When Healthy Habits Make you Sick, Tired, and Burnt Out

I began my career in fitness for one main reason – I believed so strongly in the importance of exercise and good nutrition that I wanted to dedicate my life to spreading the message of healthy living. I wanted to be a role model and set an example of healthy behavior for others to follow.

If you are in the industry too, I am sure you can relate. No matter what brought us to fitness in the first place, all fitness professionals have a desire to help others and use our own behavior and healthy habits to set a positive example for our clients and students. But my time in the industry has shown me that many fitness professionals, particularly female trainers, have something else in common: our “healthy lifestyle” is making us sick.

I have witnessed the same pattern time and time again. What starts as a passion-driven career move and built-in vehicle for personal accountability can very easily go down the path of disease, injury, and mental illness.

How could advocating for a healthy lifestyle lead to such negative consequences? Shouldn’t living a life centered around exercise and nutrition make fitness professionals the healthiest people in the world? Yes, it probably should. But the competitive, results driven nature of the industry combined with the pressures that society places on women to be and look “perfect” drives female fitness professionals to go to extreme measures in the name of health and success.

If you work in the fitness industry and are feeling tired, burnt-out, or frustrated with your struggle to maintain your own health and fitness despite doing everything “right,” I see you. You are not alone. And you can get better.

The Honeymoon Phase

The beginning of a career in fitness is exhilarating. You love working out, and now you’re getting paid to do it? And to inspire others to do it too? This is the best! You’re clients are seeing results, your classes are packed with excited, loyal students, you’re Insta posts are getting more likes by the day, and maybe you even decided to start a blog to chronicle your personal fitness progress and dispense advice to the masses. Go you! You’re killing it!

Every month presents you with new opportunities. You get some more clients, get a new certification and add a couple classes to your schedule, partner in an Instagram promotion with a supplement company, and start a new macros plan to get you closer to your goal body, all while holding down a job, or raising kids, or taking a full load of classes, or any other number of real-life commitments. You are setting such a good example of how to live an active, healthy life in the modern world. You are what all of your clients and followers aspire to be.

Little Miss Do-It-All

Eventually, your schedule becomes so packed, it’s hard to find time for it all! You are waking up in the wee hours of the morning to teach 5:30am bodypump classes, doing cardio on your lunch break, teaching an attending multiple classes a day, training clients through dinner, fitting in homework where you can, and staying up to meal prep after the kids have gone to bed.

There is A LOT to do. But you’re okay with it because you are living a healthy lifestyle! I mean, between your classes, clients, and personal workouts you are basically exercising for 6 hours a day! That is so much healthier than all of those people working desks jobs just to go home and sit more in front of the T.V. Who cares if you are only sleeping a few hours a night, you haven’t gone out with friends in weeks, and all you can think about is how many people you would literally kill if it meant you could eat a whole pizza without gaining weight? Not you! Because you are a fitness goddess setting an impeccable example to your clients of how to live a life of discipline and health. You are like Superwoman or something!

But if we’re going to be honest, you did skip a workout yesterday and your cheat meal last week turned into a cheat day. If you are really serious about losing those last five pounds, you really need to buckle down. Tomorrow you’ll do an extra cardio session before bed.

The Downward Spiral

When we are working this hard – exercising this much, eating this strictly, sleeping so little, all while trying to deal with the stresses of everyday life, bad things start to happen. As the production of stress hormones takes over to cope with our endless activity, we gain weight, get depressed, anxious, and moody, our hormones get thrown off balance, we can lose our hair, our periods, our minds, and the bodies that we work so hard to keep “perfect.”

