A personal journey through a fitness career

Working in the customer facing industry can impact a person’s mental health both positively and negatively and this may be especially true for instructors working in high visibility fitness and group exercise.

Following World Mental Health Day on Sunday, 10 October, we have been privileged to hear from our Head of Instructor Support, Sue, who tells us about her mental health journey

“I’ve worked in leisure and fitness since the age of 14 and very early on was told that it was all about the customer experience.  Managers were advocates of ‘what was going on in our own personal life was left at the doors when you entered work, leave any stresses or issues behind and plant that smile firmly on your face’.  Up until eight years ago I followed this mantra and having to fake that smile did help me through some very difficult personal times.

How many group exercise instructors will find themselves in situations that put their mental health at risk?  It’s all too easy to focus on the one piece of negative feedback we get, compared to the hundreds of happy customers we do help.  Why do we compare ourselves to other instructors?

  • Questioning why they are pulling in more numbers than me
  • I don’t fit in
  • Do I know enough?
  • Questioning your abilities when a participant doesn’t come back?

Sometimes we unfortunately face personal crisis but what do we do, we rock up, put on that smile and ‘fake it till we make it’.

There is so much pressure around working in group exercise, and we’re not always taught how to deal with it.   Most of the time if I was going through difficult times, I would still have to turn up as I couldn’t afford to not teach and found by going to class and being around class participants actually lifted my spirits.

The same applied when presenting at trade shows as this usually entailed 3- 4 days of back-to-back product demos on stage.  By day 2 your body is broken but for the person watching, it was showtime, and I usually paid the price the following week as I was on my knees with cold/flu and mental exhaustion.

My personal journey with mental health

I’d been guilty of comparing myself to others, I just believed it was what you had to deal with working in group ex.

However, this all changed when suddenly becoming a single mum in 2011 meant that my income was not enough to look after my children on my own.  I loved teaching, it was the only thing I thought I could do well.  I threw myself into whatever classes I could, teaching 40 classes a week plus cover classes and yet I still wasn’t making enough to cover the bills.  I was burnt out in 5 months but kept slogging through, until I was faced with a ruptured Achilles one night after class and the reality that I wouldn’t be teaching group ex for at least 6 months.

Looking back, this was one of the most mentally challenging times in my life.  Group exercise defined who I thought I was, everything I did revolved around teaching and presenting, and now what was I going to do?  I felt useless, lost, and broken and hid my anxiety and depression away from friends and family.

I was a single mum and an unemployable group ex instructor with no idea what else I could do. I took every job I could – working on receptions, helping PT clients with social media – but I just couldn’t cut it and finally had a breakdown.

Over the ensuing months, I searched for ways to get back to being me, beyond group ex, but it was actually a client of mine at the time who asked me what my ‘Why’ was.  I had no idea!  I set about reading every book I could, to find something that resonated with me, to get me out of depression.  Gradually I began to see life in a positive way, even if my win of the day was to get out of bed.  On tough days I would call Mind helpline just to talk to someone outside of the family who didn’t pass judgement about me not holding it all together. During one of these chats, I discovered I had put that pressure on myself, did my family and friends believe that I had to keep it together or was that me? Guess what, it was me. It was going back to group ex days of ‘the performance’, but in the end this mindset was stopping me from getting the help I needed.

I posted on social media that I was struggling with the path I was on and spilled the beans on my mental health.  I was overwhelmed with people privately messaging me to say ‘thanks for being real and admitting you’re not fine’.  By admitting this I had helped them to reach out to Mind, the Samaritans or speak to family.  I felt a load lifted off me, that this expectation of being perfect didn’t matter, and that being ‘real and raw’ helped not just me, but enabled others to follow in my footsteps.

Little did I know that the lessons from this experience would lead me to where I am today.  I had to dig deep to find out who I was, what was my ‘Why’.  How could I transfer my skills to another industry?  What I hadn’t realised was we are far more than just instructors who stand at the front.

This gradually led me to contract work and presenting around the world for large global fitness brands.  Stepping away from my comfort zone allowed me to grow.  While reframing and learning from an experience, good or bad, it’s possible to accept that we all make mistakes but it’s how we learn from them that’s important.

Lessons I have learned

Mentally I will never profess to have my life together, but I now understand my triggers, as an empath I know my strengths and weaknesses, I own up to my mental health to colleagues and friends, I have bad days, but I allow myself to have them.

There’s no denying that group ex is a positive experience for all involved, but we do need to allow ourselves time to say NO and unpack feelings and emotions.  Why wait until you reach burnout?

I don’t box up my problems, I believe you need to set time aside to unpack them.  Life will always throw you curved balls when you least expect it, but one thing I can assure you, everything that I have been through, has led me to who I am today.

If you are struggling with your own mental health, please don’t feel alone, or feel that you need to keep it all together all the time.

Most importantly ask for help, whether that’s from family and friends or from one of the many charities there are.  No one can heal or do your inner work for you, but it doesn’t mean you can, should or need to do it alone.

Remember, you are incredible at what you do, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.  Take those regular breaks from work now, to keep on top of your mental and physical health.

For more information on the numerous helplines and charities see links below:

Group exercise instructors may also wish to add our Level 2 Award in Mental Health Awareness to their existing skillset – follow the link here for more information.