The Injured Instructor’s Path to Recovery

We love to be front and center in the gym, leading our members through their workouts, but we all get sidelined once in a while. Consider this advice on deciding when and how to push through, take a rest or readjust your role.

by Christy Stevenson

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Being a leader means knowing when to take a break—and showing clients it’s okay to take time to heal.

Though fitness instructors try to train wisely, practice perfect form and stay strong, we still suffer the occasional injury or illness—sometimes job-related, sometimes not. No one enjoys experiencing physical setbacks, but they can be especially difficult for fitness pros, whose very livelihood depends on stamina, physical health and soundness of body. 

There's a strong temptation to teach through such challenges—but is that the wisest course of action? Read on for recommendations on when, how and even if you should return to your former responsibilities after an injury or illness.

Minor (Bearable) Injury/Illness
You can usually work around minor injuries and illnesses like occasional knee pain, a slightly tweaked shoulder or a mild cold. These minor setbacks don't specifically affect your workout and probably won't distract your attendees. Most likely, you won't have to miss work much, if at all. Lisa Pitchie-Payne, a group fitness instructor based in South Florida, says she keeps leading workouts during her annual bout of laryngitis. "My members have grown accustomed to my once-a-year voiceless class," she says. "I use even more hand signals to cue, and because I'm compensating, [members] sometimes get a tougher workout."

Some instructors say that pushing through minor (or bearable) health issues keeps them physically, mentally and emotionally strong. Even more-serious conditions may allow you to continue to train, provided that your symptoms don't interfere with the workout and your healthcare team is on board. Cynthia Shepard, whose group fitness business serves several cities in South Carolina, continued to hold her classes while undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. She credits her fitness and precancer health for allowing her to teach during those difficult times.

If you feel like you can work through your injury or health issue, be sure to listen to your body, just as you always tell your clients to do. Modify how much you demonstrate, using regular patrons to model exercises. Brush up on your verbal cueing skills; be as specific and clear as possible. Be up front with staff and clients regarding your injury or illness, and remind your class members to do the same if they face a similar challenge.

Moderate Injury/Illness
A moderate injury needs time for healing and recovery, but it should allow you to return to work within a matter of days. Most of us have experienced moderate problems like bronchitis, a wrist strain, a broken toe or extreme muscle soreness. And seemingly minor tweaks can become major challenges. I still have painful memories of getting tiny lava rock shards embedded in my foot while surfing in Kauai, Hawaii, on vacation. By the time I got home, I couldn't bear weight on my foot and had to seek medical attention before returning to work.

The trickiest part of moderate injury/illness is knowing exactly when to return to your job. Ideally, you'll be consulting with a doctor or physical therapist, but if that's not an option, then you'll have to trust your judgment. You may not know how long recovery will take, but be sure to get coverage for your classes in advance. Don't decide last-minute that you do, indeed, need a sub: Line up subs a few days to a week ahead, promising 24-hour notice before calling them in.

Again, listen to your body, stay humble, and modify your demonstrations and the intensity of your exercise when you do ease back into normal activity levels.

Chuck Raffoni, Broga instructor, Reiki master, and health and wellness coach in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, shares his experience after breaking a wrist: "I was hesitant to return to work because I felt that I would be letting my students down. [T]hey liked to watch me demonstrate throughout the class and be ‘in it' with them. But I recognized that by saying, ‘I'm going to sit this one out,' I was still demonstrating my yoga to them. Showing you are human resonates with your students."

Many fitness instructors return too soon, whether out of pride, stubbornness or the need of a paycheck. Remember: It's best to err on the side of caution; a quick return defeats the purpose if you inadvertently worsen your injury or illness and drag out your recovery. The worst decision is neglecting your health and turning a moderate issue into a serious one.

 

Serious Injury/Illness
A serious injury/illness can come on suddenly or gradually. This category may include an acute overuse injury, surgery, broken bone, pregnancy complications or a disease that degrades your physical abilities. It can take weeks or months to resolve a serious health problem, and you'll need clearance from a medical professional before returning to work. 

