At the age of 40, Seattle-based France Marien, certified instructor and creator of the Remix Workout® app, was taken by ambulance to the hospital, complaining of chest pain. Coming from a family with a history of heart disease, Marien was very frightened and underwent a battery of tests. “The conclusion was quite simple,” she says. “I need to take care of myself. I was stressed out. I had to stop saying yes to everything.”
As fitness professionals, we are famous for advocating and facilitating wellness and self-care in our students and clients, but perhaps not as diligent about doing so for ourselves; there is a fine line between “giving until it helps” and “giving until it hurts.” This is especially true during periods of high stress and uncertainty, like the current COVID-19 crisis, which is now necessitating more focus on self-care and personal wellness.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Reducing your stress levels can not only make you feel better right now, but may also protect your health long-term” (APA 2013). For someone with Marien’s family history, knowing that a positive effect (low stress levels) can protect against coronary heart disease may be enough to prompt some changes.
Necessity of Self-Care for Fitness Pros
Most of us got into the fitness business for the chance to help people improve their lives. While that is laudable, it can also be draining. We need to take care of our own needs, too.
“(Without self-care) I’m much less capable of helping my personal training clients and group fitness participants reach their health and fitness goals,” says Tamara Grand, PhD, author and certified personal trainer from Port Moody, British Columbia. “Not only am I not practicing what I preach, but I also lose my motivation and enthusiasm for guiding others. Self-care is the act of putting on your own ‘oxygen mask’ before reaching out to help others adjust theirs. For me, this includes regular exercise, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and time spent with family and friends away from the gym (knitting is important, too).”
Marien likes to use a bank analogy: “It’s a way to make deposits in your wellness account. If we don’t make deposits, our account will go dry, which makes us very poor examples for our clients.”
Liliana Lugo Lásser, executive director of Kuerpo Activo Internacional in Caracas, Venezuela, is also an advocate for self-care. “We must train ourselves to survive in the best way possible. It’s about more than just training our bodies; taking care of oneself includes positive thinking, and being joyful and thankful. It means consciousness—the intentional act of taking care of our physical, mental and emotional self. This is how we create balance in our lives and surroundings.”
There is a pragmatic aspect to treating ourselves as a client, too, according to Betsy Kortebein, a certified trainer and instructor in Randolph, New Jersey. “We are role models in the fitness community. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we expect our clients to do the same? [Of course,] we experience pitfalls and detours from our healthy routine like everyone else.”
Cedar Bluff, Alabama–based Leigh Crews, 2011 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, adds, “If we don’t counterbalance the physical with some TLC, we increase the risk of injury or burnout.”
Areas of Wellness and Self-Care
Knowing it’s important to take care of ourselves and knowing where to start are two different things—especially as the areas needing more attention vary from person to person. “Self-care is caring for our health in a whole way—taking the time on a daily basis to meet our personal needs so we can live a whole life and be our best,” explains certified trainer and Zumba® instructor Sarah Jane Parker of Gillette, Wyoming. To her, leading a “whole life” includes getting enough rest, enjoying family time, caring for her body through good nutrition, having time for her own fitness routine, and getting enough sunshine and fresh air.
But what parts make up the whole? The International Council on Active Aging® offers a list of seven wellness dimensions. As you read through the list, consider how well you take care of yourself in each category. In the areas where you need more attention, challenge yourself to create opportunities for realistic, achievable improvement.
- Emotional. Coping with challenges and behaving in trustworthy and respectful ways signal emotional wellness.
- Intellectual, cognitive. Creative pursuits and intellectually stimulating activities keep the mind alert and interested.
- Physical. Lifestyle choices that maintain or improve health and functional ability help us reach a widely shared goal of independent living.
- Professional, vocational. Using our skills is valuable for society as well as ourselves.
- Social. Interactions with family, friends, neighbors and chosen peer groups can be valuable for maintaining health.
- Spiritual. Having meaning and purpose in life, guided by personal values and beliefs, helps us connect to the larger world.
