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November 2010

Are You Headed for Burnout?



About three years ago, Matthew Goodemote, M.P.T., founder of Community Physical Therapy & Wellness in Gloversville, N.Y., was on the verge of a breakdown. “In fact,” he says, “I remember very clearly leaving the clinic one day after dealing with a woman who was particularly needy.

“She wanted to be healthy and had experienced the difference in how she felt when she exercised, but she had every excuse in the book about why ‘her situation was different’ and how her life was simply ‘too busy to take the time to do what she knew she needed to do.’”

Goodemote had had it. He was fed up with excuses. “I left the clinic and went to a local lake where I looked at the stars for a few hours. I literally did nothing for three hours.”

In a Nutshell, Burnout Includes . . .
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of desire
  • Depression
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased absences and/or tardiness
  • Anger/resentment in workplace
  • Inability to relax
  • Alcohol/drug abuse

While it’s difficult to find statistics on the rate of professional burnout, experts agree that it happens often—and perhaps more so in the helping professions, including teaching, healthcare, counseling, law enforcement—and yes, fitness professions.

What exactly is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work situations. Burnout is the cumulative result of stress.

“I was in this moment of letting go of all the days’ pressures,” explains Goodemote, “when it occurred to me. The main reason I was so frustrated with all the excuses was because I was making them, too. I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to be well.

“I was neglecting my body. I was working ridiculous hours, seven days a week. I was eating poorly and only sleeping three to four hours a night—and had been doing so for months.”

Goodemote recognized himself in his clients. “I realized this woman, and other clients like her, were truly mirrors for my own life situation. It was at that time that I decided I needed to start ‘walking the walk’ and not just ‘preaching the word.’”

What Does Burnout Look Like?

You chose the health and fitness field for a reason. You loved being active and you wanted to help people make life decisions and changes. You thought you could get paid to be in shape. But perhaps your current portrait doesn’t look so optimistic. Maybe your canvas is looking more like:

  • I’m bored. My job doesn’t excite me anymore.
  • Energy? I can barely get out of bed in the morning.
  • I would rather be doing something—anything—else.
  • I can’t seem to focus or finish a project.
  • I’m late to work a lot lately. Some days I just decide to not even go in.
  • If I have to listen to one more client’s or coworker’s problems I just may lose it!
  • I can’t relax enough to unwind or even sleep.
  • I feel depressed.
  • I’m using drugs or alcohol to help me through this time.

While it may feel embarrassing to get to this point, keep in mind that professional burnout is not uncommon, and there are some specific reasons why fitness professionals experience it. 

“Personal trainers are often up early in the morning for work [and work late-day hours, as well],” says Franklin Antoian, ACE-certified Personal Trainer and founder of “We’re on our feet all day. We talk with—and work out with—our clients. We don’t have a cubicle where we can catch a nap if no one is looking.”

And we tend to take on our clients’ issues, says Goodemote. “Burnout can come from wanting others to be different, [and wanting them to do it our way]. This can create an internal battle. We need to stay focused on our job, which is to teach health and support people as they find their own way.”

In other words, we can’t do their job for them. “I can help only those [who are] willing to let me help them,” adds Goodemote. “The biggest change for me over the last few years has been what I call ‘finding my peace.’ Byron Katie, a favorite teacher of mine, says there are three types of business—God’s business, other people’s business and my business.”

Goodemote explains that his business is to simply stay in his own business—no one else’s—including his clients’. “When I’m in my own business I have my peace. I don’t get frustrated [getting caught up in other people’s business].”

For Nancy Byrd Radding, fitness director for The Oaks at Ojai in Calif., her bout with burnout was more about her personal life reflecting on her professional life. “Burnout may be showing up professionally because of a personal issue,” she says. “I suffered burnout about 12 years ago. The reasons were many, but I would say that my personal life was falling apart and it made everything harder.”

While learning stress-management techniques is necessary, all the deep breathing in the world isn’t going to solve the underlying issues.

“You must deal with the roots, not just the symptoms, in order to ‘get over it,’” says Radding. “You also need to observe the same smart life rules you encourage your clients and students to observe.”

Radding says that she now works hard at balancing out her life, between work, home, relationships and hobbies. “I try not to be ‘swallowed’ by any one aspect of my life, but make room for the many things I love!”

