In her mid-20s, Sue Hitzmann was a rising star in the fitness industry. She was on the cover of Muscle & Fitness, had an international bestselling boot camp video, and was incredibly lean and shredded — the physical epitome of a fitness trainer.
“I couldn’t have been any more fit,” Hitzmann told Healthline. But she had a dark secret about her health.
“I was in pain all the time,” she revealed. “My joints ached, I had unexplained and serious chronic pain in my foot, and my body was so exhausted that I had to take naps during the day.”
“Chronic pain is the dirty little secret of the fitness industry,” shared Hitzmann, who was inspired by this revelation to found the MELT Method to help people ease their pain.
Up to 25 million Americans get injured every year from participating in a range of sports, exercise, and recreational activities.
Fitness pros, who are consistently pushing their bodies as they train clients or lead several exercise classes a day, are at high risk for injury, which could turn into chronic problems.
While presenting at an IDEA Health & Fitness conference, Hitzmann asked the room of fitness pros: “How many of you have experienced pain?” Almost the entire audience raised their hands.
The fitness industry is booming, as a largely overweight population aims to take control of their wellness in order to lead active, healthy lives. People look at physical trainers and teachers at boutique studio classes as a models of health.
But many people in the fitness industry aren’t healthy and don’t feel good. “I’m worried that fitness professionals are teaching people to be like us — to be fit, healthy, and in pain,” Hitzmann confessed.
No pain, no gain mentality
Whether you’re frequently typing on a computer or playing tennis, you’re at risk for repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Athletes, who are dedicating countless hours to perfecting their form or building endurance, are particularly at risk for RSI. In fact, repetition injuries account for 30 percent of all college athletes’ injuries. More college athletic injuries happen in practice — not competition — in nearly every sport.
Similarly, Hitzmann explained, personal trainers develop chronic compressions in their joints, neck, and low back from repeating movements. “I found that the majority of fitness pros I talked to had at least one joint that was irritated or causing them pain,” she shared.
Trainers are often so used to pain that they’re desensitized to the idea that it’s a problem at all.
The fitness industry’s intense motto blurs the line between pain that’s a red flag and muscle soreness from a tough workout for many trainers.
Janis Isaman, the owner and instructor of the Pilates studio My Body Couture, dislocated her rib during a hot yoga class.
Even though she was already a certified Pilates instructor and had the knowledge to not put herself in a compromising position, she was coached to “find her edge” during yoga classes, and ended up going way past her body’s limit. She had been straining her body for months, then during an especially strenuous yoga class, she felt a pop as her rib dislocated.
It took her two years to realize that her extreme discomfort — so bad for a year that it kept her from sleeping — was chronic pain.
“In our society, we think of pain as acute, so it took me a long time to realize that this consistent discomfort was pain,” Isaman told Healthline.
“At that time, I was teaching TRX classes and I’d smile through the pain. I was thinking ‘Oh, this hurts, this must be good for me. This hurts, maybe I’m just tight.’” Although, looking back, she thinks that she could have used Pilates or her training in Yamuna body rolling to help with her pain, “I couldn’t self-diagnose the way I could with a client.”
The fitness industry’s “no pain, no gain” mindset also drove Saguren Redyrs, a bodybuilder who was previously a personal trainer, to keep exercising on an injury. “When I first started training, I developed bad back pain from squats ... It got worse as I pushed through it, thinking that it was just muscle soreness like the rest of my body,” Redyrs told Healthline. He later realized he was using improper form.
“I have thousands of hours of training under my belt, and I would never tell a client to push through the pain, but you hear certain phrases repeated over and over again in fitness: ‘find your edge,’ ‘push a little harder,’ ‘no pain, no gain.’”
“That mentality really has no place anywhere in fitness. But I couldn’t separate myself from it,” Isaman reflected.
Militarization of fitness hurts people
On top of the entrenched ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality among professionals, fitness classes have become much more strenuous and intense for the average person.
Rachel Straub, who has written several studies on exercise biomechanics and sports medicine explained that an underlying physical weakness and doing an exercise incorrectly are the two main causes of injuries in fitness trainers and the general public.
