There is an unspoken irony facing fitness professionals when it comes to their health and well-being. On the one hand, instructors promote the public health message of increasing exercise to reduce stress and achieve optimal health. On the other hand, they risk malnutrition, injury, and professional stagnation, to name a few downsides of ignoring self-care. In this article, we first examine what self-care means and how fitness instructors can recognize their need for it. Then we lay out a self-care framework specifically designed to assist indoor cycling instructors in defining their needs and achieving an optimal counterbalance to the unique and demanding requirements of the job.
What would you say to a client who proudly proclaimed that her weekly schedule consisted of six Spinning® classes, three Les Mills BodyPump® classes, four sessions of yoga, and she was now contemplating training for a triathlon?
Now, consider your own physical output every week for both your work and your personal athletic fitness pursuits.
If you were your own client, would you recommend the volume you currently do professionally?
It’s no secret that group fitness instructors can find themselves physically exhausted by the sheer volume of classes that some are expected to teach. Too often, other elements of well-being are overlooked as well. Fitness instructors who have a duty to care for upwards of a hundred people or even more every week can quickly find themselves emotionally drained, psychologically taxed, and creatively parched if they don’t address their self-care seriously.
What is self-care?
Self-care is a concept that recognizes that a person can be more productive and more helpful to others if they have addressed their own personal needs first. It recognizes that self-care must be both self-determined and self-initiated since it would be unrealistic to design a one-size-fits-all remedy to the unique stresses of individuals in the profession.
Additionally, rather than highlighting attributes like “selfless” and “selfish” we can promote a concept of being “self-more.” Being able to replenish the abundance that is shared as part of the job is key to longevity. By definition, with self-care, a person first prioritizes his or her own well-being in order to be present for others.
Elements of self-care
Broadly speaking, a person’s well-being includes optimal states of these components:
- Mental/cognitive engagement
In this article we only highlight a few of these self-care elements of well-being that are common challenges for indoor cycling instructors. Typical hazards for fitness instructors include physical overtraining, exhaustion, and recurrent injury, to name a few.
How do you recognize when you need self-care?
When considering exercise programming for the general public, we often think with a broad stroke of the brush: “exercise more, eat less.” But the fitness professional is in the special position of having to weigh their personal fitness programming against the demands of the job. In many cases, instructors would do well to eat more and exercise less.
From day one of their first fitness certification course, fitness instructors risk acquiring symptoms of overtraining. These include, but are not limited to:
- Persistent fatigue and muscle soreness even if given adequate time for recovery
- Unexplained elevated resting heart rate
- Moodiness and altered sense of well-being (not training enough, fear of missing training session, dissatisfaction with reflection in the mirror despite physical response to training)
- Frequent and/or recurrent injury, nagging illness/infection
- Inability to sleep
- Depression and/or anxiety about work and personal life
- Inability to focus
- Decrease in motivation
But other elements of your professional and personal well-being are also at stake if your work life dominates your entire life.
Consider the following challenges fitness professionals face:
- Weighing the cost of continuing education and professional networking against wages earned
- Preparation time for group fitness classes falling into family and personal time, as opposed to professionally compensated time
- Contact and consultation with clients outside of professionally compensated time
- Vocal cord damage, or having to purchase mic to avoid it
- Costly clothing and gear that is not compensated
- Inadequate spacing between classes for rest and nourishment
- Unresolved and unresolvable disputes between instructor and management, clients, colleagues
- Depreciated and poorly maintained equipment posing an additional risk that must be managed
- Too few subs, so hours per week can quickly escalate
When it comes to indoor cycling instructors…
Group fitness instructors have long realized a big difference between the work of a group exercise trainer and a personal trainer, which often starts with a significant pay discrepancy. Yet the physical demands of the job are often substantially greater than that of personal trainer’s, since generally, leading exercise classes requires the instructor to do what is expected of the participants, often modeling a variety of intensities for a given segment of the class. Where a personal trainer could work a ten-hour day, with some physical involvement in the supervision of their clients, group fitness instructors could not (should not) teach ten classes in a row, day after day.
Indoor cycling instructors often feel pressured to work at the same intensities they’re asking of the participants, even though there is an off-the-bike option. They sometimes lack the personal confidence or management permission to guide the class while not working as hard as the participants, feeling that they have to model the intensities, rather than verbally coach the clients. This sets the instructor up for early burnout and possible injury.
Additionally, indoor cycling instructors who design their own classes (versus using pre-choreographed profiles) must knit together a soundtrack to match each “ride,” spend countless, uncompensated hours building classes, plus spend money on their personal music library from which to draw inspiration for each ride. Other instructors, who are certified with pre-choreographed programs, must sometimes not only miss a work day to learn the next release, but also spend money to remain current. Indoor cycling instructors must strive diligently to maintain balance in their work life and personal life, but the investment of time and money are typically taken from their personal life in order to fuel their work life.
