Think Beyond the Walls (nontraditional teaching opportunities)

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Apr 01, 2001

Did you know that innumerable teaching opportunities exist beyond the conventional health club setting, which caters mostly to the already fit? The truth is that moneymaking options for group fitness leaders are plentiful—if you are motivated to move beyond the comfortable limits of traditional facilities and if you widen your clientele to encompass those who are less fit.

So where are these hidden jobs? How can you tell if they’re for you? What additional qualifications, if any, are required? Here’s a look at other options for you to explore and capitalize on by simply thinking more creatively. Remember, our market should include every body that can move!

Corporate Fitness Centers

These days, most adults spend the majority of their waking time at work. Companies, both large and small, have a vested interest in their employees’ health, morale and medical-care costs. Today’s company wellness offerings range from state-of-the-art fitness facilities and physical therapy services to spare offices converted to accommodate freelance fitness instructors equipped with personal boom boxes. Whereas larger companies tend to hire specialized fitness service providers to run their wellness programs, smaller companies can be fertile ground for independent fitness contractors. Regardless of size, corporate fitness programs are generally similar in content to those offered in fitness clubs, but with more entry-level classes.

To enter the corporate fitness world, instructors should have a nationally recognized certification in their area of expertise, CPR certification and at least two years’ experience, according to Krista Skarbek, corporate group exercise director for BaySport Inc. in Los Gatos, California. Many companies recruit from lists of certified group exercise instructors, such as those provided by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

In addition to needing technical skills, successful corporate fitness instructors must be good interpersonal communicators. “Classes are usually small with a consistent group,” says Skarbek. “Instructors get to know and relate with participants. You build relationships. You cannot come in, teach and leave. Instead of teaching to a group of 30 nameless people who trudge in and out of class with no individual interaction, you may have as few as three or as many as 15 [participants] in a class. There’s much more interaction. These professionals expect an instructor to be prepared, helpful and knowledgeable.”

The corporate setting also tends to attract people who are somewhat intimidated by more traditional fitness facilities, where they feel pressured to pursue physical perfection. Participants may be new to exercise or may simply prefer to work out surrounded by their peers. Because class members are exercising with their coworkers, instructors need to be sensitive to the political ramifications inherent in the workplace and be especially supportive and discreet.

“In the corporate setting, there may be only two classes offered a day,” says Skarbek. “Instructors need to understand participants’ levels and creatively keep everyone working within a fun setting. Each participant needs to feel encouraged to work at his or her own level without feeling peer pressure to perform. Because participants cannot hide in a small-group setting, you need to encourage and support the new exerciser.” To find local companies that provide services to corporate clients, search the Internet or call corporations with existing fitness centers and ask to speak to the group exercise director. (To determine if a company has its own fitness center, contact the Association for Worksite Health Promotion, listed under “Resources” on page 7.) To approach a local company that doesn’t have fitness programming, start by contacting the employee benefits office or human resources department. Be prepared to submit a proposal that explains why a fitness program would benefit that company, what services you can offer, why you are the most qualified person to provide these services and what you would like to be paid. Include a list of references to support your claims. Keep in mind that if you are hired on as an independent contractor, you will generally be required to carry your own insurance. You will also need to track your business expenses and pay your own income taxes on the revenue you earn.

Colleges & Universities

Local colleges and universities are ideal teaching environments for instructors who enjoy working with high-energy participants. Qualifications to teach in an academic setting range from basic certification to a master’s degree or teaching certificate. “General fitness certifications, [like those from] ACE and the American College of Sports Medicine, and CPR training can qualify you [to teach] in the college setting,” according to Lynnette Stephenson, a fitness instructor at Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota. Universities that offer classes for special populations, such as older adults or people with disabilities, may require additional training and/or a master’s degree in a related field.

Universities are also ideal places for new instructors to gain experience. “University students are open minded—perhaps more so than [people] in other environments,” says Beate Lemm, who teaches classes at the Technische Universitaet Berlin (Technical University) in Berlin, Germany.

Fitness professionals who work in an academic setting say the experience is rewarding because of their students’ youth, energy and willingness to ask questions. “Student exercisers who come to group fitness classes on campus are looking for what is new and exciting,” says Stephenson. “[They want instructors] to incorporate the latest music and choreography into fitness classes. Students are dedicated to attending class, allowing [instructors] the opportunity to build new relationships.”