You should probably discuss these issues with your supervisor and be candid about the expected recovery time and quantity of coverage you will need. Ideally, your employer/facility will be helpful and flexible with your leave.

Kalene Collard Danley, an athletic trainer at a physical therapy clinic at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, says determining when to return to work can be a complex process: "When dealing with an injury, we have to look at the whole kinetic chain to determine where the problem is and not just treat the symptoms. We look at muscle length, joint range of motion, gait, mechanics with lifting, and of course the healing of the tissue/joint/bone. All these areas must be addressed before an instructor returns fully to his/her own fitness regimen." When instructors do get the clearance to return to leading a workout, fully or using modifications, they should continue any physical therapy recommended. Also, keep in mind that if you've had long-term subs, you may need to build your class back up. Be patient and realistic about your expectations; if you have a long road to recovery, switch to gentler class formats for as long as necessary.

For Tamra Stephenson, an instructor at HIGH Fitness and owner of Core Balance Fitness in Salt Lake City, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis was not a mandate to quit the job she loved. But she did recognize the need to shift the volume and intensity of her teaching schedule: "[Today,] I'm teaching about half the classes I used to. While it was hard to let go, I realized I needed to give a few classes my best energy instead of [leading] a lot of classes with half my energy. I teach mostly in the morning because MS causes you to fatigue as the day goes on. I may wear tennis shoes when teaching Pilates if the neuropathy in my feet is acting up. I didn't plan on being an instructor with a neurological disorder. I've had to learn to be okay with smaller accomplishments, adjust daily and go with the flow."

Severe Injury/Illness
This can be the worst news of all: an injury or illness so grave that we must consider giving up a specific instructing modality or quitting altogether. This can be an immediate decision, but it might occur after some time when symptoms do not improve. 

For a passionate fitness instructor, this can be a devastating life event. Some who have quit have experienced an identity crisis and all the stages of grief. We tend to define ourselves by our jobs and our hobbies, and fitness is both for instructors. What happens to us if we stop doing what we love most?

First, know that stopping may not be your only option. Determine if you can adapt to a different modality of instruction. Perhaps you can still teach in the water but not on land, or maybe you can no longer do power yoga, but you can still lead meditative yoga. Also think about using your fitness skills in other ways, such as writing, coaching or mentoring.

Tonya Davis-Miller, adjunct professor at Hillsborough Community College and owner of Zenith Exercise Nutrition in Tampa, Florida, suffers from post-concussion syndrome from her athlete days, and she has a severely damaged spine from a car accident. She had to give up on classes, but she didn't give up on fitness. "I teach certification workshops, but only with someone else capable of demonstrating the exercises," says Davis-Miller. "I'm now changing my business from gym classes and personal training to online personal training and mentoring [of] younger trainers. [And] I've shifted all my personal exercise to Zen activities when I'm not dizzy." Even though some of her medications leave her feeling "emotionally flat," she tries to stay positive, and she continues to persevere in her career in the fitness industry.

Never Forget What Matters Most
As much as we love our jobs and the people we influence, we must remember that our health is important, too. Ignoring your body today could set you up for complications later. Be present, be mindful, be wise—and when you do experience a setback (large or small), know you're not alone. Overcoming injuries and illnesses makes us more empathetic, relatable and knowledgeable as instructors and as human beings. And if your body does force you to slow down, modify workouts, step away for a while or change direction, you can rest assured that it's possible to stay true to your passion for fitness. In the end, we must make sure we are pursuing our goals in a way that works for us in mind, spirit and body.

"When dealing with an injury, we have to … look at muscle length … range of motion, gait, mechanics with lifting, and of course the healing …. All these areas must be addressed before an instructor returns fully to his/her own fitness regimen."
—Kalene Collard Danley, Athletic Trainer

Lecturing or giving presentations can be a good avenue for those who want a break from leading workouts.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Stevenson Christy Stevenson, AFAA-certified instructor, FiTOUR ProTrainer and fitness writer/presenter, has worked in the fitness industry for more than 16 years. She owns the YouTube channel Real Fit for Real Life. Follow her on Instagram @realfitforreallife.

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