There are ways to minimize this…one of which is to join ICA!
Two other aspects of indoor cycling are unfortunately great for the rider and not so great for the instructor. Participants flock to studios that offer the boutique feel of elegant, dim lighting and surround-sound music at volumes that envelop the rider. This puts strain on the instructor, who needs to focus on coaching notes, stopwatches, and rider form. Speaking loud enough to be heard over the combined decibels of loud music, whirring wheels, and fans, even with a mic, is taxing on both the vocal cords and ears when multiple classes per day are taught.
Additionally, unlike other forms of group fitness, the instructor can let go of the entire class for long stretches at a time, assigning them to pursue an intensity or a task on their own while checking in personally with individuals. These personal connections happen prior to and after class as well, and can often carry over into social media. While this connection is psychologically and emotionally rewarding for both rider and instructor, it is an additional burden for the instructor to carry and every effort should be made to keep professional boundaries intact.
Finally, beyond what is typically expected of most group fitness instructors, the onus is on the indoor cycling instructor to understand the biomechanics and cycling technique that simultaneously serve both the casual exerciser and the elite athlete as well as everyone in between.
Obviously, when you consider all of the facets indoor cycling instruction, you quickly realize that self-care does not simply mean committing to better sleep and more yoga, although this would probably serve many indoor cycling instructors well. Self-care is not a singular event, like calling in a “mental health day,” or quitting altogether. It is an established routine of daily habits that extends out to a weekly routine, monthly commitments, and a yearly vision of a healthy lifestyle. Self-care encompases addressing the physical, emotional, psychological, and educational demands of the job as well as coping with the working culture and environment for optimal, sustained professionalism.
First things first
Cultivating self-care begins with identifying needs.
It is up to the indoor cycling instructor to first determine what his or her self-care needs are. Are they physical in nature? Perhaps more rest or yoga-like stretching would remedy fatigue and tension. Is it more about devising a plan to re-ignite creativity and seek fresh coaching inspiration? Perhaps self-care means stepping up and acknowledging a gap in foundational knowledge where he or she feels left out of a conversation. An example might be generating power, understanding biomechanics, or utilizing energy systems.
When prioritizing what you need, consider the time frame for realistic achievement and perpetuation of your self-care.
Next, it is important to list how you plan to get what you need based on your priorities. This might mean setting boundaries, getting organized, or having crucial conversations with others. Following are three examples of potentially stressful situations for an instructor and how to handle them with clarity and professionalism before they start to erode the instructor’s psyche, health, and well-being.
Example 1: My cycling clients ask me questions beyond my scope of knowledge. My first priority is to practice how to let them know that my specialty is cycling and not physical therapy, for example. However, because this interests me, my second priority is to really understand why some clients have knee pain, so I will revisit bike setup in case this is the root of their problem, as it is within the scope of my work.
Example 2: Because I live closer to the gym than my colleagues do, I get called a lot to sub. While I might have the time and ability to sub, I find myself teaching too much and on my days off. I will practice saying no when I really shouldn’t take on any more unscheduled classes, and help management build a team of reliable subs. I will help when I can and trade classes if I can take a different day off, but I will not sub on my day off if I know I need the rest.
Example 3: Several of my colleagues ALWAYS leave the mic on and I often go to teach and find the mic dead. My first remedy for self-care is to always keep new batteries with me. But since this irritates me, I will work with the management and my colleagues to ensure that we use rechargeable batteries and that they are always ready prior to class. I will not stew about this anymore, and I won’t be forced to hurt my throat anymore. I will let them know each and every time I find a dead mic.
Self-care for the indoor cycling instructor is less about damage control—although that is important for a sustained career as a fitness professional—and more about maximizing your potential as a vibrant instructor. Inspired leadership wells up from well-rested excellence, not exhaustion. There is no set overarching prescription for instructor self-care, so instructors must harness the introspection necessary to determine what is best for their own health and well-being. In an industry that promotes a superhuman existence, true leadership can be measured in the ability to model the self-care plan we advocate for our clients.
How will you know when you’ve achieved balance?
It may not immediately be obvious when self-care is effective, but you may notice that you look forward to teaching once again. You may find that your coaching cues are insightful and help you connect to the riders. You may feel energized on your days off. You may notice that the clarity in important conversations among colleagues has led to stronger work relationships and less resentment. Most importantly, your plan of self-care may lead you to greater depths of satisfaction with your career as an inspired leader, both in the cycling studio and the fitness industry at large, if you simply identify what you need, prioritize it, and put into action a sustainable plan of work-life balance.
Please use the worksheet below to help you identify the stressors you are currently facing and your options for dealing with them (both internally and externally). This exercise will help you create your own personal code, allowing you to keep control of your health and well-being.