Exercise can be hard. Sedentary people are often worried that the intensity will be too much, while longtime exercisers may need to revamp their motivation from time to time. For both populations, the passion, innovation and skill of veteran fitness pros are crucial.

Every year, IDEA recognizes the outstanding accomplishments and dedication of top professionals in three categories: IDEA Program Director of the Year, IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. Award recipients are fitness pros who positively influence their clients, their fellow fitness pros, the community and even the world! This year’s honorees will be celebrated at the IDEA World Fitness Convention™, August 7–11, in Los Angeles.

Here, the award recipients share their secrets to success, explain what drives them in their work and suggest how other fitness pros can advance their careers.

Carol Espel, MS
2013 IDEA Program Director of the Year

What is Carol Espel most proud of in her career? “The incredible leadership team that I have mentored and developed over the last 10 years at Equinox®,” she says.

In her role as global director of group fitness and Pilates for Equinox Fitness Clubs, Espel oversees 60 clubs throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. “My team is full of passionate, caring people,” she says. “Through them we have brought forward so many programs and initiatives that impact our members’ lives for the better,” she says, speaking of cutting-edge group fitness classes like Whipped, Power Nap, Barre Burn and Animal Flow.

How does Espel successfully juggle these instructors and programs—and stay focused at the same time? “I put a handwritten note on my computer that reads, ‘Have the patience to be present in every moment.’ It’s hard not getting caught up in ‘what’s next,’ but if I have learned anything through the years, it’s the conscious participation in the ‘moments’ that bring value to all we do, both personally and professionally.”

Espel encourages all program directors to seek training that will help them manage their time and develop organizational skills. “In our industry we are not often trained in skills like these,” she explains. “I took it upon myself several years back to hire a management coach whom I worked with monthly—and now work with quarterly—to enhance my communication and other skill sets. These skills have helped me better position myself as a leader and more effectively drive departmental initiatives forward.”

Leadership is also about “having a mindset that supports staying as even-keeled, centered and consistent as possible,” says Espel. “Ours is an emotional world, and as a leader, it’s critical to remain empathetic and personal, yet maintain clarity, focus and even courage to make the right decisions based on the vision and objectives of the department. Pranayama breathing techniques also help!”

What advice does she have for other program directors who want to enhance their careers? “Expanding your mindset is really the most sure-fire pathway to success,” she says. “Expose yourself to as many perspectives and educational experiences as possible, both inside and outside our industry. Examine nonfitness business and thought leaders, look at new approaches and discover great ways of thinking that might have a relevant application in our industry.”

Espel has continuously worked to nurture new programs for Equinox members, especially novice exercisers. “The hardest part is getting them off the computer and into the studio,” she explains. “We try to build [very] user-friendly, nonthreatening, accessible offerings that are varied and fun! It’s crucial to make classes relevant and personal to the population we are targeting. Then, once [people] are there, we have to give them compelling workouts that lead them to success and motivate them to come again, as hard as the first time might have been.”

She is particularly proud of the free, community health effort, Shape Up NYC, that reaches new exercisers in New York City. “This collaborative effort among New York Service, NYC Parks & Recreation department and Equinox has supported over 15 community centers across all five boroughs with Equinox-led classes. The commitment by my team to deliver meaningful experiences to those who may never have experienced a class is deeply personal for all of us. What’s also been great is the integration of teens. Most had no idea movement could be so fun and could make their hearts and bodies stronger.”

Motivating exercisers has been Espel’s mission for a long time. “Being of service to others fully drives all that I do,” she explains. “For almost 20 years, I have gotten up at the crack of dawn to teach or take a class or train with a trainer. It’s as powerful and deep a passion as it was back in 1985, when I began my career!”

2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year
Brett Klika

What is Brett Klika’s secret to motivating inactive exercisers? “Truly listening, and ‘meeting people where they are at,’” he says.

“As personal trainers, we have to remember what exercise represents to someone who is inactive. It’s scary. It hurts. It takes time. It may take money. We are the symbols of this seemingly unpleasant activity. A lot can be done with a smile, some compassion, and understanding. We are not trying to get people to be personal trainers or magazine models. We are trying to get them to take back control of their lives through movement. This can be done in many ways. People should always feel better after an interaction with a personal trainer. Never worse.”

As director of athletic performance for Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, Klika manages a staff of eight athlete performance specialists and maintains a personal training schedule of 20–30 client sessions per week. He also specializes in helping children. “I am passionate about working with kids because the positive impact we can have on them early in their life is tremendous,” he explains. “Young children are developing habits that will last a lifetime. These habits can contribute to their success or their defeat in health, wellness and life. Their psyches are programmed for positivity, and we can build on that through education, motivation and perspiration! My experience with youth has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve worked with many kids throughout their growth from grade-schooler to adult. Some have gone into the fitness profession, and others have seamlessly integrated fitness and wellness into their lives in other careers. I have had the opportunity to watch children grow into happy, healthy, pain-free adults.”

