PhD student by day, group-fitness instructor by night

“How are you motivated to do sports every day?”

“After a day in the lab, all I want to do is go home and lie on the couch. I couldn’t even imagine going straight to the gym”

As soon as somebody finds out what my evenings look like, this is the type of reaction I get.

My short, auto-pilot answer is always: “Going to the gym is just part of my daily routine, I don’t even think about it anymore. And it doesn’t drain me, it actually gives me more energy at the end of the day.”

So, what’s my long answer?…

I‘m a second year PhD, and I spend my days in the lab working on the typical ‘one-step-forward-two-steps-back’ types of projects (sometimes, it happens the other way around too ;)). As for my evenings, I usually spend them at the gym, either instructing a group-fitness class or taking one myself.

I gave my first class in October 2016. At my peak I was teaching 7-8 classes a week, but now I’m down to a more ‘sane’ 4-5 classes per week (the editor notes that this is not sane). At the moment, I instruct barbell workouts, some boxing/kickboxing-type workouts, and occasionally give an indoor cycling class. When I’m not teaching a class, I enjoy going to the gym to participate in other instructors’ classes. As a result, I’m usually there for about 2-3 hours every day.

Isn’t it physically exhausting?

Yes. Of course. I need a lot of food (just ask my labmates, no dish in the Mensa goes back with leftovers :P), and a lot of sleep. However, I’m able to manage my workouts so that I don’t overdo it, and for most of the classes, instructing isn’t quite as exhausting as doing the actual workout.

Doesn’t it interfere with your work?

That’s a loaded question. If you define “interfering” as keeping me from working more than 9-10 hours a day, then yes, it interferes. It definitely keeps me on a tight schedule, since I have to be somewhere else in the evening. If I don’t show up to my fitness class on time, it simply won’t take place (which is a situation I very much want to avoid).

Sometimes the responsibility can get a bit annoying. It can happen that I’ll need to rush or pause an experiment, or start it much earlier than I normally would so that I can finish in time. Sometimes I’ll also have to ask a collaborator to start an experiment early, or to finish without me. The extra hours also mean that some reviews, reports and papers don’t get written quite as fast as they could, since I‘m too exhausted (and sufficiently mindful of my physical recovery) to write them during the night (see ‘sleep’ above).

Every now and then, I’ll also catch myself drifting off to plan or memorize a new workout routine, or to watch a video on the latest fitness innovation, or to listen to some new music I could use in my classes. But I guess it wouldn’t be so different for any other type of hobby…kind of… I hope 😛

So yes, just like any hobby, being a part-time fitness instructor is time-consuming, and it forces you to plan out your days (and especially your days or evenings off) a little bit better if you also want to have some time left over for your friends (and for yourself).

Do you make money doing that?

Yes, I do. Am I doing it for the money? Hell no.

An hour of class pays about 25€, which (I’ll admit) is a nice bonus to my standard 50% salary. Not bad at all.

And yes, I do have to pay taxes on it (it’s a separate Steuererklärung), and I do officially have to let my employer (the UMG and my PI) know.

Why do you do it, and can I do it too?

I didn’t really start out with a why, but more so my motivation developed over time. I got into the whole ‘group-fitness’ thing (and believe me, I was very skeptical at first) at the end of 2015, during a semester abroad in Sweden (insert long love story about my time in Sweden here).

When I returned to Göttingen, all of the classes I had grown to love and depend on simply didn’t exist. Some courses came close, but it wasn’t the same. The group-fitness classes in Sweden had an infectious energy that was missing here, and I wanted to infect others with that same type of energy.

I’d been playing around with the idea of becoming an instructor for a while (“…but I‘m starting my PhD soon, I won’t have any time!…”). But it was only when I got asked by one of the regular instructors at my gym if I‘d be interested in teaching, that I got the final push that I needed.

In Germany, there’s a number of ways to become a licensed/certified instructor. You could start with a big (and expensive) comprehensive course spanning over several weekends, which will certify you with a ‘B-Lizenz’. Or, you could start smaller (like I did), and get licensed to instruct individual programs. Through this route, I could already get some regular classes and start making money (that I could then invest in getting more qualifications).

And fortunately, in Göttingen, there’s always a job for instructors. I’ve heard that in other cities it can be quite competitive, but here, if you’re somewhat decent at what you do, you could easily work at the Hochschulsport, or at one of the other five fitness studios offering group classes. The Hochschulsport has a great offer for a one-week long, “basic introduction to group-fitness instruction” course – see here. You should definitely try it if you’re considering becoming an instructor!

