Working in Fitness: Reflections on the Journey

[Image courtesy NIRSA]
[Image courtesy NIRSA]

Some of their paths have taken surprising turns. Some work in the gym, others are administrators or consultants. Some teach transferable skills to student employees and some are at the front of the room, directing participants to leave their stress at the door and spend an hour thinking only about their bodies and the way they can move.

Whatever their role in the field of fitness, one thing is certain: fitness professionals are dedicated advocates of healthy lifestyles and excellent role models of the way health and fitness can affect a person’s confidence, skill sets, career choices, and have an impact on their communities. They truly embody NIRSA’s strategic value of health and wellbeing.

Tabbitha Ashford, Fitness and Instructional Programs Coordinator/ Assistant Director of Campus Recreation

Tabbitha Ashford enjoys the multiple hats she gets to wear while working in fitness. In fact, she’s currently transitioning from her position as Fitness and Instructional Programs Coordinator at the University of Notre Dame to becoming the Assistant Director of Campus Recreation at St. Edward’s University.

“A typical day includes me running off to the activity rooms to teach a class and/or personal train, responding to participants regarding the various programs, following up on any instructor needs and maintenance requests, and sometimes just simply brainstorming various ways to enhance the program,” says Tabbitha.

She finds that serving as both a personal trainer and fitness instructor has greatly helped her from an administration standpoint. “When determining new rules, procedures, and offerings for the program, I can view the potential impact from the perspective of an instructor and trainer which is very critical since those are the individuals that would be most impacted by any changes,” she says. “Serving in those roles has also put me in more immediate and frequent contact with participants, which provides another perspective to consider when making any program changes.”

Tabbitha has always had a passion for fitness and wellness and in general enjoys working with people and helping them, but her path into group fitness and personal training “was very accidental.” She says, “My school did not have group fitness or personal training so all I knew was running and basic strength training.” During her undergrad, she did cross country and track and field while focusing academically on physical therapy. In her senior year, she worked an internship that changed her mind about pursuing physical therapy and instead went to graduate school for a master’s in health and kinesiology. Though she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with the degree, it was during graduate school that she was introduced to campus recreation and began working as a floor assistant. “Very quickly I was able to see a different side of fitness and the rest is history!” she says.

She had an internship with the University of Notre Dame in 2013 where she shadowed instructors and trainers, had the opportunity to co-teach, and eventually earned her certifications. “By 2014, I was ready to teach and train on my own and have continued to do so while also having the great joy of managing group fitness and personal training programs,” she says.

Working in fitness has had an impact in other aspects of her life as well, from health habits to organization and interpersonal skills. “I’m definitely more conscious and accountable of my personal health choices and physical activity!” she says. “And although my days as a student are behind me, I still find that due to the ever-changing trends in fitness I’m more apt to do research, read books and articles, and attend workshops to continue to educate myself in the field. My creativity has also flourished whether it’s pre-planning a workout or having to improvise in the moment!” Tabbitha says she used to dread public speaking and networking but working in fitness has helped her overcome her fears. Now her network is continuously expanding, including at NIRSA conferences.

“The biggest reward for me is getting to witness the small and large accomplishments that my participants make in their fitness journey,” she says. “Whether it’s someone losing fifty pounds, completing ten push-ups, or simply walking with minimal pain, it’s a huge reminder of how important the work that I do is to my community. Professionally, working in fitness often doesn’t feel like work so it’s also very rewarding to be able to say that I love and enjoy what I do.”

Nicole Jackson, Personal Trainer

Nicole got her start as a personal trainer after she injured her back and realized the importance of a strong body to be able to live the life she wanted. She’d been injured before and had back problems from playing a lot of sports as a child. After MRIs and physical therapy, she decided to get a personal trainer. She met with Guido Van Ryssegem, a sports medicine specialist from Oregon State University, who helped her with her technique and form.

“I didn’t think I could get that strong and still be so active,” says Nicole. “I’ve always been an active person and didn’t want my back injury to slow me down.” Working with her trainer made Nicole realize how big of an impact working out could have on a person. “There are simple things you aren’t able to do with a back injury like laundry or the dishes or picking something up, and I’m able to do these things without really thinking about them,” she says.

She wanted to be able to help people the same way she was helped, especially because she knew other people who had been injured and had become inactive. “I want to make sure people don’t get to the point of inactivity,” she says. “I want to help people get in shape, get healthy, be motivated, and find their confidence.”