Klika strives to be a source of inspiration, not only to his own clients, but also to his colleagues. What’s his advice for helping trainers develop their careers? “Believe in yourself, but know you never stop ‘paying dues.’ We are in the service industry, and in order to grow, we must always find better ways to serve our clients. We should always be educating ourselves and always finding ways to provide an even more enriching experience for those we serve.”
So what does he tell trainers who want to provide a better session for their clients? “To create an unmatched client experience, you need to make the session and training program about the client,” he says. “I try to find common ground [with] my clients: a mutual interest, a common goal or anything else that helps build a rapport. I find this essential whether I am working with children, adults or high-profile professional athletes.”

Klika believes that “part of providing service to clients is fortifying ourselves as trainers. Educating ourselves, enhancing our health and improving our life situation in finances, business and relationships will give us a positive, proactive platform from which to inspire others. Inspiration, however, comes just as much from listening as it does from talking. Very few things will pay more dividends in training than truly listening to our clients. They will tell you with words, body language and adherence what works for them.”

Klika is grateful to have worked both under the leadership and among the staff at Fitness Quest 10. “That opportunity,” he says, “and my amazing clients who have been with me for more than a decade have provided me both a platform and the fuel to inspire millions.” Klika makes those two words his mantra.

His last word of advice? Find fun and laughter in what you do. “One way to look at offering great service is to provide something that others aren’t,” he notes. “The world today isn’t that great at providing fun and laughter. If you can do it as a personal trainer, you will be changing someone’s life for the better.”

Shannon Fable
2013 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year

Prior to the birth of her daughter, Shannon Fable thought she knew how to reach inactive exercisers. However, her pre-delivery hospital stay gave her new insights into them. “For 73 days I did no activity at all, and then I had a C-section,” says Fable, who had been exercising regularly since age 3.

“Let’s just say I wasn’t in the best shape of my life after that!” she laughs. “I started to ‘get’ what other people went through when deciding to work out again and enter a group fitness studio. Finding the courage to even get out of the car in the parking lot at the yoga studio was monumental for me postbaby. There I was in the back of class with a baggy T-shirt on and hiding behind a pole, hoping the teacher didn’t come near me during class, and I finally got it!

Fable realized she had been sympathetic to the folks in her classes, but not empathetic. “I have always known that I needed to be welcoming and provide modifications, but I didn’t understand the psyches of people who were scared to come in, fearing they couldn’t exercise.”

As founder and CEO of Sunshine Fitness Resources, as well as owner of Balletone® and GroupExPro, Fable is an international presenter, program developer and master trainer for several companies. As effective a teacher as she was before, she has rededicated herself to helping the inactive. “I changed my teaching strategies to be more inclusive, avoiding modifications and instead providing options without judgment. I started to dig deep into creating programs and cuing systems that addressed the psychology of the students [as much as] their physiology.”

This experience has launched Fable on a mission to help instructors see that there is more to teaching than simply being passionate about fitness. “My favorite role has been mentoring and educating at conferences, at the club level and individually. Each has had its own share of rewards and challenges. Now I get to mentor and educate franchisees, owners and trainers/instructors in my position as the director of exercise programming for Anytime Fitness® Corporate. I love planting an idea via email, blog or article, expanding on it with a call or a webinar and then having people take the information into the field and report back to see how it needs to be adjusted to land just right.”

This job has allowed her to “truly ‘be the change,’” she says. “I knew a long time ago that teaching was the start of the ripple; I could influence those in front of me, who then hopefully would be nicer to the folks in their circle. Then, when I started presenting and consulting, I realized the impact was even greater if I could influence other instructors to look at their career as [having] that ripple effect. So mentoring and educating just keeps adding to the ripple effect!”

Her GroupEx PRO has been providing free, nonbranded resources to instructors for years. Now she has turned the focus to group exercise managers. “Educating managers is truly the missing link,” she says. “In many cases, passionate instructors aren’t finding the support they need at the club level, because the managers in most cases aren’t hired and trained properly in this delicate leadership position. Managers lack the time and the funds to work outside of our industry and find the leadership skills they need. We aim to bridge that gap through free webinars, resources and forums.”

Fable wants to give back to other fitness pros, as her mentors have given to her. She thanks Melissa Layne, MSEd, Donna Cyrus, Tracey Harvey and Jay Blahnik for mentoring her and giving her presenting and business opportunities. “I also thank Chuck Runyon and Dave Mortensen from Anytime Fitness—they have allowed me to find a ‘home’ where I can continue doing what I love and help improve people’s self-esteem, which has always been my dream.”