5 Things I Learned From Working in the Fitness Industry

I have always held a passion for fitness, before even knowing what the term “fitness” was. 

P.E. was my favorite subject in grade school. Every chance I had to be outdoors, I took without question. I was the 8-year-old tomboy who you could find rollerblading in the streets and strategizing with my brother and neighborhood kids in an intense game of backyard football. I loved how being active made my body feel, and I loved the escape that sports gave me. The physical accomplishments and recreational outlets positively impacted my ability to stay focused on intellectual tasks and in school. And after dealing with my own struggles in my teens to effectively balance nutritional needs with my enthusiasm for exercise, it made sense that I would choose Exercise Science as my undergraduate major in college. It was a logical decision to immediately pursue a Health and Fitness Specialist (EP) certification upon graduation followed by a nosedive into a professional opportunity in the fitness industry. Everything seemed to be lining up appropriately. 

For over three consecutive years I worked as a wellness associate, group exercise instructor and personal trainer, and I have since continued my fitness enthusiast efforts as both a holistic health coach and high school running coach. Within that early time period there was a season when I lived, breathed, and bled everything fitness. I was immersed in the competitively evolving atmosphere and was eagerly soaking in every minute of it. I fully embraced the title of Personal Trainer and spent every ounce of my time reading and researching theories, scientific articles, periodization approaches, and ways to improve myself for my clients. I spent my time devising incentivized wellness challenges and grueling workouts, counting tedious repetitions and tracking results, hopping around the group exercise studio like a bunny rabbit on caffeine, and developing a love-hate relationships with burpees. 

I loved promoting fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle, and motivating others through physical activity. But one day this trainer hit burnout. I realized that there are so many more aspects to the wheel that would be forever turning. I recognized that in the world of fitness, there are many lessons to be learned. There will always be something that can be changed, adjusted, or critiqued. Rarely on the fitness planet do we hear the words “good enough.” 

In an age where we are constantly being shown how we can better ourselves, fitness is always a hot topic in the “self-improvement” category. But even from someone who favors this idea, I think it is also important to take some time to rest with ourselves rather than wrestle with ourselves. 

Fitness will always be a part of my lifestyle, because it’s just such a deep part of who I am. But I have now adopted a contemporary “holistic fitness” mindset… aiming to maintain a balance of a fit mind, body, and spirit. And so, from the reflections of a forever-fitness lover, I invite you to take a rest and read on. Below are five lessons I would like to take with me, and hope to pass along to anyone reading this today.

1. The Comparison Game Has No Winner

Everyone is uniquely and individually different for a reason—you aren’t meant to be exactly like that person you are admiring on social media. Sure, you can have similar results and maybe even similar stories, but even if you do the exact same workouts and eat the exact same things, you will ultimately witness what those changes do for you. One of the most common misconceptions about any fitness program is the idea that what is written in the books or advertised on the internet will work for everyone. While this kind of “cookie-cutter” approach is often misleading, it is important to understand why it does not work. The fact is that each and every person is different with regards to their individual make-up, hormones, genetics, ability to adapt to their environment, personalities, biological elements, etc, their needs and their circumstances. Therefore each person must be treated as a special project, as still highly capable. I was deceived by this trap soooo many times, thinking that my circumstances or training regimen must match up with what is portrayed by the text books or broadcasted by progress pictures. This teasing of inadequacy is very difficult to escape—Facebook and Instagram news feeds are flooded with other people’s prides and accomplishments. Our eyes and minds are filled with unrealistic photo-enhanced expectations often on a daily basis, oftentimes leading to crushed dreams. Constantly seeing how the world is so much farther ahead of where we are currently can make us feel as if we will never be able to keep up. I have learned that the combination of this pressure with the comparison factor really can be a thief of joy. Life is too short to live this way, piled with self-judgment and self-ridicule. So stop beating yourself up! You are you for a purpose, meant to play a role that only you can fulfill. Be happy for those who seem to have reached their goals, but work on finding and achieving your own. Find your “perfect fit.”

2. Thinner Isn’t Always Better 

“Strong is the new sexy…” 

“From skinny to strong …” 

Whatever the tag line reads, the bottom line is that strength should be valued over slim. This lesson is a difficult one, especially for anyone dealing with poor body image or feeling societal pressures to be a certain size or look a certain way. I for one used to be afraid of putting on too much muscle, which stemmed from my own struggles with an eating disorder as a a teenager. Surprisingly enough, my position working in the fitness industry surrounded by heavy barbells, creative competitions, and strong and admirable fitness-goers led me to believe even more in ability over aesthetics. I was inspired by others who cared more about what their bodies were capable of, than what size clothes they wore. It was during this time that I was humbled as an athlete: before I graduated college I could run 26 miles no problem but I couldn’t perform a proper squat. I received compliments on my “tiny” frame, but couldn’t even do a “real” push-up. Once I jumped into the world of personal training, I knew something needed to change. It was a daunting change, but an intriguing one. I knew it would take time, and I knew it would take heart. But I also knew it would strengthen me on the inside as much as the outside. And so began my determination to regain functional strength. Weight training became my new experiment and nutritional exploration became my new hobby. I was fueling for function and nourishing to glow. My desire to be a reliable trainer and a strong empowering woman motivated me to get over my past battles to stay slim. Accountability kicked in, and so did my new eyesight. My perspective changed along with my attitude. Muscles grew, and so did my confidence. Looking back on my early twenties, this was one of the best decisions I had made since college. You are capable of so much more than you realize. 

