The optimal work/life balance is unique for every individual. For example, newcomers to the fitness industry often offer both early-morning and evening sessions to their clients. After all, they’re pursuing their passion and establishing themselves in a competitive, service-oriented business. “Everyone is unique in their desire and ability to tolerate long hours,” says Sabrena Jo, MS, senior director of science and research at ACE. "If you’re just starting out and you really have your eye on the prize of building your business and it’s your true passion, then it’s not a sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, more established industry veterans may have developed additional or alternative means of earning a living after years of “trading their time for money.” It’s all about where you are in your career and the priorities you have set for yourself.

Of course, the past 18 months or so have caused a shift in priorities for many health and exercise professionals, as they have had to reinvent themselves and find ways to serve their clients or participants while working from home or in new environments. This only served to complicate the achievement of an already elusive work/life balance even further, as family time and work time merged into one. And again, this means something different to everyone, depending on the structure of your household.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic continues to evolve, the fitness industry remains in flux, with different realities existing depending on where you live and work. For example, what might work well for a veteran trainer/empty nester may not resonate with a newly certified pro with young children. However, we are, as the saying goes, all in this together, so we sought the advice of those who have been working within the industry for some time and represent a range of lifestyles and responsibilities. Here, they offer their best tips for achieving work/life balance, whatever that might mean to you.

Taking stock of your own habits and needs is the first step to carving out the time and space needed to do your best work. This requires setting up a system that works for you and the people with whom you live, whether that’s your spouse, young children or roommates.  

“Knowing yourself is critical,” says Jonathan Ross, creator of Funtensity, author of the book Abs Revealed and two-time Personal Trainer of the Year award winner (ACE and IDEA). Ross recommends paying attention to locations or times of day that work best for you and reserving those times and spaces for your hardest work. Also, he says, “do your hardest work when you know you’re at your best.”

For example, as a writer and editor for ACE, I’ve learned that I do my best writing first thing in the morning, so I allot a certain amount of writing time to start my day, as I’m able to do my editing and project management work later in the day when I may not be at my peak creatively. I’ve tried to establish that routine, while allowing for some flexibility on days when the words just aren’t flowing.

That combination of structure and flexibility is vital, says Ross. While some people thrive on routine, others find it stifling and that it limits cognitive freedom and creativity. It all comes down to knowing yourself and finding ways to maximize your productivity in whatever type of work you do. For example, you might want to do program design for clients or promotional planning for your business at a time when you are most fresh and creative, while relegating more mundane tasks to other times of day. Likewise, if you know you feel particularly tired after consecutive client sessions or classes, make sure you reserve some time to regroup and reenergize before moving on to tasks that might be creatively or cognitively challenging.

As with most things in life, establishing a proper work/life balance requires communication skills. Knowing you do your best work early in the morning isn’t enough if that’s when your household is at its busiest, with kids eating breakfast and scrambling to get ready for school and the dog barking for his morning walk. It’s essential that you sit down with the people you live with to discuss your needs and why they’re so important to getting your work done, while remaining flexible enough to accommodate everything else that happens in a busy household.

Simply declaring the need for quiet may not always be fair, so it’s essential that you take the time to map out a process, strategy and schedule that works for everyone.

I tend to work in one place all day long, so I simply close my office door if I need some quiet to getting my writing done. I will also tell everyone in my house when a Zoom call or Teams meeting is about to begin so they know it’s important to limit background noise as much as possible.

Ross, on the other hand, tends to move around his house over the course of the day, taking advantage of the different view, lighting and vibe each space offers. He has a hat he wears when doing heavily focused work—his literal thinking cap—which signals to his family that he’d like to be left alone as much as possible. This is a fun and creative way to set boundaries without actually separating himself from his family.

Since early 2020, many health and exercise professionals saw their responsibilities change as they sought alternative ways to earn a living as gyms closed. For many of you, virtual sessions and classes became the norm and are probably here to stay, and this requires you to have in-home spaces where you can do this type of work—and these spaces often did not exist pre-pandemic.

Jo­­­­­­­ moved her home office during the pandemic when her responsibilities shifted. As she began recording more video and audio for podcasts and social media, Jo realized that she needed more physical separation to limit distractions and background noise from delivery drivers, barking dogs and playing kids. She had to explain to her family why quiet was essential during certain parts of her day and did her best to schedule those tasks during times when the house was at its quietest.

In other words, two-way communication and respect is vital, as not having those things in place can cause tension and loss of productivity. It’s important that everyone in your home understand when and why quiet is needed—for meetings, sessions and classes, as well as for tough “thinking” or creative work that demands your focused attention. 

Ross uses this phrase—planned unbalancing—to describe those periods when your work/life balance may be out of whack, but purposefully and for good reason. There are countless things that may require you to embrace a short-term unbalancing, such as taking night classes to further your education, accepting a freelance writing assignment that will expose you to a new audience, or teaching weekend boot-camp classes in a local park as part of a community outreach program. The point is, the period of being “unbalanced” is planned, scheduled and communicated to the people in your life who it impacts most.