To succeed with this clientele, instructors need to kick up the energy level in classes and commit to meeting the participants’ educational demands. Students are used to being in a learning mode and they stay in that mode during workouts. Also, being young and still impressionable, student participants are more likely than older clients to view fitness instructors as role models. “You are someone they look to for guidance and support when making fitness a part of their life,” says Stephenson.

While working with a youthful clientele is rewarding in itself, a bonus for instructors in a university setting is being on an academic timetable. Classes may be offered during midmorning or afternoon time slots, instead of in the early morning or evening—peak times in traditional clubs. In addition, classes run on a semester or quarterly schedule, with breaks for intersession, and instructors typically get time off for all major holidays. To inquire about teaching at a university or college, check with the school’s recreation department or office of employment.

Adult Education Programs

Instructors with specialized backgrounds or extra language skills should consider teaching adult education movement classes, which are often taught in community centers or local churches. Depending on your background, expertise and local interest, you may be able to propose a class that is not currently offered. Examples of classes offered in adult education programs include gentle exercise classes for beginners or people with arthritis or fibromyalgia; stretching; specialty classes, such as yoga, ballroom dancing or square dancing; and outdoor movement classes, such as inline skating or walking, that take advantage of paths in local parks.

Educational requirements and necessary certifications vary from place to place. Check with the appropriate person to determine what is required in your community.

Community-oriented programs typically serve adults who are not members of local health clubs. Depending on the makeup and diversity of the community, clientele may cover the socioeconomic, age and cultural spectrums. Be ready to welcome new exercisers, people for whom English is a second language, returning students or retirees.To succeed in the community setting, instructors need to welcome diversity, possess excellent people skills and be good at self-marketing. Since classes do not have a club membership from which to draw participants, you are critical in attracting people. Entrepreneurial instructors and those who like working with beginning exercisers typically enjoy the most success.

Keep in mind that community centers and local churches that offer adult education programs generally do not have the equipment found in a health club. This means participants or instructors have to provide whatever is needed.

To find work in a community setting, contact community centers and churches in your area to determine what kinds of exercise programs are currently offered. Look for centers that have adequate room for recreational activities and members who are interested in movement. As when applying to a corporate venue, be prepared to submit a proposal outlining why your program would be beneficial, why you are the most qualified person to offer it and how you want to be paid. Instructors may be paid a flat rate per class, a percentage of total enrollment fees, a per-head fee or some combination of these options. Your status as an employee or independent contractor will affect your ability to negotiate your pay rate. In general, freelance instructors receive payment directly from class participants and need to carry their own insurance.

Seniors’ Centers & Assisted–Living Facilities

More and more retirement centers are now offering some kind of fitness program for their residents. Programs are conducted in a wide range of settings, from modern, full-service exercise complexes to dining halls and recreation rooms that double as activity centers. Janie Clark, MA, president of the American Senior Fitness Association in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, also suggests investigating other places where older adults gather, such as seniors’ centers, condominiums/apartment complexes that house a high number of retirees, and resorts that cater to this clientele.

Teaching older adults requires additional training in the specific physiological, emotional and mental aspects of aging. In addition to technical training, other skills are required. “Successful senior-group leaders are typically very friendly, natural, patient and good-humored,” says Clark. “They are genuinely interested in others. Always seek to make participants feel comfortable, paying attention to details such as the clothes [you wear] and the music you play. Extend the personal touch by greeting each participant by name.”

The times many senior classes are held may appeal to instructors who prefer not to teach during typical peak hours for clubs. Older-adult classes are often scheduled in the midmorning or at midday. Once a class time is established, attendance is usually very consistent because seniors take the commitment seriously and enjoy the social aspect of group exercise. Regular attendance on your part is usually very important, so frequent subbing will not work.

When approaching venues that cater to seniors, Clark recommends, be prepared to describe the benefits and unique features of your program or teaching style. “State how [you] will meet the special needs and interests of the specific population,” she advises. “If you are proposing a new class, explain how it will fulfill an unmet community, facility or organizational need. Consider offering a complimentary ‘demo class’ to prospective clients to promote interest and demand.”

Military Bases

Another overlooked teaching opportunity can be found on armed forces bases. Military bases throughout the world seek to improve the fitness level of personnel (retired and active), their families and civilian employees. If you are especially good at helping participants achieve their performance goals and fitness objectives, then consider classes affiliated with the military.