Is it for everyone? In my opinion, the most important skill for teaching a workout is genuinely loving the workout, and that’s the ideal starting point for becoming an instructor (I don’t think that money would be a good-enough motivator). So, if you truly enjoy doing a certain class and you’re good at it (and assuming you aren’t entirely tone or beat deaf*), you could definitely qualify. And you’ll easily learn all of the additional skills you need in the program qualification course.

*Note: Most of the good classes (at least, good in my opinion) require you to choose music that fits in with different workout segments, and to time different movements and routines to the rhythm. That means you have to have some minimal ability to coordinate your motions to music (so yes, if you’re that one person in class who is half a beat later than everyone else, instructing isn’t for you). However, there are classes that don’t require this ability at all. For example, in HIIT workouts the music is just for the ambience, so you don’t really need to know much more than how to operate a timer (except for the fitness aspect of it, of course).

Is it that easy? How do you give a class when you’re having a bad day?

At first, when it was all very new to me, it was a bit nerve-wrecking. I wasn’t (and still am not) an extrovert who easily talks to everyone, and I was a bit worried about standing in front of a room of people all staring at me, wanting to be entertained. What got me through it is that I genuinely enjoyed and believed in the workout that I was instructing.

By now, I’m rarely nervous anymore, and I can actually feel my mood lifting as soon as I enter the gym. Once I see the familiar faces of my regular participants, and the expectant faces of the new ones, I’m transformed. There’s something empowering about having a group of people follow your every move, watching them push harder when you drive them, and seeing stress of their day quite literally lift off of them (I teach a lifting class). I feel proud when they return my smile since I can see that they’re genuinely enjoying themselves.

So, do I have bad days? For sure. But it very, very rarely affects my classes. So yes, not every single one of my workouts is full of shouts and rivers of sweat and exploding fireworks (though most are), but that’s not important as long as I’m sure that I’m making an effort (and I take that effort very seriously). So occasionally if I’m having a bad day I’ll need to pull myself together a little, but 99% of the time the workout would end up making my day better anyhow 😉

Does it contribute to your scientific career/work?

Definitely. When you regularly stand in front of 20-60 people and tell them how they should move their limbs, a three-person thesis committee is a little less intimidating than it might be otherwise. Instructing has also helped me get used to carrying my voice with a little more assertiveness and volume than before.

Another ability that teaching fitness has really helped me with is my people skills. This is simply because, unlike many academics, I’ve gotten to meet people from a huge range of backgrounds. I don’t only teach students, but also senior citizens, doctors, nurses, construction workers, civil servants, policemen, accountants, janitors, and even professors and PIs (who shall remain nameless). I’ve had all of these people sweating with me (and because of me), which is something that would make anyone a lot less intimidating.

I’ve also learned how to approach, motivate, correct or praise different types of people, and I’m really coming to understand how to work around individual personalities, backgrounds, opinions, characteristics and attributes. And all it takes is just to get out of the “bubble of lab-people” every once in a while.

And like I said before, being at the gym also helps to make my overall mood better. And when I’m in a good mood, I work better, I’m more motivated to work, and I’m also able to share my good mood with my labmates (editor says “thanks”).

So, are you a biologist or a fitness instructor?

We’ve all had that experience when someone with a ‘normal’ non science-related job is really impressed by our work (or what they understand of it) and says: “Ooooh, so you’re really going to change the world with your research one day, and save so many people’s lives!”.

In the past, my response would be very modest and consist of me talking down my research and myself: “Not the whole world, okay? Maybe just a few mice with a very specific mutation that don’t actually exist in the wild…”.

But now, instead of being humble about my research, I can take the opportunity to brag about my fitness courses:  “I probably change more lives every evening in the gym than my science will anytime in the near future!”.

While this might not be the most positive outlook on my science (which I still love and pursue nevertheless), it puts things into perspective. Because with sports, fulfillment and joy come so much more easily and so much more immediately than with research, and they resonate long after a workout is over.

And it’s not just the physical work itself which is gratifying. Sometimes, it’s nice just to shut off your brain and be present in a room full of people enjoying some music. And sometimes, you’re just proud of yourself for doing something that you never thought you could possibly do before.

So, I do research and I teach group-fitness classes. Come to BodyCombat, Boxcamp or Hot Iron at Fitness First!

Verena Klüver

PhD candidate, Neuroscience,University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG)

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