity.”
For these new members of the industry, expectations sometimes matched reality and sometimes didn’t. “I had connections with many people in the industry who gave me good advice on the challenges and trends in this kind of career, so I had an idea of what to expect,” says Barbara Chin, who put aside a master’s degree in molecular biology to become a personal trainer in Santa Barbara. “The one thing I was not prepared for was the way a corporate health club operates, in terms of everything being looked at from a large-scale perspective.”
A different kind of surprise awaited Katie Richards, a group exercise instructor based in Broomfield, Colorado. “I am continually surprised at the amount of time outside of class it takes to prepare. I am gathering a file of ideas and exercises, but I still have to practice.” As an instructor who includes BODYSTEP™ in her list of offerings, Richards likes the challenges that come with teaching both packaged, prechoreographed formats and self-designed routines. “I enjoy teaching the [packaged formats] because I don’t have to make up the choreography, but learning the new releases is time-consuming. Yet I like not having the pressure of worrying whether the students will or won’t like the choreography. The classes I design are fun [but also] challenging, as I have to include lots of modifications.” Either way, extensive preparation seems to come with the territory when you’re new to the industry.
There is also the issue of client satisfaction, which has its ups and downs. Eric Bono is a personal trainer who recently moved to Los Angeles. “My expectations have been met, in that this career is very rewarding and fun. I see the happiness in my clients when they achieve their goals. In addition, some of my clients have gained [more] enthusiasm for exercise, which is one of the greatest accomplishments. On the other hand, I’ve been disappointed in the number of sessions that people purchase. Many clients expect far too much in a very short amount of time. I find it difficult to give a client a good ‘education’ with only three sessions.”
What Needs Improving?
Some of the “new-wavers” have very specific ideas about what they think needs improvement. At the time of this writing, Lindsay Jones, a Carlsbad, California–based Jazzercise instructor, was 9 months pregnant. “I think the industry needs to become a lot more savvy in its approach to pregnancy and working out. Had I not worked for Jazzercise, I would have thought that I [could not] work out as intensely as I have throughout my pregnancy. I also feel that I can always improve as an instructor. I don’t want to be the person who instructs students to do something that would allow for injuries.”
Another specific issue is the need for programming directed toward the overweight and obese. “The industry needs to better adapt to the needs of the overweight and obese,” says Richards. “It is difficult for these people to come into a facility and join a [group fitness] class or use the weight machines.” She would like larger clients to have a perfect workout designed specifically for them that incorporates cardiovascular, strength training and mind-body facets. “I would eventually like to become a certified personal trainer so I could help those who are trying to lose weight and get into exercising. I want to help them gain the self-confidence to make exercise a priority.”
In her few years in the industry, Sonja van der Putten has worked her way up to become the health and fitness coordinator at the YWCA in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I’ve been witnessing an increasing divide between the traditionalist aerobics-type fitness industry and the new wave of professionals,” she says. “With a move toward functional and athletic training, it is difficult to find instructors willing to teach the more traditional classes, such as aerobics and step, yet there is still quite the following of aging enthusiasts who want these classes.”
Chin’s view on needed improvements speaks to this dilemma: “I’d like to see more in the way of encouraging exercisers to try different disciplines and mix up their routines to avoid boredom and plateaus. I think a lot of exercisers get stuck in the mindset that they have to find one form of exercise to stick with—and that they can be healthy doing just one discipline.”
Credentials and Certifications
Certification, industry standards and education are also on the minds of this generation. “The standards for becoming a trainer should be raised,” says Klaiber. “These days almost anyone can become a trainer. The certification process should be more difficult, and trainers should be held accountable for staying educated.” Eroy-Reveles also speaks quite strongly to this issue. “Although I love the freedom of this industry, I think certifications need to be [better] regulated to make it more challenging to be a fitness professional. The more I work with different populations, the more education I feel I need in order to ensure that I’m providing my clients with a quality product.”
Both Klaiber and Eroy-Reveles see higher standards tied to pay. “It costs money (to stay educated), and it is challenging to demand a certain rate of pay from managers when they can pay a lot less to someone who hasn’t invested as much in his or her training. Not only does this drive down the rate of pay and quality in our industry, but it forces the more educated professional into elite studios and private gyms, which aren’t as accessible to the general population,” emphasizes Eroy-Reveles. Klaiber adds, “What we do in this field requires expertise. I strongly feel that we should be paid more and not have to push sales in some workplaces in order to make a paycheck.”