She asked her personal trainer for recommendations on certification programs and after six months of online training and the certification exam, she became a certified personal trainer in February 2016. After moving to and from West Virginia and getting married, she started working as an independent contractor at Snap Fitness in Albany, Oregon in February 2017.

“Helping people is the big thing for me, especially restoring people’s confidence,” says Nicole. “Working out and getting stronger made me confident, and I want to share that with other people, whether it’s helping them get fit to feel confident about their bodies or becoming more confident with different machines or weights to give them confidence to go to the gym.”

Nicole thinks it’s important for her to be relatable to her clients. She doesn’t want them to think that just because she’s a personal trainer that she doesn’t share their struggles. “I’ve had injuries, I’ve had problems, I’ve been unmotivated and unfocused. I’m a human being. Just because I’m a personal trainer doesn’t mean I’m a big in-shape hot shot,” she says.

She understands that many might be intimidated by the idea of going to the gym if they don’t know how to do weights or are embarrassed about the amount they can lift, especially women. She stresses that the important thing is just getting to the gym and getting moving. “Sometimes I walk into a new gym and I don’t know how to use the equipment or I struggle with adjusting the seat,” she says. “Everyone has that struggle whether they’ve been going to the gym forever or if they’re brand new.”

Nicole also has a specialty certification in corrective exercise which helps her correct muscle imbalances in her clients. “I definitely look at people’s bodies differently,” she says. “Having the knowledge that I do, I can look at the way somebody walks or stands or sits, determine if they have a muscle imbalance, and figure out what to do to correct it. I’ve been able to help family and friends and myself.”

Besides working as a personal trainer, Nicole is the receptionist at NIRSA Headquarters. When she was looking for a second job, she wanted to find something related to her field. “I wanted to stay connected to fitness and wellness and that’s why I love NIRSA’s goals and values,” she says. “There’s a focus on community and teamwork at NIRSA, and I take that with me to the gym. It’s important to be respectful and be there for each other. We’re all a part of the same community.”

Steven Trotter, Globetrotter Wellness Solutions, LLC

Steven Trotter has been teaching group fitness classes since 2002 and personal training since 2003. From 2012 to 2015, he represented all of university recreation programs around the world on the Industry Advisory Panel of the American Council on Exercise (ACE). For the last four years, he’s been a subject matter expert for ACE developing exam content and certification exams. He also worked as the Assistant Director for Fitness Programs at Virginia Tech for three years and was named one of three finalists for 2017 IDEA Program Director of the Year. However, his newest role is making a dream come true: opening his very own business.

“I’ve spent my entire career training and developing employees, fitness staff, personal trainers, and group fitness instructors,” says Steven. “I was a spin instructor when I was a senior in high school and ended up changing my career path from pharmacy to fitness and started working in collegiate recreation. I’ve always had that entrepreneur bug inside of me, and this past year, I decided to take that to the next level.”

Steven has two companies: a consulting company, Globetrotter Wellness Solutions, LLC, which offers staff and organizational development and continuing education and a local fitness studio in Wilmington, North Carolina called Globetrotter Fitness. The studio offers group fitness, personal training, small group training, and kids’ fitness.

“We really want to be the go-to place for inspiring a healthier life and that starts at a youth age,” says Steven. “You’ve got to meet people where they are in stages of change but you also have to meet them where they are physically so they actually engage in your program.”

Steven partners with a kids’ dance studio and plans to work with one or two martial arts dojos as well, taking advantage of the times when there isn’t other programming scheduled in the spaces. He hopes to do the same thing at night clubs and other venues and eventually invest in a branded box truck so his crew can deliver pop-up workout classes around Wilmington. “Right now, it’s laying the groundwork,” he says. “We’re planting a lot of seeds and hopefully some flowers will grow from it.”

Steven made the decision to take the plunge into starting his own business this past January. “I decided it was time, because the time was never going to be right,” he says. “You can train your whole life to learn to swim but you’re never going to know what it feels like until you just jump in.”

He attributes his business skills to working in campus recreation. “I don’t have a degree in business. I didn’t get an MBA, but you learn really quickly on the job when you’re managing a multi-million dollar budget, building and outfitting facilities, and purchasing and negotiating contracts,” says Steven. He will actually be leading a session on “business boot camp” at the 2017 NIRSA Triventure this year to teach other recreation professionals the fundamentals of what you need to know about business without a business degree.