“It can be wrong, as in doing a lat pulldown without proper form, or wrong like in a CrossFit class, when most people shouldn’t be doing box jumps at all because they don’t have the strength to be doing it at that level. The exercises are too advanced for their skill — and that’s when injuries happen,” Straub explained.
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that nearly 74 percent of CrossFit participants get hurt.
While many have reacted with shock after learning about an intense spinning class causing a very serious condition called rhabdomyolysis, CrossFit-induced cases of rhabdomyolysis have been celebrated as proof of the intensity of the workout.
In fact, the mascot of CrossFit is Uncle Rhabdo, a muscular clown hooked up to a dialysis machine and bleeding all over the floor.
It’s just one example of the militarization of the fitness industry — a mindset that’s dangerous for both trainers and the public.
“A lot of these fitness professionals are just thrown in there. They don’t slowly increment up, like you would with training for a marathon if you don’t want to get hurt,” Straub noted.
While teaching exercise classes, and at the same time coping with her own excruciating foot pain for almost two years, Hitzmann realized she wanted to shift directions in her career. “I felt like a fraud coaching people while I was in horrible pain. I thought, ‘I’m not going to hurt one more person teaching fitness classes.’”
“Many of these classes push people’s bodies way too hard, and it’s not that effective. When you have 50 people and one teacher in a room, a trainer can’t fix sloppy movements,” Hitzmann revealed.
Fitness pros are overworked and undertrained
Workout studio teachers and personal trainers are overworked. According to Isaman, the compensation model is to blame.
Fitness instructors usually get paid around $50-$60 per class at a boutique studio, but sometimes as much as $80.
According to Slate, personal trainers at gyms can make as little at $20 per session.
“On the face of it, the money looks good. But that doesn’t include setup time and running across town from class to class at different studios,” Isaman explained to Healthline. “You’re pushing your body.”
Being overloaded with classes and exhausted by the “dash and teach” is standard in the training world.
Fatigue puts fitness pros at greater risk of injury. Trainers are especially at major risk for muscle fatigue, since they exercise so often. Injury due to overtraining soars when your muscles don’t have enough time to repair between workouts.
Straub explained, “When you’re fatigued, your form falters. That puts more stress on the joints, and that can lead to chronic problems.”
Injuries, from strains to tears, also stem from the lack of education required for certification, according to Straub.
Hitzmann agreed, “Many exercise pros don’t have enough training or knowledge of how the body works. They know exercises that affect a specific muscle group, but the reality is that no muscle acts in isolation.”
Problems also arise in yoga classes that expect everyone in the class to align their bodies the same way in a certain position, without accounting for the fact that people’s bone structures are completely different.
Under pressure to look super fit
One in five Americans belongs to a gym or exercise studio. Members look to their trainers to have a physique to aspire to.
Fitness pros constantly feel pressure to look thin and toned or muscular, even if they’re only radiating health on the surface. For yogis, there’s also a lot of emphasis on flexibility.
Isaman heard a teacher at a yoga studio say, “You can tell if someone’s a good instructor just by looking at their body.”
“Now, I realize that’s not true, but I also held the idea that as a full time fitness instructor, someone should be able to look at me across the room and say ‘Oh, that girl’s so fit,’” she told Healthline.
With the fitness industry also generating $24.2 billion in revenue in 2015, appearance is also part of fitness professionals’ business.
The explosion of #fitspiration on social media has only raised the bar for what being in shape looks like.
“I used to put pressure on myself to look fit and draw people in,” Isaman admitted. “To think people in the fitness industry are going to have flawless bodies that always look photo ready is ridiculous,” Isaman points out. “We’re human too.”
There aren’t benefits to finding your limit
“Sweating and burning and churning isn’t healthy. Most fitness pros are in a stress reflex state neurologically,” Hitzmann told us.
“We don’t need to find our edge in anything to get benefits,” professed Isaman. “If you’re training for a marathon or you’re an athlete, then that’s one thing. But does the average person need to be in a gym finding their edge to get benefits? Probably not.”