How Rec Center Work Fuels Body Positivity, Confidence

Olivia Phillips is a graduate assistant for Group Exercise and Fitness at James Madison University
Olivia Phillips is a graduate assistant for Group Exercise and Fitness at James Madison University

My involvement in campus recreation has not been as straight and narrow as others, but I am grateful for every experience I have had within the field because it led me to where I am now — a graduate assistant for Group Exercise and Fitness at James Madison University.

When I first arrived on my undergraduate campus, the University of Georgia, one of the only places on campus I felt comfortable was the rec center. I was away from my family and friends, and away from everything I was comfortable with. I was not happy. However, I found comfort and familiarity at the rec center because I knew exactly what to do there. My workout routine was the only routine I was able to transfer over from home. I quickly found out that my niche was group exercise. I was a front row diva in my BodyPump classes. By the end of my first semester, I knew all the moves, the exact rep count for them, and I loaded up my bar with as much weight as possible for class — even for the hardest of all tracks: lunge tracks.

My junior year, I mustered up the courage to apply for an entry-level position at UGA. That summer, I received my ACE Group Fitness Certification. When I taught my first group exercise class during the fall of my senior year, I was so proud of myself. I looked back and thought about the girl who was so scared to be away from home her freshman year and would have loved to have seen her face when she found out how far she came.


I worked my way up through campus recreation — from an entry-level employee, to being a graduate assistant, to where I am now studying campus recreation at the only graduate campus recreation program in the country. My time spent in campus recreation has not come without its challenges, and I have learned so many things about myself while working within the field.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is how to be confident in myself. I do not have the "traditional" body type that comes to mind when thinking about group exercise. I always thought I would be a great instructor but would find a way to talk myself out of it because of my body insecurity. However, when I finally started teaching classes, I turned into a whole other person. I was confident and proud, and those moments were when I felt the best about myself. I did not care what I looked like. Instead, I cared about encouraging my participants and giving them the best 45 to 60 minutes of their day.

Those same qualities eventually transferred into my life outside of the rec center. I began to walk and act with confidence and hold my head high. My mental image about myself has completely shifted, and I am proud of who I am today. I still might not have the "perfect" group exercise instructor body, but I am incredibly appreciative for everything my body does for me. I will be forever grateful to campus recreation for teaching me that I am strong, and I am enough.

I want my experience to be one that will transfer down to future students who decide to get involved with campus recreation. I want them to know that it is more than just a gym or a rec center. It is a place where you can meet new people, clear your mind and test your limits. Even though we are living in a strange time during the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it also provides plenty of opportunity for future programming.

With so many people working out at home, we could see our group exercise instructors and personal trainers become TikTok sensations with their workouts. Who knows?

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention the shifting of body image culture around women working not only in campus recreation, but in health and wellness in general. I see all shapes and sizes being represented within our fitness department here at James Madison University, and I am here for it! I notice more and more women entering the free weight area, too. Long gone are the days of women sticking to the cardio machines and men being the only ones to lift weights. I walk in now and see plenty of strong women squatting and bench pressing heavy and showing everyone how awesome it is to lift like a girl.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Rec center work fuels body positivity, confidence." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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