Each week, we’ll toss out six questions to a local health or fitness expert. Topics will range from new workout trends to healthy eating tips and everything in between. We all have fitness goals: Here’s to helping each other achieve them.
There are many career options when you decide to be a fitness professional.
You can open your own gym, work at a large fitness facility or even become a sport-specific coach. However, when it comes to uprooting your life in Boston and moving to Martha’s Vineyard to pursue new ventures, very few people do. Enter, Emily Phillips.
Phillips is the leading fitness professional on the quaint island off the coast of the cape, teaching fitness classes, training clients and even helping run workshops such as the Wellness Retreat being held at the end of the month.
So let’s get to know this healthy living enthusiast who has gone from a personal trainer in LA, to Boston and now resides on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard.
Caroline Earle: How did you get started in the fitness industry?
Emily Phillips: At age 16 (I lied about my age to get the job, said I was 19), I started teaching group exercise classes in NYC, at The Vertical Club (a predeccessor to The Sports Club/LA).
I was living on my own in New York, attending Professional Children’s School (Sarah Jessica Parker was my classmate), and trying to make it as an actress. I had studied tap, ballet and jazz for years, and needed a job, and teaching classes seemed like a logical, healthy, and creative option.
I was also drawn to the performance aspect of teaching, to the energy of group dynamics, and to the opportunity to influence and connect with others. At the time, I learned a lot from Jane Fonda’s videos, which were the rage!
CE: What is the largest hurdle you have had to overcome in your career?
EP: From age 16 until I moved to Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 46, I had no lulls or obstacles in my fitness career. From gaining admittance to a Masters program in Fitness Management, to attaining celebrity clients like Kathy Smith, when I was a trainer in LA, it was an easy ride.
My transition from personal trainer and group exercise teacher to full-time yoga instructor was also smooth and made possible by Reebok. While working at their Canton headquarters as a fitness specialist, my awesome boss, who knew I was an avid yoga practitioner, had Reebok sponsor my yoga certification. In exchange, I taught in-house.
It turned out to be an amazing gift. Being immersed in yoga was exactly what I needed at the time, and became all I wanted to do. Toward this end, I left Reebok in 2003 to teach yoga full time.
I quickly filled up my schedule with classes at New Balance, Equinox, Exhale, Healthworks, and at various yoga studios and for private clients. Again, a seamless transition.
So, when I left the South End to move to Martha’s Vineyard, I was pretty confident about finding work. I assumed coming from Boston, and with such a solid resume, would make breaking into the MV yoga scene a no-brainer. Not so.
I learned that yoga teachers on MV have very loyal followings, sometimes to an alarmingly cliquish degree. I also found trying to make yoga inroads challenging, off-putting, and frankly not worth the effort. Further, an oversupply of teachers and a dearth of off-season practitioners, made the hustle dispiriting.
Coupled with that, most studios and gyms pay very poorly.
Having gained so much gratification, connection, and confidence from my recent off-island yoga career, I had to rethink how I could build a meaningful future on MV.
I got really lucky: I was offered the opportunity to teach barre at a seasonal private country club in Edgartown. With my fitness and dance background, the popularity of barre off-island, and the fact that no one was teaching barre on-island, it seemed like a golden opportunity to make my mark. I got certified, developed my own riff on barre, and now have a unique offering to share with the MV community.
It has been very humbling to have to redefine my career, and to adjust to a new market and its needs. I tried to impose myself on a a very small existing community. I learned that outsiders have to be less imposing and more respectful of established teachers, their students, and different ways of doing business. The Vineyard is a quirky, wonderful place, and I am grateful for having to broaden my skill set, and my compassion, in order to find meaningful and rewarding work here.
CE: You’re an avid reader and love to write. Any interest in writing a book?
EP: My interest in writing goes back to 5th grade, when I won a regional writing contest. As a kid, I would read two to three books at a time, and loved biographies. I still love non-fiction, but will read nearly anything with clean, tight prose.
I’d love to write a lifestyle book on living large after 50, and how to get there. My big 5-0 is this July, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned about being fit, healthy, and spirited. Like most women, I’ve struggled with love and food and exercise and where/how I want to live, and I am proud of how I’ve navigated those challenges. I’d love to share my stories.
I hold research and education in high esteem, (I have two Masters Degrees), so any book I’d write would be based on current findings and trends in the literature, and include tips by my favorite experts, like Tara Mardigan (former Red Sox nutritionist), Mike Boyle (conditioning pro), and Gray Cook (physical therapist) to name a few.
So the book would be a compilation of personal anecdotes, quality research findings, tips from the pros, and of course a practical section with exercises how-to’s, photos, and what it’s like to live on MV.
EP: Right now, I’m loving teaching a barre fusion class I developed. It incorporates corrective movement, yoga, biomechanics, advanced core work, lots of squats, and sometimes I add a H.I.I.T piece.
Unlike a lot of the barre studios, my class is performed on a hardwood floor and done barefoot which allows the 33 joints of the foot and the muscles to be properly stressed and utilized.
It’s a class that allows me to teach what I believe in, in a format that is fun, effective, and which of course allows me to express my inner goof.
CE: What’s been the biggest personal and/or professional challenge for you moving to MV?
EP: An interesting aspect of MV is its dual nature. It’s manic and congested in the summer months, and then majestic and tranquil in the winter. Many of us have relentless summer work schedules, to take advantage of the financial opportunities that the tourist business provides, and then a very relaxed off-season schedule, many businesses even close.
As you can imagine, the challenge then is to balance these two extremes; trying to avoid running over a summer tourist, and then not plummeting into a slump in the winter void.
It took a few years for me to adjust to this rhythm. I will have been on MV four years as of June 1st, and this is the first season where it’s all gelled; where I was better able to manage the enormous energy that summer requires, as well as the prolonged down time of winter.
Now I really relish the off-season here. The community tightens up, we get to socialize again (the potluck reigns), and the spaciousness, solace, and pace that we moved here for, returns. The essence of the Vineyard comes alive.
Now the off-season is a cherished time of turning inward, and a time to foster creativity. It’s when I create and lead retreats, scour the literature for the latest health findings, develop my classes, read a ton, and travel.
CE: What tips can you give to those looking to improve their unhealthy habits?
EP: Most important: baby steps, slow and steady micro changes are the lasting ones. Avoid extremes whether it be diets or fitness regimes. Eat fewer grains. Cut down on your sugar intake. Move more, sit less (it doesn’t have to be formal exercise). Don’t take yourself so seriously. Practice self-compassion. Drink water. Lose the heels — even one inch can impact the health of your knees and spine.
Images via Emily Phillips