It’s been a very flattering thing to receive requests for interviews and personal emails asking how I started my business and got into a career as a fitness professional, so I thought it might be helpful to summarise how I did it, offer an insight into my professional journey and a few pointers for those looking to follow my lead. I hope you find it interesting as it is not a conventional story, and the idea is to inspire those of you who feel (not so!) that it’s too late to start getting fit and healthy or want to start a fitness career at 40+.
Have I always been into fitness?
Definitely not! I did anything to get out of PE at school as I was really clumsy and found it all hard. I was usually the last to be picked for team games so it didn’t do much for my self-esteem and I was much stronger academically. I didn’t find out I was dyspraxic until my early 40s when I was on a course to learn how to work with students with dyslexia and dyspraxia and took the tests myself, so my clumsiness suddenly made sense.
My reintroduction to movement actually came in my early 30s when I tried learning to dance Argentine Tango and turned out to be ok at it. I danced regularly for about seven years until my interest in martial arts started to dominate. I took up lau gar kung fu at 35 and actually thought I was going to pass out from the effort in my first class, but I stuck with it and made it to my brown sash over about five years of training multiple times per week, then decided to stop and focus on yoga teacher training before I took my black. I was at an age when I wanted to nurture my body rather than have it punched and kicked!
(Left: in fallen angel pose on the cover of Cardiff Life. Right: co-teaching a yoga anatomy workshop for Yoga Alliance Professionals with Sally Parkes at the OM Yoga Show, London.)
What was my biggest motivation?
The big push to get healthy had really come when my father died very early from bowel cancer when he was barely 60 and I was just 32. It shocked me out of the unfulfilling life I was living and pushed me towards getting fit. I was still unwell with the Epstein Barr virus I had contracted a while earlier, but I knew I needed to take myself in hand physically and mentally, as well as find work doing something I really loved, rather than just existing.
That first kung fu class propelled me into the world of fitness and I have never looked back. I am still amazed that I went from not being able to walk for 20 minutes without getting tired, to sparring and doing training drills for up to three hours at a time. Even though I don’t train in martial arts any more, I’m lucky to work out of the gyms of my trainers, Team GB coaches Sean Veira and Sharon Gill, and feel very supported in my business.
(Left: winning a first place trophy at the WUMA championships with the Bristol Lau Gar team. Right: receiving my diploma in instructing unarmed combat from Kevin and Jake O’Hagan.)
How did I end up self-employed?
I intensified my studies in my spare time and dropped to four days in my university role as a lecturer on professional skills and career coach so I could start building Brainbox up to be my sole source of income. I had actually set it up in 2004 as a side interest while I was training to be a personal coach with Newcastle College but knew I wanted to take things further, setting a goal to be completely independent by January 2015.
I got my diploma in instructing unarmed combat first, which took about six months, took another year to complete my Integrative Nutrition Health Coach qualification, added on my 200 hour yoga teacher training with Sally Parkes Yoga in 2014 and thought that was enough to be going on with. I made the decision to leave my job while I was taking the yoga teacher training and became fully self-employed on September 1st 2014, a few months ahead of schedule. I felt physically sick that first day and had nighttime panic attacks for a week leading up to it, but I was determined to make it work.
How has the business evolved?
After just a few months, my clients were asking for more fitness options as well as yoga, so I began studying for my fitness instructor qualification then my level three certification in personal training, which all took about six months. It was the key to boosting the business even though it was entirely unplanned, but I’m so glad I did it as I absolutely love the work. I even ended up with a role in the TV series Be Fit Bristol Fit as a result!
Since then, I have studied for further certifications in advanced nutrition for weight management, kettle bell instruction and online personal training, and am currently well into studying for my corrective exercise specialisation with the National Academy for Sports Medicine. As someone with a history of chronic fatigue, I never dreamed of having this kind of career but find it all completely fascinating and am fit as a fiddle these days. I basically get paid for doing what I would choose to do in my free time and get to apply my academic training to debunking fitness and nutrition myths.