- Environmental. Respecting resources and supporting designs that encourage active living are ways we can practice good stewardship of natural and manmade environments.
Source: ICAA 2014. Used with permission.
Using these seven dimensions as a framework, you can plug in various activities that will enable you to stay energized, passionate and engaged in a meaningful life.
Self-Care Vs. Selfish
In her book The Art of Extreme Self-Care (Hay House 2012), best-selling author Cheryl Richardson writes, “As much as Americans are portrayed as an overindulgent society, the truth is that when we decide to care for ourselves in a more attentive, proactive, and soul-nourishing way, we’re forced to confront a cultural view that selfish is a dirty word.”
If we break the word selfish into its syllables, it becomes “self” and “ish.” Often, the “ish” part means “a little bit” or “sort of.” For example, when we say we’re “hungry-ish,” we mean we are just a bit hungry. Or if you say, “She’s my friend-ish,” you mean she is only sort of your friend. Perhaps it’s time to look at selfish and self-care as two endpoints on a linear scale, with “selfish” being “caring about self a little bit” and “self-care” being “caring about self fully.” Maybe somewhere in the middle is “self-more”! If you can think in this way, perhaps it will be easier to shed the guilt we tend to feel about prioritizing our own care.
Richardson further states that when we make choices based on love and compassion, rather than guilt and obligation, “we begin to understand that we’re all connected, and that our individual actions affect the greater whole in a more profound way than we ever imagined.”
For example, if a client presses you to book a session on your day off, try this response: “You are important to me, and so is my family. During my working hours, I am 100% focused on you, and on my day off I am focused on my family. If I were to book a session with you on my day off, I wouldn’t give you the attention you deserve because they’d be on my mind. Let’s find a time during my normal working hours when I can focus just on you.”
This response demonstrates that
- the client is important;
- you have compassion for the client’s needs, but you are not going to feel guilty about your own needs;
- you are able to stick up for yourself and your parameters; and
- it’s okay to respect yourself.
When the client sees that you do not feel obligated to change yourself for others’ sake, you are also modeling that you love your job, and yet it has its place. Building up clients’ confidence is a large part of what fitness pros do, and a statement like this can have a ripple effect.
This wholeness and interconnectedness are directly tied into the seven wellness dimensions, so forget about “selfish” and concentrate instead on being more “self-care-full.”
Tips for Becoming More Self-Care-Full
Whether you travel the globe leading workshops, own or manage a fitness business, or teach several times a week at the local gym, taking time to recharge is imperative for anyone who wants to stay engaged and productive. A variety of options are available, so choose what works for you.
“I love to socialize with my fitness friends,” shares Fred Hoffman, MEd, the Paris-based owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services, author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry and recipient of the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award. “But I also feel it’s important to have friends who are from outside the industry and with whom I can have different exchanges and experiences.”
2. Just Say No
“I’ve learned to say no when I’m in turbulence and doing too many things at once,” says Claudia Micco, wellness coordinator at the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Maui, Hawaii.
Saying no to more work can mean saying yes to family time. “Set very clear boundaries. Don’t feel obligated to train or teach at certain times if it means missing family time,” suggests Parker.
Grand adds, “Recently I decided to give up teaching and training on Sundays; it’s the only day during the week that my family of five can all be together. Giving up a class I’d been teaching for over 6 years wasn’t easy, but having days away
from work has made me happier and more focused on those days when I am in the gym.”
With clients worldwide, Hoffman had to learn to say no. “I was dealing with companies in different time zones and would make myself available early in the morning to very late in the evening in order to accommodate everyone. It got to be too much. I taught myself not to reply to emails in the middle of the night. When you set limits, they are respected. And if they see you’re available 24/7, [clients] expect quick responses. I now limit my working hours.”
“Put the phone away and turn the world off for 30 minutes,” states Marc Coronel, program director at TruFusion Yoga in Las Vegas. “Be in the moment, and you’ll amplify [what I call] your ‘energia.’ Do this and finish each day with focus, pride and recognition of your own self-discipline.”