Steven learned at a young age that campus rec professionals have to wear many hats. After losing 130 pounds between his sophomore and senior year of high school, he decided to focus his senior project on cardiorespiratory fitness and exercise and completed the practical component of the project by training to be a fitness instructor at his local Gold’s gym. His experience as an instructor scored him a position at UNC Charlotte’s Recreation Services when he started college.

“By the time I started my third year of undergrad, I was already the fitness manager at the university,” says Steven. “At that point my supervisor at the time suggested I consider collegiate recreation as a career. I went to my first NIRSA event in 2006 and I’ve never looked back.”

Steven attributes a lot of his success to the opportunities he was given as a student at UNC Charlotte, especially the responsibilities that his supervisor trusted him with. “When you’re a sophomore or junior in college and you’re supervising people that are older than you, you have to learn very quickly how to work with people,” he says. Public speaking and sales are other skills that fitness has helped him learn.

“As an instructor or personal trainer, you’re constantly in front of people who trust you are going to get them to the place where they need to be,” he says. “My experience in fitness has taught me confidence—I’ve delivered keynotes in front of hundreds of people, and I don’t think twice about it anymore because I’m there to deliver a purpose. That confidence essentially teaches you sales because you’ve got to sell these people on a healthier lifestyle and making better choices and believing in themselves. It comes down to being able to get up in front of people and connect with them on an authentic level.”

Steven knows that there are plenty of reasons people don’t exercise and believes the fitness industry shouldn’t give them any more. “I just really want to help make an impact with everyone no matter where they are in their fitness,” says Steven. “I know what it’s like to be obese. I know what it’s like to walk into a gym for the first time. People have so much stress in their lives, and for those 30, 45, 60 minutes with us, I want them to forget about everything else outside those doors.”

His advice for anyone working in the fitness industry or trying to get into the industry or even just trying to reach a personal fitness goal is: “don’t stop. No matter what, if you have your mind and heart set on a goal do not stop until you get it.”

Chrystina Wyatt, Assistant Director-Fitness/Wellness, the University of Texas at Austin

Chrystina Wyatt calls her path to fitness “unconventional.” She was a very active child and did dance, volleyball, cheerleading, and track and field. As a college sophomore, teaching group exercise classes seemed like a fun way to stay active while working.

“I never imagined this would develop into a passion and career,” she says. “I applied for the position at a job fair without the experience of taking a group exercise class prior to being hired. I was hired because of my personality and learned how to teach classes on the job.”

In her senior year of college, Chrystina attended the Region IV Student Lead On, a professional development and networking opportunity for students and professionals, and decided she wanted to pursue a career in campus recreation and fitness. She was a community health major so it was a route that complemented what she’d already been learning about preventative health and life-long wellness.

Now she works at UT Austin, where she’s been for the past four years. A typical day involves overseeing the daily operations of TeXercise, the group exercise program at UT RecSports. “We cater to the UT campus community by providing over 100 classes per week at four locations,” says Chrystina. “I oversee our TeXercise instructors and program assistants who work behind the scenes to help with our daily operations and, occasionally, you can also find me teaching or mentoring new instructors on our TeXercise class schedule.”

Chrystina credits her background as a fitness instructor for giving her a deeper knowledge and foundation to use in her current role as she builds her program and supports her staff. “I understand our business and how to help nurture future fitness instructors and personal trainers,” she says. She finds this insight handy as she develops and enhances programs, creates training and develops curriculum, purchases equipment, and continues to stay current with fitness trends such as designing spaces that enhance the participant experience with technology, lighting, murals, and other aesthetic features that make spaces more fun and lively.

Being in fitness also makes Chrystina more aware of her own personal wellness including staying active, eating healthy, and work-life balance. “My fitness philosophy is to inspire others to move well and be well throughout their lifetime,” she says. “I want to inspire life-long fitness and I try to live by the principles I teach.”

She especially enjoys working with students, even if many of them will not pursue a career in fitness. “They can learn to be confident, lead and motivate others, and serve as role models,” she says. “These are things they can take with them to any career. Seeing the students go from zero experience to rock stars of the program is the most rewarding part of my work.”

A rewarding journey

Though many of the paths into the field of fitness appear accidental or unconventional, it’s this flexibility and accessibility that makes this industry so special. Anyone with a passion for fitness and helping people can find or create a place for themselves within this varied and inclusive field. The skills learned affect not just career possibilities, but also individual lifestyles and communities of people staying healthy and happy together. NIRSA is proud to count among its members so many fantastic leaders, teachers, and learners committed to promoting lifelong habits of health and wellbeing.

This article was republished from our partners at NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation. Read more NIRSA news here

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