How hard is it to be self-employed?
Very! And far harder than you ever think it will be. Although I had some big clients on my list when I quit my job, like Airbus and Arup, it hit me early on how hard it was going to be to build a steady client base. After four months I had to make some adjustments to stay afloat. I made the difficult decision to stop renting my own flat and moved in with a friend to cut my costs. I had to get used to living on less than half the salary I had in my university job, and the lack of financial security was really very scary. I was tracking every penny and had to think twice about everything I spent my money on.
(Left: running a workshop on confidence at Airbus. Right: promotional shot from my time as a brand ambassador for Sweaty Betty.)
While things are more steady three years later, I still work long hours, six days a week. In this industry, you work when other people don’t, so it’s early mornings, lunchtimes and weekends, which makes socialising with anyone other than fellow fitness people very challenging. When I’m not with clients or teaching classes (which is about 23-25 hours a week), there are programmes and classes to write, my online clients to deal with, social media promotion, blogging and paid writing work as well as the larger corporate workshops I run. I work with two agencies, Realise (formerly Real Healthy) and Delegated Services to offer wellness and coaching work in businesses and schools, as well as still working as a lecturer and consultant in higher education every autumn. I like the diversity of my role, but it is very heavy on client-facing work and can be physically draining as well as emotionally tiring, so I make sure I get at least an hour or two of downtime at the end of the day and one day off a week to relax.
Advice for would-be ‘fitpros’?
- More than ten years of 1:1 coaching put me in an excellent position to coach people physically, but few trainers have that experience. You really need to like working with people and helping to solve their problems. That means being an empathetic listener. Having been ill and overweight in the past means I am sympathetic to people trying to make changes as I know how it feels to struggle.
- A lot of new personal training businesses fold quickly due to lack of clients. Sticking up posters or leaving cards in the gym just won’t cut it. Offer taster sessions for people to experience your style or, as I do, teach group fitness classes; the vast majority of my 1:1 clients come from my classes or by recommendation from people attending them. Get your name out there by writing for other people’s web sites and blogs or by contributing to charity and regional events. People need to meet and connect with you before they hire you, and to know that you are credible.
- Be prepared to keep up your knowledge and keep training even after you qualify. Otherwise you won’t be competitive with those constantly updating their portfolio in new industry that sees a lot of new information constantly coming its way. If you don’t like studying and researching fitness when you’re not working, then this isn’t the industry for you. Read reputable web sites such as the Personal Trainer Development Centre to get ideas and motivation on running your business.
- Make time for your own training and don’t let it be squeezed out by clients. It also really pays to have your own coach to motivate you and keep things fresh. I train with Tom O’Hagan, founder of Apex PT, in weight training and calisthenics, and Nathan Champ in boxing. In my own time, I run, lift, do HIIT sessions and practice yoga to maintain all round strength, endurance and flexibility. You have to set a good example to your clients and stay healthy.
- But don’t try to be perfect! Clients relate to you more when you are human. I am totally honest about what I eat, which really isn’t perfect even though I train hard. My clients like that I look lean and fit without being shredded; they are actually turned off by that kind of look, so targeting your niche market is crucial. I’m never going to coach bikini competitors and am fine with that!
I have been very lucky to be featured in magazines and newspapers and to be on TV, but it’s down to laying a lot of ground work and working my ass off. I have done a great deal of writing to get my name out there as an expert and taken every opportunity to get more exposure, even when it’s added a lot more to my workload. I am also very true to my personal ethics, which is why I rarely promote other people’s products unless I really like them and I choose partners and clients carefully. I have turned down work with organisations I felt were not a good fit and have tried to create a unique brand with Brainbox: no fads, no fuss, just smart training from a former academic with an eye for bullsh*t.
I wish you luck if you are trying to crack the fitness industry at a more advanced age (ahem!) and hope you feel inspired to try exercise again if you have let it fall by the wayside. See you soon!