Pamela Hernandez, certified personal trainer and ACE health coach in Springfield, Missouri, disconnects more than her phone. “Sunday is my social media sabbath. No Facebook, no Twitter, no email. It makes all the difference to unplug.”
“I do not bring my phone into the room when doing my personal workout,” says Hoffman. “By doing this, I can concentrate and avoid distractions.”
4. Turn Inward
After disconnecting from the external world, reconnect with the internal. Tamer Farag, CEO of FACTS Academy in Cairo, has the usual demands associated with running clubs as well as the stress of living in a country in turmoil. “Egypt and the Middle East are going through a rough time that began in 2011,” he notes. “With the crash of the economy, we had to double our efforts to maintain the same income we had before the revolution. For self-care, I gather myself in one piece after a busy day and pray, which calms me down.”
Alex McLean, program developer and choreographer in fast-paced Los Angeles, keeps a journal, takes notes and meditates.
Kortebein likes having a mantra. “I had knee surgery, and many of my activities were limited or impossible during recovery. So I developed my mantra: ‘Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.’”
Reading is also a wise idea, believes Micco. “I usually have five or six books around that I’m reading at once, and each one feeds my interests—whether it’s mentally, spiritually or scientifically.”
5. Sleep and Eat Well
“In my 50s, I really started to pay attention to my sleep,” shares Marien. “I rediscovered the joy of resting. I come from a family of women who are always doing something, and I realized that ‘busyness’ did not work for me.”
As a fitness pro who is on the road a lot, Crews includes nutrition as a self-care practice. “When I’m training or traveling, I pack nutritious snacks so I won’t be tempted to grab whatever is available at the gym, airport or hotel.”
6. Take Breaks
“I’m lucky that I live in a country where it’s not uncommon to take 4 weeks of vacation, which truly allows me to completely relax and become a bit detached from the work environment,” says Hoffman. For those with less time off, massages, manicures and pedicures might be alternative “minivacations.” Marien believes in “little bouts of relaxation and rejuvenation,” such as getting her hair done, taking hot baths or enjoying short walks.
McLean advocates gardening, tai chi, cooking and reading.
7. Get Outside
“We get stuck inside so often that it’s important to go outdoors and get fresh air and sunshine,” says Parker. “Being in nature makes a huge difference in how you feel.”
Crews sets her fitness monitor so that it alerts her to do some yoga or take a walk with her dog. “One of the reasons we got a dog was self-care. Playing with Molly (the dog) gets me out of my head and helps me keep my priorities straight.”
Encinitas, California–based Ann Heizer, certified trainer and instructor, and a self-described “agent of change,” recommends trying activities outside your comfort zone. “Do something you’ve never done before; that way you’re learning, not teaching. I’m part of a Sunday group that gets together to practice handstands, hooping and slack line—and to simply be!”
Challenges That Affect Fitness Pros
Like others who pursue helping careers, those of us who are trainers and instructors are professional givers, and the issues that affect this group are unique, varied, and sometimes even detrimental to our own health. Lack of self-care has many consequences. This list of the challenges that fitness pros may encounter was derived from our experts’ own experiences.
Possible Adverse Outcomes:
- injuries to the vocal cords and auditory system
- mental stress from multitasking
- physical stress and injury from overuse
- catastrophic injuries that prevent us from working for extended time periods
Challenges That Arise:
- maintaining a work-life balance
- establishing strong boundaries: being “off the clock” via email, phone and social media
- managing time, including time spent on social media
Do What You Love
Whether you are new to the field or close to retirement, a part-time instructor or a multifacility owner, in the end you must love what you do, as that love will alleviate much of the stress that comes with a career in the fitness industry. Farag—a proponent of soul searching before committing to the field—says the only comfort and self-care you may get for long periods of time may be your love of fitness. “To be a good manager, trainer or instructor takes a lot of energy and effort. It may take years to reach where you want to be or achieve the vision you set for yourself, but God bless us for being in this field, as our field is the cure of stress and bad habits.”