To be effective, instructors for this population need excellent visual and verbal communication skills, a great sense of humor and a strong knowledge base. People serving in the military want to see benefits and results, so it helps if you have a strong personality and are not easily intimidated. Military personnel can be fun to work with, since they’re usually disciplined, motivated and enthusiastic to try new things. Ken Baldwin is a personal fitness trainer in Brisbane, Australia, who once served as a rugby conditioner and strength trainer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He can personally attest to the wide range of fitness levels he encountered when training military personnel. “I ran programs for all personnel, from cooks to soldiers, including many females. Such a diverse group of fitness levels, ages and genders required a variety of programs.” Baldwin’s clientele also demanded a less “casual” attitude to workouts than the average health club member. “Many defense force personnel want hard workouts, so make sure that once they understand the exercises, you push them. You need to keep an eye on their technique, as many can’t be ‘told.’ Make class fun since participants are already serious, but also [let them know] the benefits of what they’re doing.”

When designing and marketing programs for this clientele, Baldwin says, it’s important to keep in mind that military bases are large communities within themselves. “People on the bases are often looking for activities that incorporate spouses and family members. People who are not military personnel can get into these areas, but they need to know about the programs, people and facilities.”

If you want to work in the military setting, contact the public liaison officer on a nearby base, advises Baldwin. “Do your homework first and develop your proposal,” he cautions, “but wait to send it out until you’ve made that personal contact.” Another factor to consider when developing your proposal is that military fitness programs are funded by the government. Budgets for fitness and recreation activities may be limited. You will need to be clear in your proposal about the costs of your services and the benefits participants can expect to derive from them.

Hospital Wellness Centers

As research continues to substantiate the multiple health benefits of physical activity, more hospitals and health maintenance organizations are initiating group exercise programs. Both Mary Sanders, MS, adjunct professor in the Health Sciences Department at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Ralph La Forge, MS, managing director of the Duke University Lipid Clinic and Disease Management Preceptorship Program at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, say opportunities are growing on both the fitness side and the therapy side. However, the distinction between teaching “apparently healthy” participants and teaching those with existing clinical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease is significant in terms of required training, experience and skills.

Working with apparently healthy adults in a hospital wellness center usually requires the same qualifications as instructing in other settings. Working with individuals with chronic conditions has considerably higher requirements, which may include training as a certified physical therapist, experience working with special populations and/or certification as a clinical exercise specialist or its equivalent.

“Our group exercise instructors are required to be certified for the classes they teach,” says Amber Barrett Webster, MS, general manager of the Health & Fitness Institute in Lindenhurst, Illinois, which is affiliated with Lake Forest Hospital. “We also have a rigorous in-house training program. We look for individuals who are role models of a healthy lifestyle and are committed to teaching healthy living and to continued personal and professional growth.” The institute advertises in local and national newspapers and medical association journals and posts all open positions on Lake Forest Hospital’s Web site.

Barrett Webster says hospital wellness centers differ from traditional fitness facilities in several ways. “Our environment is very progressive and changes according to new research findings. We also teach our members about lifestyle change and commitment to a healthy lifestyle.” Additionally, many medically based programs require fitness assessments of all participants from the outset to establish a baseline that can be used to assess patient progress over time. Sanders adds, “Fitness instructors are held accountable for their work and need to establish objectives to improve client fitness.”

To meet the needs of patients with chronic conditions, La Forge says, fitness instructors need a high degree of clinical skill and judgment. “Depending specifically on the patient population and level of clinical event risk, the instructor must be capable of very skillful and acute group assessment for symptomology, clinical signs of decompensation and effort sense, among other matters.”

Most instructors who are drawn to work in a clinical environment derive great personal satisfaction from helping people create healthier lifestyles. “I want to help people change their lifestyle, specifically with exercise but also with eating habits, stress management and other modalities,” says Barrett Webster. “I enjoy having access to the hospital and the wealth of knowledge that comes from working in a medically based field.”

Rehabilitation Centers

Rehabilitation centers for persons with disabilities also represent job opportunities for fitness instructors. Jeffrey Jones, director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Health and Fitness in Illinois, says, “Rehab centers may [offer] volunteer or paid opportunities to teach a variety of health and fitness classes to people with disabilities. Many facilities are offering seated aerobics, t’ai chi, water exercise and cardiac rehab programs. And disability sports programs have been growing across the country.” Rehab centers are not the only places to offer fitness programs for persons with disabilities, says Jones; such programs are also offered in YMCAs, in JCCs and through organizations such as the United Cerebral Palsy Association.

