In January, millions of us made resolutions to eat better and exercise more. A friend who recently began waking up an hour earlier to hit the gym before work enviously declared, “Fitness instructors have it great because exercise is their jobs.” Her frustration piqued my interest: Do fitness instructors have it easier when it comes to work/life balance? How envious should we be?
Many of us attribute our growing waistlines to our work lives. In a 2013 Harris Interactive survey of more than 3,000 workers conducted for CareerBuilder, 41 percent of respondents said they’d gained weight in their current jobs, mostly because they sit at desks all day.
Fitness guru Marc Megna says instructors do the same juggling act as the rest of us as we struggle to find time for exercise. Most maintain schedules that include more than leading yoga or spinning classes. They offer personal training sessions, take on management duties or studio ownership, become fitness educators or corporate trainers to earn a full-time paycheck. While it appears fitness instructors get paid to work out, they typically aren’t exercising much when teaching, instructors say.
For Megna, 38, a typical day begins early in the morning when he opens Anatomy at 1220, the Miami Beach fitness facility where he is co-owner. To make time for his own hour-long workout, Megna wakes up at 3:30 a.m. “If I didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have a good day,” he says. Then, for the next 13 hours, he educates new members on safe equipment use, performs fitness assessments, attends meetings, leads group exercise classes and conducts at least a half-dozen personal training appointments.
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Megna says that as a trainer, he focuses on pushing others toward their fitness goals, not his own personal workout. “If you’re a good trainer, you have to work hard to find time to work out on your own.”
Fitness trainers and instructors held nearly 240,000 jobs in 2013 and represent a profession that’s growing fast, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median pay for fitness professionals in 2013 was $37,790 nationwide and $32,750 in Florida. Beyond gyms, instructors also work in hospitals, corporate wellness centers, clients’ homes and public parks. Employment of fitness trainers and instructors is projected to grow 13 percent over the next decade, particularly with the new corporate and government focus on wellness, according to the BLS.
It’s easy to admire gym instructors for their sleek bodies and focus on fitness, but it comes at a price of hard work and an irregular schedule.
For Aleah Stander, 29, weekends, early mornings and nights are prime time for the 10 indoor cycling classes she teaches each week. When she’s not instructing a class, Stander, a master teacher and creative director of the southeast region for Flywheel Sports, says she is managing other instructors, traveling throughout the Southeast, building relationships, negotiating schedules, tracking class attendance and promoting Flywheel on social media.
With her crazy schedule, dating is a challenge: “I teach in the evening when people normally date, or if I go out on Friday night, I don’t want to be out late because I’m teaching early on Saturday.” At the same time, Stander tries to make time for friends and exercise, too. “I have to schedule exercise or dating like I would a meeting and put it on my calendar.”
Another job requirement: lots of enthusiasm. Fitness gurus don’t have the luxury of feeling tired and cranky if their kids kept them up all night or they are fighting off they flu. They need limitless enthusiasm, energy and passion. They need to make stomach crunches and squats seem easy and cycling more fun. “We’re responsible for creating the energy in the room,” Stander explains.
The most in-demand instructors put in time outside of the gym, choreographing new routines and preparing playlists to keep students motivated.
Penny Needle has taught group classes for more than 30 years. Her work requires that she stay on top of new fitness trends with classes including Vinyasa Yoga, Pilates Fusion and Inside/Out Barre. At 57, she has created a cult-like following at Equinox in Coral Gables.
“I am constantly doing workshops and continuing education to keep my level of teaching up to standards,” she says, “It’s challenging to find the time, but I have to make my students stay interested and come back.”
For Needle, a mother of three, the career has allowed her to scale her work hours up or down based on her stage of life. Today, she works harder on stamina and supplements her fitness studio hours (and income) by teaching fitness at a corporation and one-on-one training in clients’ homes. “I’m older than some others, but I really love the fact that I still have the ability to inspire people.”
With obesity rates on the rise, most trainers say they are in the profession to improve someone’s health as they earn a living. “We’re trying to change lives, not just bodies,” explains Edwin Sanchez, 39, owner of SMB Fitness in North Miami Beach. Sanchez says his days at his studio start early and run late, making it easy for his life to get out of balance. But he truly loves what he is doing in life, he says.
“When I go home, I’m thinking about new routines. I’m trying to make clients enjoy exercise and think about it differently. When I see results, it’s not just in the body but also in the mind.”
Like Sanchez, Rina Jakubowicz, 35, started her own Miami fitness studio, Rina Yoga, to gain control over her schedule and teaching methods. The downside: to compete with the big chains, she had to create a niche and build a loyal following.
Over the past nine years, Jakubowicz has learned there is a lot at stake when someone walks into her studio. “It has to have the right music, the right feeling, the right teacher who recognizes when someone has a challenge.”
To bring about that experience, teach classes, travel to conferences and find time to practice yoga herself, Jakubowicz now wants to hire a business manager. Yet, she says that even if she just focused on teaching, the job still requires business savvy and commitment: “It’s up to every teacher to build a following, and that takes work.”