Although many younger fitness professionals have invested a lot of time and money in education, the issue of respect can still be frustrating, perhaps because of clients’ underlying assumptions about youth. “I believe that, because of my age, I am seen in a different light than my older peers. Even though I have a [bachelor of science degree in nursing] and am very aware when it comes to anatomy and physiology, I feel I have to work harder to earn respect because I am a good 10 years younger than the average instructor,” comments Gabriel. “Even so, I do not let this get me down, and find myself working harder and harder. I feel more people my age should be encouraged to become group exercise instructors, as it’s so important for those in their early 20s to be exercise conscious.”
Challenges and Discrimination
Self-confidence is a topic that comes up fairly often when it comes to the personal challenges that industry newcomers face. “At the beginning, when people asked me for advice, I had confidence issues,” says Charlie Bethon, a personal trainer and fitness coordinator for Solar Turbines in San Diego. “I wasn’t as secure in the fact that I do know the stuff I’m using to train people. It was like walking on eggshells for a while.” From the group fitness perspective, Richards shares her memories: “Just getting in front of the classes was challenging. At first, I felt that many of them knew as much or more than I did, and it was intimidating. I’ve developed my own style over the past year, which has helped my self-confidence.” Adds Jones: “It was definitely challenging to deal with being on stage. This makes a person vulnerable, and I have had to deal with that. I have learned to take criticism with a grain of salt. As to discrimination, I’m sure there was some, due to my inexperience, and I’ve had my fair share of criticism—especially as I’m working at (the world headquarters for) Jazzercise, with people who are at the top of the fitness industry. But I have had a lot of support there, and my inexperience was more of an inside joke.”
There are other issues to deal with, too. “Balancing teaching, training and my own workouts has been a challenge, especially with working at several different locations. I found out pretty quickly how difficult it is to drive back and forth, and I had to persevere through some burnout. Once I found a good balance, work became enjoyable again,” says Chin, touching on a subject that has been around since the industry began.
Klaiber mentions only one incident in which he felt unfairly rejected, on grounds of education rather than youth. “About 5 months ago a new client refused to train with me because I did not have a bachelor’s degree. Even though I attend college full-time, I haven’t yet attained my degree.” Bono hasn’t had anyone say anything as direct as that, yet he suspects his youth and inexperience contribute to his struggle to attract new clients. As his work has been in the university setting, mostly with young clients, cost has also been an issue. Yet Bono has a mature outlook on some intangible challenges. “Sometimes I find that people would rather complain about their situation than do the work to fix it. This is where the psychological aspect of being a trainer comes into play—this I wasn’t expecting. I also find it difficult when clients see you as their ‘doctor.’ It is [a balance] to both help them and have them understand I’m not qualified to do medical diagnoses.”
Overall, these instructors and trainers are well aware of the need to earn their clients’ respect and prove themselves to their peers, participants and mentors while staying within the boundaries of their knowledge and training.
In a self-reflective mood, Gabriel considers some of the hurdles she’s faced. “Being able to cope with constructive criticism has been challenging, but I feel my bosses and leaders have been very encouraging, and I am very willing to be molded. However, [I sometimes wish] my peers and participants would be more encouraging too.”
Any job that makes you want to wake up and go to work can safely be considered rewarding, and these young professionals have caught on to that idea. Nghia Pham, a former Marine and current personal trainer in Poway, California, sums it up beautifully: “I actually did not plan to do this as a career, but within a few months of beginning this work, I had such a great response from my clients and peers that I decided to make this my career. It is so rewarding, and I look forward to going to work every day. I have an opportunity to be a positive influence on so many people’s lives, and that is just an awesome feeling.” Bethon’s comments are equally enthusiastic. “It’s rewarding when clients thank you and are appreciative of your help. Some have a goal of weight loss, and it’s wonderful to experience the journey with them; it’s as if you’ve lost that weight too. It’s an inexplicable feeling.”
The topics of educating clients, helping them accept their bodies and overcome fears, helping people gain strength and reduce pain, setting directions and goals, improving technique and alignment, building relationships with clients and peers, and having lots of fun are also mentioned as rewards that come from working in this industry. As Jones puts it, “I can go on forever [on the subject of rewards]! Who wouldn’t love to dance and listen to hot music and get paid for it? If I can be responsible for people getting up and getting fit, then I’ve truly left a mark on society, and I feel honored.”
Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of idealism and optimism among this group of professionals. Bono would even like to see himself out of a job! “Deep down I believe I should not even be employed, as I find it somewhat disconcerting that there is a need for our industry, although I am deeply happy in my career. In a perfect world everyone would understand the need to be healthy, which would make our industry unnecessary. I see many initiatives that encourage our youth to be healthy and active, which I think is a first step, yet I also think it will be a long and arduous task.”
In the field for just a year, Bethon is working in both group fitness and personal training while earning a degree in kinesiology. Like a kid who’s been handed the keys to the candy store, he has an exuberant air when discussing his chosen path. “I don’t really have an answer for what could be improved in this industry. Being so fresh to this field, it’s still a dizzying whirlwind of fun. I haven’t experienced anything horribly wrong with it. In time I’m sure I will.”
Considering how much the industry has changed since its inception, it is easy to wonder what the future holds, both for the industry and for the young people who will be leading it. Eroy-Reveles looks at what’s ahead from her public-health perspective: “Currently, more than half of Americans are not getting the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended amount of physical activity,” she says. “The fitness industry is going to be an integral part of the public-health effort to get people moving. For example, IDEA has teamed up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is awesome and a projection of the direction we are headed. Instructors and trainers are pumped up about working within their communities to cause change, and I see the financial barriers to this shifting in the next decade. I envision a new generation of instructors, equipped with the public-health perspective and exercise science background, who can sit at the table with other allied health professionals and make decisions that can positively affect everyone’s health. As for myself, I plan to run a consulting business specializing in multilevel health promotion interventions—staffed, of course, by the new generation.”
Looking from a cultural, generational perspective, Gabriel sees her cohorts as having an active lifestyle embedded in their lives. “I feel that my generation is more exercise-aware than any previous generation, so I see the industry only getting bigger.”
Along with that growth will come a need for even more personalized services, according to van der Putten, who expects great possibilities for personal trainers. Chin is concerned about specialization, yet sees a common direction. “There are so many different fields in fitness and wellness right now, and I sometimes feel that many of them are quite isolated from one another. The fitness industry is relatively new in terms of how much hard research has been done, and new findings are constantly coming out. In 10–20 years’ time I expect we will have a much better picture of how the human body functions, how to minimize injury and best improve physical and mental fitness, and how to turn the obesity epidemic around. As for me, I hope to be just as active as now, but with a great deal more knowledge, both from education and interaction.”
And if the future includes people like Jones, it won’t lack a good sense of humor: “(In 20 years) I see myself as a hot 45-year-old Jazzercise instructor—with a 20-year-old son! I know that the company and this industry will continue to grow and stay hip, and I hope that people continue to catch the ‘bug’ that allows for a healthy lifestyle.”
SIDEBAR: Advice for the Next Generation
Even though the current wave of new instructors is in their 20s, they are already looking ahead to the future, and those who will come behind them. Here are some tips and cautions for that group.
- Have an open mind, and always be willing to learn and receive advice. Be ready to change as the industry changes. Learn to accept constructive criticism.
- Don’t get a big head—there are always new ways to tweak your instruction and absorb new information.
- Take advantage of internships. They help you see whether the industry is right for you and are an excellent way to get your foot in the door.
- Make sure you are educated. Don’t believe that taking an exam after a weekend course is enough to qualify you. There is much more to being a trainer or an instructor than passing a test.
- Remember that the client-trainer relationship is almost as important as the program the trainer designs. If your client isn’t comfortable, it won’t matter how carefully crafted the program is.
- Make sure this is what you want to do. Don’t do it for the money; do it because you want to help people feel better and lead healthier lives.
- Find a mentor to be your guide and cheerleader.
- Learn from as many different people as possible, from different disciplines and philosophies. There is something to learn from everyone, including the people with whom you disagree.
- Never assume that you know everything or even that what you think you know is right.
- Be prepared to work with a whole host of interesting and unique individuals. People come to you with different goals, values, expectations and needs.
- Learn that everyone has different styles of teaching and you must work to be the best at your style.
- Stick with it if you are passionate and enjoy it. Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re doing.
- Don’t be intimidated or compare yourself to people who have been in the industry for many years. Instead of focusing on how much “better” someone else is, focus on how you can personally improve. The people ahead of you didn’t become excellent overnight, so be patient.
- Do not work for anyone who doesn’t value the hard work, time and money you have put into becoming the amazing fitness professional you are!
Alexandra Williams, MA, is not part of the new wave—she’s been teaching for more than 25 years. However, she works at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a teacher, mentor and guide to hundreds of young people every quarter, and has every reason to be enthusiastic about the future leaders of this profession.