We keep piling on more, doubling down when we “hit a plateau.” We workout harder, diet harder, and berate ourselves more every time it doesn’t work. We begin to feel like we aren’t living up to the “fit girl” image we are expected to. We feel like imposters. Why isn’t this working anymore? I should be so healthy! I mean, I workout every day, drink a gallon of water, and now I am vegan AND low carb. Why am I getting fat and feel like garbge all of the time? Ugh, look at her. How does she have it all figured out? She must be so much stronger and more disciplined than me to be able to keep that body. I bet she does HIIT every day and hasn’t had a cheat meal since christmas. I bet she never feels like this. I bet she is happier than me. And she has so many more followers than me! Why do I even try? No one should be looking up to me. If my clients knew that I ate a whole pint of ice cream last night they would all leave me. I am such a fraud. I suck at my job. I am going to get so fat and no one is ever going to love or trust me again. I am so hungry. I am not good enough. I will never succeed. I should probably go do cardio.

Sound familiar? These are the kinds of things we start to tell ourselves when we are overworked and under-rested. We make up stories about how unworthy we are, how others are so much better than us, and how if we could only just walk the talk all of the pieces would fall into place and we would be happy, healthy, loved, and have a six-pack forever.

Rock Bottom

For every fitness professional who has ever felt like this, there always comes a day where enough is enough. There is LITERALLY nothing left to do. No more food groups to eliminate, no more hours in the day to exercise, no more money to buy supplements and magic potions, and no more energy to double down.

At this point, we aren’t just talking about being tired, or busy – we are talking about burnout. The fitness professionals who get to this point are really, truly sick. This is where the real, medical diagnoses start to make an appearance – adrenal fatigue, pulled muscles, hypothyroidism, stress fractures, PCOS, eating disorders, amenorrhea, generalized anxiety disorder, IBS, ect. This is a scary place. It can feel isolating and defeating. When you build an identity and a career around your healthy lifestyle and that lifestyle falls apart and makes you sick, it is nearly impossible not to feel betrayed and hopeless.

Making the Choice to Heal

For trainers, coaches, and instructors who have been here before, you know that this place feels like the end of the world. A part of you knows what you have to do to get better – you need to rest, eat more, and lighten your load – but this can seem simply impossible. You are committed to your clients, your classes and your goals. You have made fitness and your fitness career parts of your identity, and you have been telling yourself a story for months (or years) about what it takes to maintain that identity. To do the complete opposite is counterintuitive and scary. You are afraid of losing yourself becoming all of the things that fitness was supposed to help you avoid – fat, sick, unhappy, broke, unattractive, unpopular, and unworthy.

But, where you are now is also counterintuitive and scary. Doing everything “right” isn’t working anymore. If you decided to switch it up, to eat more, teach less classes, spend more time with your friends and less in the gym, or stray from your diet what is the worst thing that could happen? You keep gaining weight, get sicker, and keep feeling tired and sad? Well, you are already on that path. It’s time to do what your body has been begging you to do for a while now. You do not need to do everything, you do not need to be Superwoman. You do not need to maintain an insane schedule, strict diet, and aggressive workout plan to be healthy and successful. You need to rest, recuperate, and find balance.

10 Steps to Healing

When I work with clients who are experiencing burnout at a fitness professionals, there are ten things I always have them do. I do not have them do them all at once – and I don’t recommend that you do either. But, overtime, making these ten can go a long way in healing your body and relationship with fitness and food.