3. There Is Such a Thing As Too Much

More is not always better and harder is not always smarter, just like too much of a good thing can turn into a not-so-good thing. This applies to exercise as well. Sometimes our bodies need a break! As the Sports Recovery Annex would say “You are only as good in your training as in your ability to recover.”  (Awesome place to check out if you’re in the Jacksonville area, btw.) If you aren’t recovering from your workouts, there isn’t any sense in doing them. Your bodies adapt by recovering from a progressive load, just as muscles develop by repairing from a tearing stressor. This is how you become stronger. Too much stress causes a tie to break—if you keep pulling your knot tighter and tighter, ignoring the pain or fatigued sensation, you could find yourself strangled in too many injured loops to crawl out of. Pay attention to quality nutrition, fueling timely and enough, hydrating properly and adhering to self-care. One piece of the functional puzzle cannot be neglected. While you may hear the phrase “No one ever regrets a workout,” be prepared to deal with the consequences of pushing too hard for too long, or pushing too hard too soon. Overtraining is a real thing—I’ve seen it happen with my athletes, and I’ve experienced it myself. There is no benefit in pulling from an empty tank. I understand that as a fitness fanatic or avid athlete, stubbornness can often overpower sanity. But most importantly, it is vital to listen to your body. Use your fitness journey to develop a sense of self-awareness that allows you to tune in to your body and recognize its needs. Rest days are ok. Hard days are ok. Easy days are ok. Putting your health at risk to squeeze in a workout is not. When in doubt, “Train smarter not harder.”

4. The 3 P’s: Patience, Persistence, Perseverance

“Practice, practice, practice—for practice makes perfect,” may have been the famous mantra I received time and time again in my adolescent all-star days, but after some serious encounters with reality I have come to believe differently. While practice does lead to progress, sometimes stagnant progress leads to a never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction. While we push our limits and practice to our utmost potential, sometimes we find ourselves in a frustrated position where we are constantly reaching for more and more. This can create a feeling of inadequacy, especially if we have indeed put forth the hours and hours of dedicated hard work. I have found that “progress over perfection” is so much more rewarding. Be patient with yourself, your time, and your commitments. Do make the commitments, but know where and when to extend grace. Unfortunately, quick fixes do not exist.  Fitness is a journey, just like life. Goals require steps, and steps are meant to be taken one foot at a time. As much as we may want to, we cannot skip the basics. Reality is, you cannot get stronger without a stable foundation, regardless of your training background. Therefore, you cannot continue to progress without building upon existing platforms. Stability and mobility must precede agility and intensity. Strength must precede power, and with power comes performance. Muscles cannot grow if your stabilizers cannot support the larger mass, and even our greatest strengths can become crippled by our hidden weaknesses. So start slow, and maybe even small. But most of all, start smart. Just don’t get so caught up in becoming the “best,” that you forget to notice your current “being.” 

5. You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too (Seriously)

You heard me. Have your cake, eat it, and most of all, enjoy it. One “bad” day, nutritional “slip-up,” missed workout, relapse, slow interval, tired run, choppy swim, failed pull-up, fluctuating scale, or weak lift won’t ruin all of your fitness progress (unless you let it). The journey isn’t an “all or nothing” mentality…that kind of thinking is exactly what will lead to an eventual burnout. Holistic fitness is all about developing a long-term trust with yourself. Learn about your anatomy, your psychology, and your physiology. But don’t ignore the main goal of vitality. Don’t punish yourself with workouts or you won’t view movement as a privilege. Don’t restrict your food intake or you will most likely fall into a binge. Don’t guilt-trip yourself for skipping a day at the gym or you will constantly be at war with your own inner expectations. Fitness is a fabulously freeing lifestyle, but only when we work to integrate an interconnected strength with our minds, bodies, and emotions. Challenging ourselves can be invigorating. Recognizing our potential can be empowering. Accomplishing goals can be inspiring. And seeing yourself from a different perspective can be life-changing. So bask in your body’s ability to move, take time to enjoy your favorite foods, notice how you feel in response to your actions, and honor your willpower to savor today. You can change your lifestyle and still embrace who you are. You can embark on a new fitness journey and rediscover your strengths. You can still be disciplined and practice healthy balance. You can have your cake and eat it too. So hike the Appalachian, try a yoga/spin/pilates class, set the record for the world’s longest plank, build that booty, engage that core, swim in open water, complete a 5K, get coached for CrossFit, hit a new 1RM, train for a marathon…whatever you venture to do, go about it wisely. Try something new, get others to help, and just BE YOU.

