This is an exciting time for the health and fitness industry and for the professionals who coax it forward. Driven by both public necessity and professional integrity, the ever-evolving role of the group fitness instructor is poised to make its next big leap. That role started with a first-generation emphasis on simply enticing the public with a “be like me” approach. During the current second generation, fitness leaders are becoming stewards of the very important message that healthful living offers numerous benefits. It is increasingly the role of fitness professionals to cultivate that message so that every person in every community can harvest it. As a group fitness instructor, you may feel daunted when you stop to consider the weight of that task. However, if you take the time to examine what you do, you may realize that your 60-minute class is already much more than just a good sweat.
Take a moment to look back on your last class. Maybe it was a traditional step class for the willing and able-bodied. Maybe you were subbing a class where you didn’t really know everyone, but the participants were friendly and things went well. Just as you do every time you teach, you went through the motions: studio temperature, check . . . lights, check . . . sound equipment, check . . . mike, check. You greeted new faces and got the class going. You cued in time, your sense of rhythm was masterful, and you were on constant watch for missteps and potential dangers as you delivered your well-rehearsed session.
Let’s take it a step further. You are compliant with your employer’s expectations. Your certifications and cardiopulmonary-resuscitation card are current. You are never late and, in the spirit of teamwork, you are always willing to sub. You uphold the expectations of your professional affiliations with your ongoing pursuit of continuing education credits (CECs), and you adhere to a professional code of ethics and industry standards. You read everything you can that is relevant to your work. You stay on top of trends and guidelines, not only because it interests you, but because if you don’t you will quickly sink in the rising floodwaters of consumer knowledge in this age of easy information access.
What about this knowledgeable public we serve? Have you ever paused to reflect on the unspoken contract you enter into every time you step inside the studio? Like it or not, you are bound to meet a certain set of expectations defined by three decades of insightful teaching by other intuitive and creative instructors. The bar is high. “Technically competent” and “professionally compliant” are only basic expectations. The enduring instructor wears many hats, the least prominent of which is the hat of adequacy.
Let’s face it: You can’t be all things to all people at all times, but in the course of your hour—indeed, over the course of your career—you will have to tap into many fields of expertise to stay credible and valuable, not only to your employer and your professional affiliations, but also to your community.
Your Hat Closet
How do your participants see you? Are you a teacher, a cheerleader, a community resource, a healthy-lifestyle advocate and role model, a mentor to new instructors, a coach? A good instructor is comfortable in all these hats and wears each of them more or less frequently as the need arises, class by class, year after year.
The teacher, through demonstration and instruction, guides participants toward the safest and most effective movement. Whether you work at this constantly or it comes to you a little more intuitively, at some point you stand before a class and instruct. You may demonstrate a biceps curl, convincing a woman not to swing at the shoulder; or you may cue over and over again that participants should make sure they’re not hanging their heels off the back of the step. Maybe you ask someone to stay after class so you can demonstrate knee-friendly squats. The teacher-inclined group fitness professional understands the various learning modes (tactile, auditory, visual) and makes information accessible accordingly.
If “getting there is half the battle,” then the other half is “getting people to get there again.” There are as many reasons to participate in a group fitness class as there are participants. Some come for the social aspect, others to reduce stress. Still others would rather find something else to do, yet they fit it into their schedules out of sheer habitual discipline because they know it is good for them. The cheerleader in you takes the “teacher” skills and packages them in a captivating way—as a sort of “fitness edutainment.” The “feel-good” factor should not be underestimated; it is one of the most valuable tricks of the trade when it comes to driving a successful class.
The Community Resource
The boundaries of your certifications and employment are clear. While you can’t offer to do a therapeutic massage, write a diet prescription or diagnose a heart condition, making referrals is well within your role. You probably hear the questions all the time: “Do I eat protein after the workout and carbs before, or vice versa?” “Why do you think my heart races so much when no one else’s seems to?” “Someone told me my back hurts because I have flat feet. What do you think?” Rehearse responses to such inquiries; this will go a long way toward keeping you in bounds. If you are unsure how to field a query, be sure to deflect it to your supervisor. You can’t stop the questions, but you can and should be helpful, because participants genuinely want to know and they look to you as an industry expert. Providing responsible referrals to a network of allied healthcare providers doesn’t deflate your importance; it enhances your credibility as a solid and connected professional.
The Healthy-Living Advocate
This is one hat that must fit you. Imagine the horror you would strike in your community if you showed up to teach your high-low class smoking a cigarette. There is gravity in what you do, and it should matter. Role models do not perpetuate media hype about beauty; instead, they help participants strive for health. A self-proclaimed victim of “adult-onset athleticism,” indoor cycling instructor (and recent cancer survivor) Nancy Vanyek of Santa Clarita, California, says she’s a role model now because she’s not an athlete. “I really take time with newcomers and make them feel they can accomplish anything,” she says. “I’m not a skinny instructor, and I’ve gained and lost weight over the past few years. I know people take my class because they can be comfortable with me, no matter what shape or size they are. They know they may never be thin, but they can be in shape.”
Modeling good behavior speaks volumes about your commitment to the message. Protect yourself from injury, and don’t teach when ill or injured. Eat well, exercise for yourself (not only when you’re teaching) and strive for balance in your life. Practice what you preach—it is the strongest message you can send.
Reflect on your own entry into group fitness. Did the industry seem impenetrable, or were you embraced by someone with experience who was willing to guide you? You might be surprised to discover who is toying with the idea of following in your footsteps, and mentoring could make all the difference for that person. A mentor is a trusted and worthy professional who selflessly empowers others to find their own direction. Mentoring is often done without compensation because the mentor and the mentoree determine that that is right. However, the lack of formality should not undermine the professional foundations of the relationship. Fred Hoffman, MEd, international fitness consultant who lives in Paris cautions that “it is possible that an instructor who doesn’t adhere to industry standards could mentor someone, and the result could produce an instructor who does not adhere to, or recognize, industry recommendations for safe and effective exercise.” If you are seeking mentoring for yourself, or you wish to mentor someone, make sure that all appropriate credentials and professional integrity are in place.
Coaching is not just a bridge from the corporate world to the personal training arena; it is also an empowering approach to group fitness. The instructor who intuitively cues participants on correct and safe movement does so not just for application during class but also with carryover to the participants’ lives outside the gym. If you encourage people to take other classes that cross-train them, to healthfully refuel after a rigorous session and to prioritize sleep to round out a healthy lifestyle, you are in fact dabbling in coaching. Obviously, true coaching is much more intimate and specific to individuals (and requires appropriate training), but these are examples of how the fitness hour with you is just one component of an overall healthy and balanced lifestyle.
A New Generation
The above titles are just a few of the many hats the group fitness instructor wears. There are many more! There is also the “techno wiz,” who keeps the class lit, air-conditioned and audible; there’s the “first-aid responder,” who helps clients avoid injury and, in the face of an incident, makes the judgment to stall class or momentarily put it on autopilot; and there’s the “master of classroom management,” who navigates as participants jockey for prime positions, take phone calls, ignore safety cuing and chatter to the distraction of others.
So, now when you think back on that last class you taught, do you realize that leading group fitness is more than just an hourly job? Although the expectations of your employer, your professional affiliations and the participants are demanding, you aren’t fenced in by that triad you serve. Rather, you are perfectly situated on top of the pyramid, with the clarity and strength to serve diverse needs as you define the characteristics of a new generation of instructors.
A mentor is
and worthy professional who selflessly empowers others to find their own