  1. Stop Tracking Everything. Delete MyFitnessPal, stop wearing your Fitbit, and throw away your scale. A big part of what got you into this situation was obsessing over numbers and stats. This is the first step in a long journey to become more in tune with your body and your intuition. When you aren’t being held hostage by an app, it becomes much easier to rest more and nourish your body the way you need to in order to heal.
  2. Cut down on cardio – or even cut it out completely. Cardio is far more taxing on our stress symptoms than any other types of exercise and should be done sparingly when our stress hormones are in overdrive. In your personal workouts, focus on low intensity movement like low-rep weightlifting, walking, and yoga. When teaching classes, participate as little as you can and DO NOT workout with your clients. Demonstrate exercises as needed, and then stop and let your client do the workout.
  3. Eat anything you want, and as much of it as you want. I KNOW this is scary. If I let myself eat whatever I want, I’m just going to eat pizza and oreos all day long!!!!! Yes, you will. But also no, you wont. Some people have a “go crazy” period after ending a strict diet, but this does not last forever, and in my opinion, you need to let your body go through this period to get back into balance. Eventually, your body will stop freaking out and understand that food is no longer being restricted. Intense cravings will subside, and eating a wonderful balance of nutritious and indulgent foods will fall into place. This could take a little time or a lot, but it doesn’t matter. You are in this journey to heal your body, not control it.
  4. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself – in any way. I don’t care if they are your best friends, you clients, your role models, or your family members. If the images on a social media account trigger negative self-talk or feelings of inadequacy, you shouldn’t be following them. We cannot control what we see in the real world, but we can control what pops up on our Instagram feeds. Instead of pictures of abs on the beach and airbrushed thighs that make you hate yourself, follow diverse accounts that showcase people of all sizes, races, genders, ages, and abilities. The more examples you see of different types of bodies existing, the more you will be okay with your body existing, no matter what it looks like.
  5. Chose sleep over workouts – When your body is healing from a stress-related condition, adequate sleep is absolutely imperative. Emphasize getting lots of good quality sleep as many nights as you can, even if that means you need to skip your morning workout to get an extra hour. And I don’t mean 6-7 hours here. You are trying to HEAL! if you have the ability to get 10 hours of sleep a few times a week, DO IT.
  6. Start Meditating. Meditation is actually magic. I’m serious. Even just 5 minutes of meditating every day can make a profound impact on your stress levels, physical health, mood, and outlook on life. I recommend doing your meditation in the morning (maybe when you used to do your fasted cardio) and start with just 5-10 minutes. Focus on your breathing, use affirmations, or listen to a guided meditation track. There are also apps like Headspace and Calm that can be very helpful when building the habit of daily meditation.
  7. Start a Gratitude Practice. Gratitude is another insanely effective tool during the healing process. Expressing gratitude actually rewires your brain to see things in a more positive way. You can start your day by writing down three things you are grateful for. Tell people (and things) in your life that you are grateful for them. Tell your self what you are grateful for in the mirror. You are allowed to be grateful for anything – the sun, your mother, the existence of giraffes, the simple fact that you are alive and are able to do the things you are able to do. The more gratitude the better!
  8. Practice Body Neutrality. When experiencing burnout in the fitness industry, it is really easy to develop a negative body image. It is also really easy to want to jump right from hating your body to loving it. This is REALLY hard to do, and instead, I recommend practicing body neutrality. Instead of trying to love the parts of your body that you hate, simply recognize that they exist and attach no judgement or emotions. State facts about your body such as: “I have five fingers on my left hand” or “my hair is brown” or “this is my right earlobe.” Start with body parts you already feel neutral or positive towards, then move on to the more sensitive areas. Do this with other people too. When you see a person that triggers the “she’s so much better than me because____” part of your brain, focus on neutral facts about her instead of making up her story. Say things like “she is wearing a dress,” “Her eyes are green” or “she has all of her limbs.” Taking a body neural approach makes it much easier to focus on other areas of your healing.
  9. Get a hobby. When we dedicate our entire lives to health and fitness, we rarely leave room to indulge in other things that we like to do. Working out and meal prepping become our only pass times. Now that you aren’t tracking your food or working out multiple hours a day, you have the time to do other things! Yay! Take advantage and get into something new. Take a painting class, get back into writing poetry or playing the guitar. Maybe take up bird watching or get into a new video game. HAVE SOME DAMN FUN.
  10. Invest in the care you need. Sometimes, we need help on our healing journey. Maybe a condition you are dealing with requires certain therapies. Maybe you would do well hiring a coach or signing up for a class or program. Sometimes, healing requires us to invest. Make that doctor’s appointment, get your blood work done, take your medication and supplements, work with the right professionals, and spend the money you need to to get better. Suffering alone is not noble. Your healing is worth whatever you need to do to make it happen!

If you are feeling like you need some extra help in your journey to heal from burnout, I am here to help! I work with many fitness professionals and enthusiasts find a better fitness/life balance through one-on-one coaching. Click here to schedule your free consultation!

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