 

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Human Days

I remember what it felt like to have “bad” days.

It’s not that I don’t have them anymore, but something in my mind is different:

I guess I have finally accepted the fact that I’m human.

I remember what it felt like, just trying to get by. Pressing on throughout the day, trying to keep busy to distract myself from looking down with disgust or disappointment. Feeling sluggish, bloated, discouraged and disillusioned. Punishing myself with double extra-long workouts, or restricting food until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

Yes, there were indeed “bad” days. Poor body image days, hopeless days, weak days, and frustrating days. Anxious days, angry days, and annoying days. Regretful days, resentful days, and rebellious days.

But there were also good days. Motivating days, exciting days, strengthening days and empowering days. Thankful days, thoughtful days, and transforming days. Victorious days, vocational days, and vibrant days. Each and every day soon became my choice.

I could choose recovery, or I could choose relapse. Yes, sometimes the eating disorder seemed more powerful than my will. Sometimes it won over my voice of reason. But there was always an opportunity for a second chance. There was always that short moment of free will. A moment with a fate that spoke the difference between slavery and freedom; isolation and community; pressure and peace.

I know what it feels like to dislike yourself. But what I have realized over the years while in healthy eating disorder recovery is that when I may not have liked myself on the outside, I still secretly loved myself on the inside. While at my lowest, yes, there were times when I couldn’t recognize my own thoughts anymore. In those days I was incapable of making rational decisions on my own. There were times when I pondered the true meaning of life, because I could’t truly feel it.

But after years of slowly getting better, I began to feel again. I began to laugh again and love again. I even began to love myself again. I may not have been happy with how my body looked every day, but I was in love with the person I was becoming. I knew I wasn’t done becoming her yet. So I pledged to keep on going.

I now recognize that this girl will never be done growing. I know I may not ever have everything figured out. But the self-knowledge and self-contentment that I have acquired by allowing myself to heal makes all of that okay. I guess I have acknowledged that we all make mistakes. I guess I have finally realized that no one is perfect. I guess I’ve learned that life is not meant to be wasted while wishing the day away. I guess I have accepted the fact that I’m only human.

Each and every day is a gift from above. There is no room for shame.

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Holistic Guinea Pig

Every once in a while, I enroll myself in little health-related “experiments.” Being a personal trainer and overall avid health-seeker, I find it beneficially necessary to try out different lifestyle changes, trends, or intriguing fitness claims (after doing extensive research of course,) from time to time. This hands-on approach enables me to be able to draw from personal accounts so that I can deliver quality support to other people I come in contact with, and to genuinely “practice what I preach.” Recently, I have intentionally been extending an extra effort to listen to my body, fuel it holistically, and rejuevenate my suspected burned-out athletically-driven system. I’ve realized that I feel most at peace when I make an attempt to really slow the pace down… relaxing around food, not feeling the pressure to workout or perform, and really becoming in tune with my body’s feelings, tendencies, and reactions to various environments and stressors.

This whole past year has been a little self-experiment, quite frankly. I used to be pretty content with my physical outward state and exercise routine, but my complacency was subconsciously eating me up inside. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, as I continued to push my body past its limits. Funny how we don’t realize how deep we were actually sinking until we reach a certain viewpoint above the pit.

I used to feel sluggish thought out the day, legs heavy and brain foggy (unless I was drinking coffee.) I used to fast the majority of the day, and was used to consuming literally all of my calories between the window of 2-9pm. Currently, my dinners still remain my largest (and most nutritious) meal, and I still have an after-dinner snack that is usually just as calorically dense as the previous meal. But I also now feed my body throughout the day, consistently and willingly. Of course I have certain staples that I turn to, but also pay attention to what my body craves, and fulfill its requests. With this improvement came a proactive attempt in rebooting my entire digestive system, by introducing natural supplements like probiotics digestive enzymes, both of which have helped tremendously in my overall gut health. It really is fascinating just how all the internal systems are connected. I learned pretty quickly that the saying “If your gut ain’t happy, you ain’t happy”, is oh so accurate.

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It Began With a Tire Flip

It all began with a tire flip. Literally. And I’m not talking about your typical compact car everyday Goodyear tire. I’m talking dirty, cumbersome, 250lb tractor tire–and I flipped it with my own bare hands.

