2005 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Helen Vanderburg is founder and president of Heavens Fitness Limited in Calgary, Alberta. She also trains other fitness professionals through Hi Fitness Inc., is executive director of Helco Management and co-owns Fountain Park Health Club. What does she do in her spare time? Why, she teaches, of course! She leads a variety of classes and is a big advocate of training and continuing education. Her passion for bringing exercise to the masses permeates everything she touches.

What have been the biggest changes in the fitness industry since you started?

I began teaching fitness in 1980. So much has changed since then! I remember my first class was 20 minutes long. We spent 5 minutes walking in a circle warming up and stretching; 10 minutes doing cardio, which consisted of jumping jacks, jogging on the spot and straddle jumps; and another 5 minutes stretching. Of course, music was background in those days.

Since then, our industry has drastically changed. We are more educated, sophisticated and research based. Fitness classes have evolved. Everyone used to do the same thing, and now there is a wide range of unique and diverse classes to choose from. The best way I can describe the change is that we now offer “smart fitness” programs. We base our classes on individual goals and needs. Rather than thinking of exercises as “good” or “bad,” we look at what is appropriate for each person. The selection and design are based on sound training principles versus personal preference. As fitness professionals we are better equipped and educated to design effective programs.

What sources do you tap for new ideas for classes and programs?

I believe ideas and creativity come from exposing yourself to a wide range of activities. My major sources are educational events like IDEA World Fitness®, which I have been attending since 1985. IDEA Fitness Journal is an excellent source of innovative ideas from fitness leaders around the world. I also look outside the industry for global trends in magazines and books.

Can you relate the story of a student who particularly exemplifies the Inspire the World to Fitness call to action?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, as I have been inspired by so many people in the past 25 years. Each one has a unique story. The most current example is my student Jennifer Gregory, who recently passed away after a 10-year battle with cancer. In those 10 years she inspired me and everyone else who knew her with her positive attitude and strong belief in the power of physical fitness. She believed it not only kept the body healthy but also strengthened the mind and soul. She worked out after her chemotherapy treatments even though she was tired. She always told me it was her way of staying in control of her body. Jennifer maintained her fitness and strength throughout her battle and even attended a yoga class that we hosted as a fundraiser for the Rosedale Hospice 3 weeks before she died. It would have been easy for her to stay on the couch, but she didn’t. I only hope that I can always be as positive and strong as she was.

What was the smartest thing you did to grow your career?

The smartest thing I ever did was apply to present at an IDEA convention. It took a lot of courage to put my ideas forward and to get up onstage in front of my peers, but it was the best thing I ever did. Since then, my career has evolved into what it is today. I present at more than 20 conventions a year throughout the world.

What advice do ou have for new instructors?

My best advice is to be a sponge! Absorb as much as you can from experienced fitness instructors and trainers. When I was 20 years old I remember laughing at the saying “With age comes wisdom.” Now I realize how true it is. Attend conventions and expose yourself to lots of ideas. Learning never ends. The more skills you can bring to a fitness facility or to your own business, the better off you will be.

How do you avoid injuries?

I train smart. I teach a wide variety of activities from high-intensity, high-impact cardio to yoga and Pilates. I try to balance my teaching schedule with my personal training program. My advice is to rest. Take breaks. Don’t be neurotic about exercise. Taking a day off is good for you!

What can group fitness instructors do on a daily basis to further the positive growth of the industry?

I believe the future and longevity of our careers and the further growth of our industry depend on continuing education. We must educate ourselves and pass along what we learn to everyone we meet. Be an inspiration to everyone. Remember that our actions speak louder than our words. Always act with integrity and professionalism. Each participant is the most important person in the room. Remember, it is the little things we do for people that inspire them and keep them coming back.