Prior to working in the fitness industry, I spent just over a decade in the service industry as a waitress and bartender. The majority of that decade was spent at a beach front restaurant/bar in Myrtle Beach. It was everything you would picture in a semi-tropical resort town: by day people sipped piña coladas and ate fried fish sandwiches in the sun, by night they were downing tequila shots and singing painful karaoke renditions of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville“.
Somewhere around 2007 I became a fitness fiend, and despite the decent money I was making, I couldn’t wait to get out of the bar scene. It was seemingly against everything I stood for: I was going to school studying a degree that promoted fitness, healthy eating, and an overall sense of well being, yet I was working in a place that served artery clogging fried foods, provided enough alcohol to destroy even the healthiest liver, and just short of promoted drunken shenanigans that would surely be regretted the next morning. But again, the money was good and I was a college student with a family to support. So I tended to the bar and quietly seethed when an intoxicated patron would ask me if I was a runner (this oddly happened all of the time, thank you long legs) and then proceed to either tell me a) it will destroy my knees, or b) about how their co-worker’s nephew ‘s mother-in-law once ran one of those 4 mile marathons, maybe it was that one in Boston, but we were both crazy, as THEY only run when being chased. I dreamed of the day I would be serving rounds of jumping jacks instead of rounds of Jägermeister.
Little did I know how incredibly similar the two jobs would be.
No one ever taught me the rules of bartending, instead I learned the ins-and-outs as I went along. One thing I learned very quickly is that for whatever reason, there is some sort of unwritten, sacred bond that causes people trust bartenders with their inner most thoughts. Interestingly enough, the same thing happens as a personal trainer. You see, alcohol and endorphins both have the fantastic capability of causing people to loosen up and lose inhibition. After a few drinks, that uptight business man who sat down and rudely demanded a drink while you were with another customer will admit to you that his dog passed away that morning, and he is truly hurting. After ten minutes of high intensity interval training, that initially shy woman will admit to you that she’s always wanted to sign up for a marathon, but never believed she could do it because one time in high school twenty years ago, a gym teacher told her she was a horrible runner, and she believed it. I’ve heard stories from patrons, both at the bar and at the gym, that I am certain without a doubt, would have never been told to me in any other business setting (believe me when I tell you that the above examples are tame in comparison). I appreciate and respect that level of trust, and while I’m better at dealing out burpees and bahama mama’s than I am life changing advice, I still hope that in some way, I’ve helped them simply by listening.
The bar scene and the gym scene have very similar social settings. In both places, you have your regulars. There are the ones who come in purely to socialize at the end of the day with their friends. They can spend hours at the bar/gym and not even finish one drink/one full set of exercises because they are so busy talking. These people become a part of the “family”. The ones who take notice of the new people, be it customers or employees, and go out of their way to fill you in on the “inside” information of how the place works. The ones who will gladly help you bus a table or put away some dumbbells someone else left strewn on the floor, even though it isn’t their job to do so. They get to know you, you get to know them; you remember to ask how their mother who fell on the ice last week is doing, and they remember to ask you how your training for that next big race is coming along.
There are the ones that show up at the same time every day, without fail, drink their two bud lites/put in their exact same weight circuit and go home, like clock work. Polite small talk, nothing more, nothing less. Occasionally they will briefly shoot the breeze with the aforementioned regulars, but they typically appear to have a routine that they do not like to stray from.
Then there are the ones that you watch sit in the corner and punish themselves in a bottle of Jack Daniels/brutal two hours of seemingly pointless cardio, night after night (or sometimes multiple times a day), until they stumble out of the front door. You sway back and forth between feeling heartbroken for them, and unsympathetic as you wonder why on earth they would do this to themselves. You hope that your kind words and open ears will help, but know deep down that the help they need is far greater than anything you can provide.
The similarities do not end with the patrons, however. There is the never ending cleaning on your downtime, that makes you wonder how people can be so gross. FYI: sticking your chewed gum in the sugar caddie on an unopened package of Splenda or on the back of an elliptical monitor is never acceptable. NEVER. There are the shenanigans with your coworkers, such as adding 27 maraschino cherries to the ginger ale the line cook asked you to grab for him, or the spontaneous pull-up competitions with your boss and a random gym member (both true stories).
But as much as the similarities between working in a bar and working in a gym make me laugh at times, the striking differences make me proud to have pursued this goal.
Instead of seeing people physically, emotionally, and often even financially damage themselves, I see people strive to become better. Never have I heard a member say “I really regret that workout yesterday” (well, maybe after a brutal leg session, but you get the idea.) Instead of seeing people who need “liquid courage” to relax and be themselves, I see people’s self confidence grow naturally as they become more fit and realize what they are truly capable of. Just last night a mother and son came in to the gym, and the mother informed me that the son was suddenly dealing with a life event that no 13 year old should ever have to face. So she brought him to the gym where he went to town on the punching bag and treadmill. My heart broke for him, but at the same time, I was so thankful he has this outlet. How many of us, when faced with heartache or frustration, reach for a bottle, or some other unhealthy form of coping? Healthy coping mechanisms with positive outlets is something that not enough of us are taught at a young age. Many kudos to that mother.
So, to bring this rambling post to a close: please don’t get me wrong, I like to imbibe with a good microbrew or some Cardboardeaux (that’s fancy talk for cheap boxed wine) from time to time. But I’ll sum up these thoughts for the day by saying that I’m truly happy to be pursuing this career. I may not be creating Olympic athletes, and Im certainly not helping the hottest A-list celebrity regain her pre-baby-body as fast as humanly possible, or any of the other things we all dream of during our undergrad (or at least our professors think we do). I also may never have my very own successful at-home-workout DVD line (if I did, it would just be an exact step for step rendition of Richard Simmon’s original “Sweatin to the Oldies”. Not kidding.)
But I do hope that no matter how small, I am helping to make a positive difference every single day in the lives of everyone I work with. The world is a crazy, mixed up place, and while fitness may not be the cure-all for our problems, I like to think it certainly helps. After all, as the saying goes “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…”