Now, before all you cross-fitters snicker and claim this feat as simple business, let me give you some context:
For the past 10 years, I have been quite an avid distance runner. Small-framed, carb-driven, with no anaerobic power whatsoever, distance runner. I could trot along 20 miles no problem, but struggled to perform even a simple traditional push-up or consecutive squat series. After completing my first full marathon, a resulting injury forced me to reconsider my current running-dominant routine, and I quickly discovered my physical strength weaknesses from literally running my body to the ground. But instead of using my time of injury to venture into the world of weights, I simply resorted to other forms of cardio. I hauled that bulky black boot up on the elliptical, stationary bike, ark trainer, etc., anywhere the boot would fit. I didn’t use the given “break time” as down time, nor did I dare to even lift a dumbbell beyond maybe 8 shoulder raises at 5lbs each. All this to say, my perspective definitely changed, and though I still made an effort to stay as active as I could, I was able to give my body somewhat of some rest from the pounding of miles and got myself out of my “running rut.”

After that, I no longer took running (or walking for that matter) for granted. Once my annoying tibial tendinitis healed, I did jump right back into my sport, but with a slightly new outlook. Through influence from my current job as a group exercise instructor and personal trainer, I was introduced to other workout styles and trends over the following years. I quickly took on on teaching HiiT classes and Abs class once a week, and liked the added variety in my structured fitness regimen. This continued for a good year or so, but needless to say, I didn’t back off of the running. But as my fitness enthusiast mind began to explore beyond its boundaries, I began to become enthralled with the art of body sculpting and total-body movement. I noticed I was beginning to lack motivation in my runs, and was subconsciously in search of something more…

The loud bang of the rustic tire hitting the pavement startled me–something I had never in my life pictured myself doing–not this skinny little distance runner with a history of distorted body image. “You’re not strong enough,” I told myself as I watched the other fitness go-ers lift and rotate the huge tractor tire over and over again down the driveway. “That thing weights more than twice your body weight. Don’t even try.”

“C’mon!” My new buddy Ron, clearly was a little more optimistic. “You can do it!” A faithful determination echoed in his voice as he helped me hoist the base of the tire on my thighs, demonstrating the skill before I attempted the maneuver myself. I bent down into a deep squat, blindly feeling under the tire’s edge for a sensible grip to latch my shaky fingers around. Face to the rubber, I inhaled deeply and lifted with all my might, until the rugged grooves of the tread dug into the top of my hips. The hardest part was done…”Push it over!” Ron yelled. Repositioning my hand placement behind the black monster, I gave that bad boy one final shove. BAM!

Amidst the rising dust, I threw my hands up in victory. My smile couldn’t hold itself in any longer–this girl had just turned the table, and to be honest, it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought.

That day officially marked an entry into a new beginning. I had been curiously contemplating switching things up a bit, by sacrificing my mundane runs and substituting some reasonable strength training. I don’t know why I was so afraid, but I was. I thrive on consistency and was petrified about slipping out of my persistent exercise schedule. I wasn’t dissatisfied with my current state necessarily, but was frankly beginning to feel bored. I wanted to know what it felt like to take a step out–to work different muscles, to let go of my thin grip and experiment a little, to actually allow my body to try different forms of exercise and adapt where necessary.

Finally, the coin of “change” vs “same” had officially been flipped, and the bold face of “change” had inevitably landed face-up. The timid inkling to test the waters of strength training had been shaken, and thus confirmed with the pounding adrenaline and faithful inspiration. Ever since that exciting morning in Ron’s driveway, I have devoutly stuck to my own commitment of switching up my routine, and incorporating at least 2 strength training sessions a week (primarily upper body focused.) I no longer wanted to be that weeny runner anymore…I still wanted to be lean, fit and functional, but most of all, I wanted to be strong. I have been continuing to work towards that balance of both inner and physical strength, and am pleased to report that I have experienced noticeable “gains” over the past several months. Remembering the importance of perspective from my season of injury, I now try and make workouts fun while deliberately striving to avoid getting trapped in another forbidden rut. I enjoy being strong, capable, and able to move quicker, lift heavier, sprint faster and push harder than ever before. I feel more well-rounded, vibrant, eager and empowered. The inner peace that found me while I was forced to stop running has once again made its way back in. I deliberately cut back my running mileage in hopes of building new solid muscle, and the efforts have indeed paid off. The decision to choose change over comfort has been increasingly rewarding for this over-analyzing control freak, and has shed a whole new light on my own fitness path. Through continued education, curiosity and research, I acquired enough courage to test out some other practices relating to nutrition and lifestyle improvement. The overall accumulation of benefits from this surprise package has been exponential…and it all began with a tire flip.

Many thanks to faithful souls like Ron who believed in me from the beginning. Clear evidence that with God, all things are possible. With Jesus as your spotter, no tire is too heavy–even for the skinny former cardio bunny.