I have been teaching fitness for 13 years and I wrote this article simply as an observation as to what I personally have noticed has changed in the group fitness industry over the past decade. It is not meant to be negative or to put down other instructors. Technology and social media have certainly enhanced the popularity of classes and made the experience even better, but I also feel like it has impacted the authenticity factor of why people get into teaching group fitness nowadays as well. Here is my story on my early days in fitness, how I feel the industry has changed, and admittedly, how I have too.
When I was in college I worked part-time at a gym manning the front desk and eventually teaching a few classes. Teaching was my absolute favorite part of the week. The first class I ever taught was cardio kickboxing. I would work the desk until 10pm when the gym closed, and then stay for hours afterwards teaching my kickboxing class over and over in the mirror of the group exercise studio until I had every cue down pat and I felt ready to teach it to a crowd. I have always been a perfectionist, so becoming a group exercise instructor only magnified that. After teaching cardio kickboxing for a short time, I decided I wanted to teach more formats of classes, so I got certified in cycling. My friend who also worked at the gym got certified at the same time as me, so my late night practice sessions soon involved her as well. One of us would practice teach to the other for 45 minutes (the full length of our actual spin classes), the other would give feedback after, and then we would switch roles. We were not getting paid to do this, nor were we ever even told to do it, we were just so passionate about teaching and wanting to make our classes a great experience for others, that we happily put in the extra time to ensure that we always delivered a quality class.
Teaching in the early years was kind of the equivalent to the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship. I literally gave my classes my heart and soul. Looking back, what mattered to me the most as an instructor has always been three things- providing a class that I put thought into, welcoming all types of people, and a bomb ass playlist. What did not matter to me back then was what brand of clothing I was wearing nor what my social media profile looked liked.
Over the years, as group fitness slowly became my full-time gig, the “honeymoon phase” slowly dwindled. Now don’t be mistaken, I was still in love with it, but like any relationship, maintaining such an intense, burning passion forever is not very realistic. I got more certifications, and started teaching a lot more classes a week to stay afloat just to be able to pay my bills. Once I was no longer in college (and no longer on my parents dime) the real world financial struggles set in. I knew I loved fitness, so I hustled hard to make ends meet and also continue to work in a career that I loved.
Looking back, I can say I was in auto-pilot for all those years. I definitely knew that the industry had changed rapidly since I started teaching, but I never really thought about it much until I recently took 3 months off for maternity leave. I am not sure if it was having a baby and realigning my priorities, or if it was taking a step back for the first time in years from the group exercise space in general, but the change in teaching then vs. now really hit me like a ton of bricks. Below are the 4 major changes I have personally felt the most impact from:
1. Lulu who?
When I first started teaching I would wear any old tank top that I wouldn’t mind if it got ruined from sweat stains and spandex from Marshalls. I had no idea what Lululemon was until about 6 years into my career when I started working at Sports Club LA and I saw all these super in shape women with tight butts rocking workout pants with the same little symbol on the back. When a friend of mine had on a pair one day and I asked where they were from, she told me that they were Lululemon and I HAD to get a pair. So I did, and that’s where it all began. From my first pair of Lulus, I became hyper aware of how I looked at the gym. Suddenly my paychecks were going towards these expensive leggings and tops that looked like club wear versus my old sweaty tanks. The fitness clothing industry has exploded nowadays, with brands that were looking to do just that. Make you feel beautiful, sexy, and strong- all from wearing gym clothes (that you don’t even need to go to the gym to be wearing!). This is great and all, but has it only enhanced our vanity at the same time?
2. What is the Why?
“Fitness professionals” are a dime a dozen now, which is great because there are more people out in the world to teach and inspire. However, somewhere down the line, group fitness professionals also started to become local celebrities in our cities. With that being said, I question whether the drive to get into the industry now is more about the passion, or about the image. I would like to know how many new teachers these days would spend hours practicing for their classes, unpaid, to make sure that they deliver an incredible experience? Or are they more excited about gaining popularity through their Instagram posts, versus willing to slowly gain teaching experience, build community and trust with the people taking their class?
I have also noticed that many fad workouts nowadays are about “kicking ass” versus smart programming. To be honest, anyone, qualified or not, can teach a brutally hard workout, but why do we need to destroy our bodies to feel good? Do the people teaching these insanely hard workouts actually have science to back up what they are teaching? Or is it simply an ego-driven thing that the harder a workout is, the better (even if we feel like total crap from it after)?
3. The Non-equipped Salesman
Online fitness companies like Isagenix and Beach Body have made getting into the fitness industry and making money accessible for literally EVERYONE. Now trust me, I know there are plenty of people out there who are VERY passionate about selling these things and are good at what they do, but what has bothered me is the people who randomly get into it and really have no prior eduction or knowledge in health and fitness. People who sell nutrition and fitness products but have zero background in it really bother me because they are preying off other people’s well-being. Where is the genuinity in that? Are they really thinking about others or are they thinking about their bank account? The amount of people that have reached out to me to sell these things makes me want to pull my hair out. I have spent HOURS and tons of money to get certified to be qualified to teach fitness and receive a Degree in Nutrition and Science. One thing I will never do is sell a product or an image that I am not passionate about just to make a dime, especially off someone else’s vulnerability.
4. The Struggle with Social Media
In so many ways, social media has been a blessing to the fitness world. Teachers are able to promote their classes better than before, thus driving more traffic into studios and gyms. It is also free advertisement for businesses which is great. There are also many legit, knowledgeable, fitness-related Instagram accounts out there that make wellness accessible for everyone.
HOWEVER, there is also a lot bullshit on social media. “Influencers” with thousands of followers who are not really qualified to be dishing out the advice that they do. They have amazing bodies and are telling people how to eat and how to workout so that they can look like them (ya right). Which leads me into one of the most predominant changes in the industry that I have noticed, which is how social media has created an “image” now when it comes to group fitness. Suddenly what you wear to the gym does matter (according to Instagram), where you workout matters, what types of workouts you do matters. How many of us are guilty of taking sweaty selfies after class in our Lulus? I know I am guilty of it. But really, why the fuck do we? Do people really care if we worked out today? What is the reasoning behind doing this, other than our ego wanting to show everyone that we worked out and we want everyone to know about it?
In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I am not trying to bash here and I am personally guilty of all of the things I mentioned above. Like I said in the beginning of the article, I have been in auto-pilot for many years, going with the trends and not really thinking much about it. Once I stepped away from the scene for a few months, I realized that my perception of the industry had become very blurred and a piece of me had lost touch of my authentic self as a teacher. It’s not about what brands I am wearing, how many followers I have on Instagram, or how hard I am “kicking someone’s ass”- it’s about the community I create in my classes, the music, the love. I am glad that I was able to take some time off so that I can realign my priorities as a teacher. I was so stressed about coming back to work and whether people would still like me or if I looked ok, but really, that was not genuine. As an instructor, what is genuine to me is using my passion in health and fitness to help guide people to be the best versions of themselves physically and mentally.