Sit down with your spouse and children, for example, and explain why the opportunity is important to you and when the unbalancing will end. After all, living in a perpetually unbalanced state is not sustainable and will eventually start to negatively impact your relationships. This again highlights the importance of ongoing communication.

“The balance is always a choice,” explains Ross, so make that choice carefully and mindfully. “Remember, not everything that’s labeled as an opportunity is one,” he warns. It can be easy to get caught up in the money or opportunity, but be wary of open-ended tasks that dramatically increase your workload. “Extremism can be gratifying,” he says, “but if it goes on too long it becomes a stressor.”

Finally, what you should be seeking is a balance among income, passion and joy. Things may not feel as draining if they pay you well or they feed your passion or they bring you joy. It’s when you find yourself caught up in drudgery that doesn’t offer enough of one or more of those elements that things start to become problematic. Remain mindful of when and why your work/life balance is shifting in a way that work threatens to overtake life and be vigilant about only seeking those opportunities that serve you and your loved ones well.

Another important element of work/life balance involves finding the right balance between “how fatigued and how fulfilled you are,” explains Jo. Be careful that you are not pushing yourself so hard that your sleep quality and quantity begin to suffer, for example. Also, you should not feel fatigued throughout your day or that you don’t have enough time or energy to pursue things that are important to you outside of work.

Much of this again depends on you, your circumstances and your personality. It’s essential that you find ways to recharge your batteries, whether that means exercising with friends, spending time with your family, meditating or simply reading a book or spending some time alone. You likely know what brings you peace and relaxation, so don’t allow yourself to work to the point where you are sacrificing the things that keep you happy, energetic and best positioned to succeed in all aspects of your life.

The danger comes when you’re working so much that you start experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, irritability or sleep that isn’t restful. Unfortunately, by the time those symptoms start to surface, it’s already too late, Jo warns, meaning that you’ve already set up your life in such a way that you’re not achieving optimal health and wellness. These symptoms arise because your body is reacting to stressors that it cannot handle.

The trick is finding the balance for you and your circumstances and then engineering your environment and situation to avoid these symptoms as much as possible. This requires honest self-reflection, as you must identify early warning signs that you need to take a step back and reevaluate your work/life balance.

In this new era of Zoom calls and people working from all types of locations, it seems that many businesses have become a bit more casual and understanding when it comes to expectations for their employees. This is evident every time a cat crosses in front of a webcam or a child sneaks into the frame to whisper into their mom’s or dad’s ear during a meeting.

This holds true when you’re working with clients, as well. So, be understanding when a client’s spouse or child interrupts a virtual session or when technical glitches occur, as they most certainly will. If you respond to those moments with a sense of humor and grace, it’s likely that others will return the favor when the time arises.

The world has changed, and everyone is unified in experiencing it. You may do everything you can to optimize your environment and be as professional as possible, but kids will barge in, dogs will bark and doorbells and telephones will ring when you least expect it. It’s in those moments that you have to laugh off the interruptions, shrug your shoulders and realize that everyone is in the same boat. When you’re working from home, life is sometimes going to interrupt work and there’s not much you can do about it.

As mentioned above, the fitness industry is in flux, with some people still working from home, while others have returned to many of their pre-pandemic routines. There is no “right” way to make the transition back to a more “normal” life, and it’s important to honor your feelings and concerns regarding safety and risk, and allow your clients and participants to do the same.

Shana Verstegen, fitness director for Supreme Health and Fitness in Madison, Wisc., has transitioned from training clients from home, to teaching classes in the parking lot, to a full return to the gym. She encourages health and exercise professionals to use this time “as a chance to reevaluate goals, reassess your clients and rebuild rapport,” she suggests. Things have changed for many of us over the past 18 months or so, she says, including the “why” behind exercise. Take the time to talk to your clients to gain a new understanding of if and how their values have changed in terms of how they approach physical activity.

“Give your clients, and yourself, a bit of a break,” says Verstegen. And keep things positive and fun. Returning to in-person work will come with a mix of emotions for everyone involved, she explains, including a fear of health risks, embarrassment about current fitness levels, excitement and anxiety. To counter any stress and to bring more fun to the experience, bring up conversations that elicit positive thoughts and emotions and consider incorporating games and team-building activities. The focus in the early days of in-person training, coaching and classes should be on enjoyment and having positive exercise experiences.

In Conclusion

A prevailing theme on social media and in popular culture centers on respecting the hustle of those who work endless hours in pursuit of their dreams. This may serve some people well, at least for a time, but it’s important to know when to respect the hustle and when to reject it. Never lose sight of the fact that self-care and a focus on family and life outside of work are also essential elements of success.