The Secret Life Of A Fitness Instructor

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4 min read

Contrary to the impression you might get from Instagram, being a fitness instructor isn’t an easy or glamorous life.

Sure, we get free Lululemon (sometimes) and occasionally we go out for brunch on a weekday, but the hours are odd (and start horrendously early), the shifts are short and the pay is much like the early starts.

keep fit like a Fitness instructor
Athanae taking a break after a yoga class in her current home in Italy.

Most instructors have a partner who is pulling in a substantially bigger income in order to support them, or a second more lucrative income stream. Some work as physios, some with events or promotional companies; some are nutritionists or work in other allied health professions or are owner-operators of the studios. I write and take short-term communications contracts whenever I can, am equally passionate about both career paths and feel very fortunate to be able to pursue each of them.

I started out teaching while I was still working part-time in politics and running an online health food business. I trained first in barre, then pilates, then yoga. My barre training was full of women (and one man) whose backgrounds ranged from musical theatre to ballet teacher to ex-Moulin Rouge dancer. I was an ex-journalist and political adviser who had entertained fantasies of being a ballerina as a child and was looking to dip my toe in to see how a career-change might play out.

To say that I was intimidated was a gross understatement.

Nearly five years later, I can honestly say that I feel I have more a positive impact on womens’ lives by doing this job than I did working in womens’ policy. As another political adviser said to me this week: ‘the impact is probably much more tangible’. It is, and I don’t have to play politics to make it happen.

Here’s what you might not know about, or might surprise you, about being a fitness instructor:

  • It’s not a workout for us. ‘You spend your day doing exercise,’ my best friend says with that tone of voice, after I complain about not having done any ‘proper’ exercise in about a week. I’m generally so client-focused that I spend my time walking, not demonstrating exercises, so while I’m not sitting at a desk all day every day, it’s not a workout.
  • On that note, we sometimes end up with injuries because we’re so focused on you that we might demonstrate an exercise on the same side twice, while you’ll do it on both sides. Naturally we’ll gravitate to our stronger side so any imbalances in our bodies can be magnified.
  • Our cars are usually filled with water bottles, leggings, a vast array of phone chargers and audio jacks, instruction manuals and takeaway coffee cups (I’m working on the water bottles and coffee cups to be more environmentally sustainable).
  • We are really good at getting ‘pre-ready’ for events. My best friend had birthday drinks last week and I turned up to teach a 5pm class with a blowdry and red lipstick, ready to get changed in the bathroom afterwards and head straight there.
  • We always have baby wipes with us (see above).
  • You need to learn to nap. Because you can end up teaching at the bookends of days, learning how to rest is crucial. I still haven’t mastered it and I know the days when I suffer for it I’ll inevitably say a few things in class that don’t make sense, struggle to remember the next part of the sequence or just drink too much coffee and get cranky and irrationally hungry (like everyone else).
  • People will share intimate details of their lives with you: injuries, pregnancies, tragedies, family stuff…it’s your responsibility to create a space for them to feel safe.
  • Prior to doing my training I was a bit of an ignoramus because I always assumed my pilates instructor was…just a pilates instructor. Wrong – most of us do other things and have other qualifications.
  • You’ll be pigeon-holed at social events. I’ve literally had people turn away from me to talk to other people at dinner parties when they find out what I do. Don’t expect people to ask you about current affairs. Do expect them to ask you to do a handstand and for advice on an injury. My standard response: see a qualified physiotherapist. You learn not to take it personally.
  • It can cost as much as a university/college degree to get qualified. And you continue to build on your training each year.
  • On the whole, you self-fund. There’s no employer sending you to Singapore for a conference and cocktails.
  • It takes a lot of preparation to be good. But, like anything eventually it comes more naturally over time. I used to get hugely anxious and spend up to 15 minutes in the bathroom before classes panicking and then calming myself down before I faced a class.
  • Like any career, there are ups and down. It’s uncertain, casual, unstable work, so to find a studio where you can get consistent classes or can act as an employee (rather than a contractor) is like striking gold. Clients can normally tell when you’re having a bad week, no matter how much you try to mask it.

The truth is we do it because we love it. We do it because we want you to be at your best health so you can live your best life.

That’s my motivation and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

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