According to Jones, few training programs are geared specifically to working with people with disabilities. He suggests that group fitness instructors interested in working with this clientele mix experience with research and reading. “Given considerations for individual needs, functional level and general contraindications, we’ve seen easy transitions with instructors who have had little previous experience with individuals with disabilities.”

In the rehab setting, good people skills, flexibility and creativity are essential. “Instructors must be able to teach a wide spectrum of abilities, maximizing the experience for all participants,” says Jones. “Patience and understanding for a wide variety of abilities and personal needs is one of the most important things.” He suggests instructors either observe classes or volunteer to teach a class or two at a local rehab center.

To find work in the rehab setting, contact one of the organizations listed under “Resources” on page 7; for positions relating to a specific medical condition, check Web sites. When approaching a program director at a rehab center, be prepared to explain how your experience and credentials will enable you to fulfill an unmet need. Depending on the organization, fitness instructors may be hired as paid employees or independent service providers.

Kids’ Schools & Camps

If you love working with children, check out local schools, churches and leisure centers that cater to this market. And don’t forget organizations that offer afterschool children’s programs or youth groups, says Phil Arney, director of programming for KidzFit International and FitClub USA, based in Temple, Texas. To learn how to teach children, Arney recommends, observe classes and then ask to become an assistant. This exposure will help you determine which age group you are most comfortable teaching. “Instructors may enjoy one group more than another. Age groups are often split in two to three [years old]; four to five; six to eight; nine to 11; and 12 and up.”

To work with this clientele, it’s important to be specifically trained in the ways in which children differ from adults anatomically, mentally, emotionally and physiologically. “Kids’ fitness classes [shouldn’t] be watered-down adult classes,” Arney cautions. “They must be specifically designed for children, be fun and have age-appropriate activities.” Instructors also need to appreciate that each age group enjoys a different style of instruction. Arney says children under five may prefer an older, female fitness instructor. “Between the ages of six and 10, children like a fun and crazy instructor. Preteens enjoy 20-year-olds as role models.”

Working as an assistant in a local school or camp can often lead to a permanent position. At the very least, this on-the-job experience can later be used to secure a position elsewhere. Employment status varies from organization to organization.

Resorts, Spas & Cruise Ships

Attracted to the glamorous life? Consider teaching at a spa, in a resort or on a cruise ship. Karla Overturf, IDEA’s group exercise committee chairperson and former fitness director at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa in Tuscon, Arizona, says that, beyond requiring usual certifications, resorts, spas and cruise ships are looking for instructor versatility. “Spas want to hire people who can teach a wide variety of things. Also, if you have other skills besides group fitness, such as massage, skin care or even tarot card reading, that can help you get a foot in the door.”

The key to getting class assignments in these settings is to demonstrate persistence, schedule flexibility and research-based knowledge. “One of the most important qualities [you need to teach at a resort or spa] is a customer-service attitude,” Overturf says. “Guests pay a good amount to be pampered. They also expect to learn new things. It’s important while you teach to be able to educate, not just perform. You also need to be up on industry trends. When guests go home from their vacation, they typically want to share the latest on exercise with their friends. ” Another attribute needed is patience, since instructors may get the same questions over and over. Remaining energetic is also important, as vacationing guests can be demanding and hours can be long. “Unlike in a club, where you might teach a few hours, full-time spa instructors sometimes work seven to eight hours in a row,” says Overturf. “It can be tiring to always be so upbeat.”

Being accessible all the time is also taxing, especially in the confines of a cruise ship. Every time you leave your cabin, cruise participants may approach you with fitness questions. Even though you’re not officially teaching a class, you’re still expected to provide customer service. Instructors who work in these venues truly need to be “people persons” capable of always being “on.”

Another consideration is the lack of “regulars,” since working in these settings means always having a new group of exercisers. “On any given day, you don’t know who you’ll have,” says Overturf. “However, many people do return annually, so you may develop a relationship with a frequent guest. On the plus side, instructors aren’t as pressured to develop new choreography every single week.”

Bust a Move

Now you know there are as many group exercise teaching opportunities as there are groups of people. Sure, you might face varying facility quality, limited equipment and the awkwardness of being outside your comfort zone. But if you embrace variety and diversity, if you are motivated to make a difference in more people’s lives, or if you simply want to earn more doing what you love, then push beyond those confining traditional walls. Why wait for class participants to come to you when you can so easily go to them—and have fun in the process?

IDEA Fitness Edge , Volume 2002, Issue 2

© 2001 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is a fitness professional, an international presenter and an award-winning author. She has much experience working in different settings—inside and beyond mainstream fit...

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