Since the days of leg warmers and LPs, group fitness instructors have lived with a stereotype that hasn’t always been easy to measure up to. In all kinds of settings, from sitcoms to television advertisements to movies, the typical instructor has been portrayed as lean, mean and regimented to the point of caricature.

Does this image reflect reality? If an instructor is a few pounds overweight, for example, is she less effective? Is he not as professional? Or what if an instructor simply doesn’t fit the ideal representation put forth by society at large? We asked IDEA members to share their personal experiences.

opening doors

Over 7 years I went from being a size 4, 128 pounds (5´6˝), with a VO2 capacity of 55.5 millimeters, to a size 14, 165 pounds, with a VO2 capacity of 32. Through this entire time I taught, trained and coordinated staff full-time.

I began teaching group fitness in November 1997 at the age of 37. The first 2 years I taught more than 380 classes each year. In May 1999 I began coordinating our programs. Since then, I’ve gone from teaching an average of nine classes per week, while working full-time (35–40 hours per week) as coordinator, to teaching a capped four (or fewer) classes per week and spending at least 6 days per week (45–50 hours) coordinating. I am responsible for 154 classes and 48 instructors in four different facilities and am on call 24 hours a day every day for club emergencies.

The event that most dramatically affected my fitness level occurred this past summer. My beloved father became gravely ill and passed away after 4 months battling a devastating illness.

Being a “glass half full” person, I have developed a great deal of empathy. If I—a full-fledged, card-carrying gym rat—feel uncomfortable in some areas of our clubs, I can only imagine the terror experienced by someone who has never set foot inside a gym.

I love the work we do and believe it is a noble profession. I teach three popular and effective classes each week. I have a strong staff, and members respect me and connect to my position as manager. However, the animosity I feel from some staff and management is a painful daily reminder that my body is not where I want it to be right now. By all measures I am a successful fitness professional. I’m somewhat dumbstruck as to how I ended up fighting the weight battle at this stage of the game.

—Eleanor Hisey

Arlington, Texas

Larger Than Life

I have worked in the fitness business for 13 years as a group exercise instructor and a personal trainer. I am genetically predisposed to weigh more, having an endomorph/mesomorph body type. Add to that the normal midlife stressors—coupled with the approach of menopause—and I have gained even more weight (regardless of how much or how hard I exercise and how careful I am with my diet).

In spite of the physical facts that make me a larger-than-life role model, I enjoy the most incredible and faithful following at my facility. Newcomers don’t feel intimidated by my classes. I am blessed with an array of students, including teenagers; older, more sedentary types; self-conscious men; and women like myself who have “real” bodies and “real” lives to go with them.

I believe I have found myself in this role for a reason. I love having the opportunity to make fitness part of someone’s life. I love knowing that my students work out because they know I will be here. Regardless of the extra pounds I carry, I am more than capable of giving a challenging, intelligent and balanced workout.

I plan to continue teaching as long as it feels like my calling. I will work with the body that nature gave me and be thankful every day that it is able to perform so that I can inspire my students. I’d like to add that my managers have been nothing but supportive. They fully appreciate me for who I am and what I do, which is how I hope it is everywhere.

—Petrina Satori-Britt

Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii

A Welcoming Atmosphere

My size has always been an issue for me. Even as a child, I was the tallest girl in class. I always had to sit in the back of the room so the shorter, smaller people could see. I was not overweight, but the other girls ridiculed me because of my size and height. Even though I was the better athlete, the other kids chose me last when they were picking teams.

Little did I know that this would be a continuing theme in my life. I have been in the fitness business for more than 20 years. Most of those years I have been fighting the stigma that you must be rail thin to be fit. Every picture you see of a “healthy” person in a magazine reflects this notion. Is this really the picture of a healthy person or just the product that advertising executives want us to see?

Although I am a larger-sized woman, I don’t consider myself obese and neither does my doctor. For the past 15 years I have chosen not to teach in gyms because other instructors treat me differently. I once applied for a job in an elite, upper-echelon gym and was turned down. Even though I had years of experience, the manager told me I was not the ideal body type, I was too old (I was 30) and I needed to change my hair color.

When I did teach in gyms, the management gave me classes early in the morning or late at night. Much to their amazement, I had a huge following— because I looked “normal.” I didn’t yell out hard choreography; instead, I kept the pace slow so that everyone at every size could get a safe workout. I geared my classes to learners—a principle I continue to follow today.

Often, when I escort my larger-sized clients to gyms (where they’ve paid hard-earned dollars to belong), the members and staff stare, laugh and make fun of them. This is not the welcoming atmosphere they got when they signed the membership check. It’s also not the image portrayed in the glossy commercials and slick advertisements.

With the current obesity epidemic and the number of nonexercisers in this country, the fitness industry needs to inspire people and make them feel welcome. Doing something is better than living a sedentary life. When a person comes to us and expresses a desire to change his body, we must understand that it took him a while to get out of shape and it may take a while to change his fitness level.

—MaryJane Hattala

San Jose, California