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Putting Science Into Practice

Mary Sanders, MS, (center) shares how to glean professional riches and stay renewed.

1997 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year co-winner Mary Sanders, MS, has earned a reputation for her ability to take scientific principles and apply them to real life. Sanders conducts research in exercise physiology and educational leadership, trains instructors worldwide and is a respected international presenter and author. Her dedication to helping others and developing top-notch continuing education inspires other fitness professionals to step outside their comfort zones.

From the “outside in”:

  • Be a sponge. Read and absorb multiple sources (Internet, television, radio, etc.) as much as possible. Attend a state legislative meeting on education to discover the priorities in your region, and think about how you might develop physical activity programs to target health in schools.
  • Always be a student. Attend conferences, workshops and classes and ask questions!
  • Immerse yourself in all kinds of new activities.

From the “inside out”:

  • Listen carefully to people. Observe and network. Stay attentive to what goes on around you, notice how it relates to your work—and then apply it. Watch Oprah occasionally to learn your students’ perspectives and develop commonalities.
  • Create ideas and then take action. Identify a problem or question and seek ways to solve it.
  • Develop a workshop on the edge of your circle of expertise. Stretch yourself by expanding your current knowledge and learning something new.
  • Be responsible by using the most accurate and reliable information available and citing your sources. Take active responsibility by sharing the information with others. Learn more by teaching workshops or writing articles (for the local paper or professional publications).

I do Internet searches through sources like Medline and various newspapers, write (papers, articles, newsletters for students), listen to news items, and discuss and interpret studies for students. I enjoy putting science into practice—finding real-life applications. I rely on peer-reviewed publications and sources to ensure the highest degree of accuracy. So much information is available. If people don’t understand how to access the most reliable and valid sources, they can be fooled. Therefore, I seek information from the best scientific sources.

I use “responsive teaching methods.”

You must first understand students’ needs, challenges and training objectives and then teach responsively using a coach approach.

Here is my leadership progression for each exercise in a group class:


  • exercise objective/purpose linked to real life (e.g., “We are strengthening the lower body so you can go up and down stairs more easily”)
  • proper stabilization/body alignment
  • basic move or exercise
  • progression methods to increase or decrease intensity


  • Let participants take charge.
  • Provide feedback on movement patterns, body mechanics, proper breathing, feelings of overload (e.g., “You should be working hard enough so that you can keep up this pace for only 30 seconds”).
  • Check and correct as needed, either individually or as a group, so everyone learns to improve and has the chance to share the work of others (e.g., “Let’s all work the elbows in extension with the elbows held tight to the waist. Now, let’s correct the position so the elbows are about a fist distance from the waist and we are moving our arms in a more neutral and comfortable position”).


  • Urge participants to work at their personal-best pace, and remind them to adjust their intensity by working the progression up or down (e.g., “Find a pace that you can continue for 3 minutes”).
  • Encourage participants to modify moves as needed (e.g., “If a jog feels uncomfortable, take your move into a march and continue”).
  • Check and correct body mechanics.
  • Encourage and celebrate.

Specifically, in 1984 I developed and wrote a vision for my work, along with some mission statements for action.

Generally, I focused on an area that I have passion for and I invested in lifelong learning. I also dedicated myself to teaching a broad variety of people, including peers, trainers, school students, seasoned participants, beginning students and those who don’t know how or why to exercise for health.

I grew my work through the economics of relationships by working with key organizations and people who move the industry forward for the betterment of the whole—who share a vision for wellness, health and fitness through education, caring and support.

I am inspired by the person who is my student at any given moment.

Here are my top 10 tips:

1. Discover and Focus. Find the area of health or fitness that you love, and teach it. Choose honestly. Be passionate!

2. Grow Smart. Learn all you can about your focus, and practice daily, enjoying the lifelong process of achieving excellence, not perfection.

3. Expose Yourself and Stretch. Experience a variety of activities that are related to health and fitness (attend classes and conferences; drop in on groups that are active and others that are not).

4. Be Empowering. Empower others to make decisions based on your encouragement, knowledge, honesty, support and kindness. Care about others and create a safe and comfortable environment. Frequently ask, “How can I help you?”

5. Strengthen and Motivate. Reinforce lifelong wellness in others by equipping them to take charge of their lives. Teach, coach and guide them to develop—for themselves—their own personal skills for lifelong physical activity and health, even as their bodies change over time.

6. Serve and Synergize. Support policies, organizations and individuals that share your wellness vision and are dedicated to moving the industry forward ethically for the good of the whole. Vote on issues, participate on committees that develop policy, invest in memberships, make professional contributions and donate services.

7. Mentor Others. When you teach, you learn twice.

8. Relate to Wealth. Work the economics of rich relationships; they mean everything in the business of living well.

9. Be Attentive. Stay awake, be flexible and embrace change. Keep growing, learning and reinventing yourself as changes occur. Our field is an endurance sport—enjoy the process. Love what you do, and nurture it.

10. Live Well. Make decisions according to the Golden Rule and then take responsibility for them, for they will reveal your character.

I listen to my body, set boundaries for the amount of work I accept, and focus on effective teaching through leadership, not physical performance. I continue to develop teaching methods that serve my participants’ learning, in balance with my personal health needs. The greatest gift we give our students is our healthy guidance! Let’s model good practices and safe, effective leadership skills, focusing on these qualities instead of performance.

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