While You’re Pulling at Those Roots…
  • Take care of you. Goodemote says that the times he has been the most burned out was when he was also the most out of shape. Stay fit, get enough rest and sleep, and make healthy food choices—just like you advise your clients to do.
  • Enrich your work life. Are there other aspects you’d like to add to your career that would allow you to give up some of your current responsibilities, while also increasing your job satisfaction? For instance, perhaps you enjoy writing. Could your gym use a newsletter? Or does the current newsletter editor/writer need some help?
  • Enrich your life outside of work. What are your other interests and passions? Not sure? Think back to when you were a child. What excited you? Whether it’s learning how to play piano or simply sitting down with that novel that’s been collecting dust on your nightstand, sink your brain into something that is not work-related.
  • Diversify. Do you only do personal training or lead group fitness classes? Spread your wings and think of other related ways to make money. Teach workshops and clinics, write articles for your local paper or regional magazine…or take that new hobby and turn it into a money-making venture.
  • Keep business hours…and stick with them. You are only one person. You can’t possibly be there for every person who wants you as their trainer or instructor. Whether it’s cutting your daily hours, or reducing the number of days you’re available to clients, set your hours and stick with them. If you own your own business, consider hiring independent contractors or taking on employees to allow you to get your business more organized.
  • Network with other fitness pros. Set up an informal “partnership” with at least one other trainer who likes to work opposite hours. If you prefer morning hours, for instance, and she prefers evenings, you can refer clients to each other who also prefer those times.
  • Attend workshops. It’s easy to become stale, always using the same exercises and techniques with each class or client. Stay fresh and on top of the latest gear and techniques by attending workshops. This will also help keep you excited about what you’re doing.
  • Take back your control. This is your life, your career. Many professionals burn out because they feel they don’t have control over their own careers, especially if they work for someone else. Instead, think, “I work with this company, not just for it.” Value the skills you bring to the organization and know what your career goals are and what you need to do to meet them. If the company you currently work with isn’t willing to allow you to use your skills, perhaps it’s time to look for one that will. On the flip side…maybe the company has been taking advantage of your skills and you’re spread too thin. In this case, your control may be in one word: no. Stop taking on projects that you dread or know are taking energy away from other things that require that energy—and that you enjoy more.
  • Get help. If you feel that anger issues, alcohol, drugs or depression are keeping you from moving forward, please seek professional help.

Getting to the Root of the Issue

One of the first steps to dealing with burnout, says Radding, is to acknowledge it’s there, as many professionals just accept how they’re feeling as part of the job. We are, after all, in a helping profession.

If you feel you may be suffering from a good case of burnout—or are headed that way—make today the day you take the first step to move forward out of it. Go through the following questions and write out your answers so that you have a concrete plan in place.

  • What is burning/stressing me out? Is it really your job? Or is it something in your personal life that is affecting your work? Perhaps it’s both. Does your career still reflect your passions and interests?
  • What exactly about my stressor(s) is getting to me? If you determine, for instance, that your work really is your primary stressor, pinpoint exactly what it is that is stressing you out. Is it a co-worker, a boss, the hours, the commute? Do you own your own business and it’s just become overwhelming and out-of-control? Are you constantly fighting injuries from overtraining? Or have you become unfit, because you have no time for your own workouts?
  • What can I do about it?Too often we hand power over our own lives to others, believing there is nothing we can do about a situation, when in fact, there is almost always at least one other option. Ask yourself:
    • Do I need to change my perception of the stressor? What is stressful to one person may be a minor irritant to another. Are you unnecessarily taking something on as stress when it doesn’t need to be? Do you wonder how someone else can let things just “roll off his back” when it totally stresses you out? If this is the case, there are probably other factors causing your stress, which are in turn causing you to stress out over this situation.
    • Do I need to change my reaction to the stressor? Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic, which is making you late to an appointment. What’s your reaction? Do you grip the steering wheel tighter, blood pressure boiling? Or do you use it as an opportunity to take a brief time-out and just breathe, sing along with your favorite music, or practice pelvic floor exercises? In the work environment, perhaps you’re reacting to a coworker or client in a way that in turn is igniting nasty reactions from them. And so the cycle continues…
    • Do I need to take action with this stressor? If, despite your best efforts, that coworker or client continues to be nasty, what can you do? Sometimes this requires direct confrontation or a meeting with your supervisor to discuss the situation. Or perhaps the client needs to be referred to another trainer—or released altogether.

For Radding, her plan-of-action was to switch professional gears while she focused on her own personal life. “While I make my ‘best’ money personal training, I backed off of one-on-ones for awhile, because I find it requires a lot of energy and takes more out of me. I focused on group exercise instead,” she explains. “I know money is always an issue, but I’ve decided that it’s wiser for me to be aware of how I feel and function the best and go with that, [rather than just what’s going to make me more money].”

For some, squelching burnout requires changing professions all-together. Others realize they are right where they are supposed to be—but just need to make a few adjustments.

“Every time I start down the road of changing careers, I’m confronted with the fact that for whatever reason, my brain just ‘gets’ the body,” says Goodemote. “I can’t imagine not being in this field. As long as I have to work, I might as well do something I love doing.”


/><img src= Carrie Myers has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and has been a freelance writer for more than 11 years. She is the author of the award-winning book, Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World: A Real Woman's Guide to Food, Fitness, and Self-Acceptance and presents, teaches and trains in N.H. and Vt.


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