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What’s Your Exit Strategy?

Take a look at the "expiration date" on your teaching career, and plan for a successful segue.

Have you heard the saying "Begin with the ending in mind"? Over the years, this axiom has probably helped you solve complex math problems, create a science-fair project, or even write a research paper. But you may have forgotten this sage advice when it comes to planning something with even higher stakes: your career.

During my years as a consultant, I've helped hundreds of pros figure out what's next in their fitness careers. Typically, when instructors focus on career planning, the talk turns to finding new opportunities that provide a bigger stage, a bigger challenge or a bigger paycheck—in other words, the kind of career development and skill acquisition needed in order to take center stage. However, what about the necessary discussion surrounding longevity and sustainability in this profession?

Enter the Exit Strategy

When you're considering an exit strategy, it helps to reverse-engineer your current industry involvement and future development needs. Even if teaching is not your full-time career, being reactive is risky. Thinking about your desired (and eventual) role in the industry helps you plan and safeguard your time and energy along the way. The smarter you are about your investments, both financially and emotionally, the more likely you are to stay in the industry and help people for years to come!

An exit strategy requires that you think about when you want to leave (whether you'll be leaving the industry itself or leaving work in general) and how you envision your departure. Having a plan enables you to choose the right opportunities and build necessary skills now. Instead of waiting until you just can't do what you're doing any longer and you're forced to quit, take smart steps to grow into a position that will allow you to earn the money you need and be part of this industry for as long as you'd like! Read on to find out how.

Determine Your Timeline

Attaching a date to a goal is a crucial part of any process. Even though the day when you hang up your spandex may feel like a distant blur, you must begin with a date in mind. Can you imagine an age, for example, when you would not want to be in fitness any longer? Of course, it's hard to picture an end to all this fun, but you will likely reach an age when you simply don't want to work anymore, in fitness or otherwise. Write that number down.

Now, put that figure through another filter: How long do you want to be teaching classes? Be realistic. Sure, you can teach into your 60s. However, the important follow-up questions are these:

  • Will you want to?
  • Will you be able to?
  • Will it be at the same pace?

If your answers to the above questions are no, make note of the age at which you foresee needing to make a significant change in your role (we'll call this preretirement). The difference between retirement age (when you stop working altogether) and preretirement age (when you need to be less physical) is important to consider when you're devising your exit strategy.

Assess Your Current Situation

To get a clear view of your current situation, you'll need to explore three areas:

Personal. Take note of where you are personally. Are you single or married? Do you have children? Are you a city dweller, or do you live in the suburbs or in a rural area?

Financial. Determine your total annual income (from all sources). What part does fitness play in your overall income? Don't forget to factor in the expenses associated with teaching.

Professional. Finally, think about your current role (or roles). How many different fitness jobs do you hold? Do you work for a company, or for yourself? Is your skillset diverse, or is it focused? Do you like what you do now? What do you enjoy doing? How is your body holding up? Do you like your schedule?

Consider Your Future Needs

Looking back at the areas explored above, you'll need to consider how your situation may change or need to change in the future.

Personally: Do you foresee your personal situation changing drastically? Keep in mind that your relationship status, children and location will potentially affect where you work, the money you make, and the hours you're willing to put in.

Financially: Do you need to worry about the amount of money you make from fitness in the near term or long term? You've already accounted for how your physical body/health may affect your income, but are there other factors that might change your financial requirements? For example, what if you have more mouths to feed at some point or you need to make an unexpected big purchase?

Professionally: You've already identified when you'll need to switch gears based on your physical body. This will necessitate a change in skillset if you want to remain in the industry. Have you considered other paths? Is there anything you know you want or need to do in order to feel successful, engaged and relevant?

Make a Plan

Now that you've assessed current and future needs, you can clearly see if there are gaps that need to be filled. You're also clear about how long you have between now and preretirement. The more time you have, the more opportunities you can explore. Conversely, the shorter the timeline, the more strategic you'll need to be. Finally, alongside your finances and your time, it's important to consider your natural talents and inclinations. While an opportunity might look good on paper, it will not work if it doesn't suit you! Don't go on faith that you'll learn to love it because you must. There are many creative ways to stay in the industry while remaining authentic and aligning your strengths with your passion.

Consider opportunities that will safeguard and stretch your abilities, as well as your earning potential. Here are a few paths to consider:

Management. Becoming a manager is not a linear progression. However, people who are looking for a bigger (or more stable) paycheck alongside longevity usually accept management positions. Becoming a manager requires you to move behind the scenes, teach less and mentor more. Plus, you'll need to embrace the business side of the fitness industry, which includes managing payroll, analyzing metrics, scheduling, handling customer service and hiring—as well as project management.

Education. While becoming a master trainer is not a natural evolution for everyone, it is certainly worth considering if you have a knack for helping others learn how to do what you already do well! Depending on the organization, the work can be financially rewarding; plus, it may lead to a role in program development or program management, which is far less physical than teaching. It's important to consider the time involved and whether or not you can learn to teach teachers.

Entrepreneurship. This bucket can hold many opportunities, such as developing your own products or programs, writing books, making videos, becoming a consultant and opening your own studio. You can fill it to the brim if you are creative and receptive. You'll need to learn more about business, marketing and sales, and you'll also need to network with colleagues and adjacent professionals to make the most of the earning opportunities. If running a business is not in your DNA, however, this is not a good path. Even a small consulting business requires you to be all things: administrator, accountant, marketer, salesperson, project manager and developer. This is the smartest path for residual income, even if it's minimal, and it's a good option if you plan to be in the industry for a long time and you want fitness to be your primary income generator.

Teaching. If being an instructor is all you want to do, consider diversifying the formats you teach, as well as your method of delivery. Instead of obtaining trendy certifications or teaching just what you like, explore options that provide longevity (think less physical effort, more coaching). Instead of assuming you'll always need to teach one-to-many, explore small-group training and maybe even one-on-one or online training. Finally, brainstorm how teaching at alternative locations might be more lucrative or better suited to your path. Studios, churches or parks might be interesting new venues for teaching on your terms.

A Clear and Bright Path

Once you've determined the path(s) you'd like to explore and you've learned more about the skills involved, as well as the opportunities, you can start making inroads. You're ready to build your exit strategy when

  • you have a timeline in mind (retirement);
  • you understand your financial needs and your desires for today and the future; and
  • you know what might interest you along the way.

Your plan will help you figure out how to be in the industry today while getting the biggest return on your investment (emotional and financial) in the future. You'll be smarter about the jobs you take, the continuing education you pursue, and how much time you spend in a particular setting. It's crucial to get a head start on being less physical. Don't simply trade time for money; instead, explore the skills you need in order to get ahead in this business. Put the wheels in motion that will allow you to continue inspiring the world to fitness even when you're no longer interested in step–touching. You'll be happier and healthier, both now and in the future!


At some point you may want to lighten your teaching load or switch teams altogether (while remaining in fitness). Plan in advance for your next stage, which could include any of the following options:

  • Become a personal trainer (small-group or one-on-ne).
  • Get credentialed as a health coach.
  • Become a master trainer with a fitness company.
  • Develop and market a fitness-elated product or service.
  • Commit to being a fitness manager.
Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable is a sought-after speaker, author and thought leader in the area of fitness business development and strategic innovation. She has spent more than two decades helping impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, ACE, FIT4MOM® and BOSU® with business and program development. Fable served as chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the co-founder of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool that she successfully sold to Daxko in 2019. As a certified Book Yourself Solid® business coach, she helps fitness professionals navigate the industry to build scalable and sustainable careers.

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