Lead With Your Voice
Lead With Your Voice
How to Care for Your Voice as a Fitness Instructor
In the last blog post, we discussed the risk factors of voice use associated with being a fitness instructor. If you missed this post, you can find it here: Fit Voices and Risky Choices. If you have already read that post, then you are probably wondering, now what? “So I know my voice is at risk as a fitness instructor- maybe I’ve even experienced voice issues that have impacted my work- but what can I do?”
If you are passionate about fitness and helping others, the last thing you want to do is have to stop doing what you love. So, I have compiled some helpful tips in caring for your voice and navigating the vocal challenges of fitness instructing. This is far from an exhaustive list (though it is long- so reading it may be exhausting- bring water and a snack), but it is a good jump-off point to get you thinking about changes you can make to your routine that can help prevent damage to the voice. Remember every individual, situation, studio, and type of fitness is unique- so if you have concerns, be sure to contact a voice therapist who can help design a care plan specifically for you and your needs.
Let’s review the key factors that can impact your vocal health as a fitness instructor.
(See diagram below)
Environmental Factors- These are things like excess noise from machines or equipment and loud music.
i. Demonstrate Don’t Complicate- When planning your session, think about if there is a way for you to cue people to follow your lead instead of having to talk through or explain each movement? Verbal language can sometimes get lost on people at different levels in your classes, but non-verbal communication is a universal language that as humans we learn before we learn to talk.
ii. Walk Over Don’t Talk Over- When people are on treadmills or using equipment that is noisy, try to get closer to them rather than having to shout across the room.
iii. Turn Down for What- Everybody loves getting pumped up by a great beat- try turning the volume of the music down when giving instructions. This will prevent you from having to shout (even if you have a microphone), and it will allow people to clearly hear and focus on your instructions.
iv. Keep it Wet While You Sweat- Air conditioning, heating, and fans all remove moisture from the air. Keep your distance from vents or fans direct airflow, but also consider getting a humidifier for the room or at least near your station. Keeping those vocal folds lubricated will help keep them safe from damage.
v. Think and Drink- Don’t forget you are exercising too and potentially in a drying environment- stay hydrated by getting in the habit of taking a sip of water every time you change an exercise or give a new instruction. Again, this will keep the body temperature from overheating, using excess water, and dehydrating the body and vocal folds.
Voice Overuse- You love what you do and you happen to be awesome at it. So, your schedule just keeps filling up! Voice overuse is a huge problem in fitness instructors, particularly if it is their full-time gig.
i. Like Fitness, Like Voice- You wouldn’t frame your classes without a warmup and a cooldown/stretch because you want to make sure the muscles are taken care of for the rigorous workout they’re getting. Treat your voice with the same sensitivity! Recognize you are going into a situation where your voice is being used beyond just a one-on-one conversation. It’s fitness is being put to the test. So give it a fighting a chance by making sure you warm-up, stretch, and cool it down after each class.
ii. Recovery is Best Through Rest- If you have just taught a class, finished your stretching and cool-down, and congratulated your fit fam- take 5-10 minutes for yourself. Your voice just worked as hard as you and your class did, so it needs a moment where it gets a break. A quick vocal nap- where you are silent and not using your voice- will help rejuvenate your voice and keep it spry for your next class.
iii. Short and Sweet- When you’re planning out your sessions, see if there is a way to have written instructions, or to shorten your instructions, or set up expected “short-forms” for things at the start of the class so that you don’t have to talk as much when the class is in full swing.
Voice Misuse- Many of these habits develop as a result of the Environmental Factors already discussed. These are things like shouting or cheering on your class in a vocally unhealthy way.
i. Speak Out- Don’t Shout- Shouting can be very dangerous for the voice. I always tell my clients that if the neck, jaw, or throat feels tight while you’re trying to speak up, it’s probably passed your healthy limit. With voice therapy it is possible to learn how to amplify your voice more in a healthy way, but being present when using your voice allows you to recognize when something feels not right. That’s the time to stop and…
ii. Amp It Up- When possible, always use a microphone and unlike the music- always crank it up so you need to use as little effort as possible. Taking into consideration all the other risk factors and stressors on your voice, why not make your job that much easier?
iii. Know Your Limit, Speak Within It- Many people tell me they have a “Fitness instructor voice” and a “regular voice.” If you are modifying your voice to be more commanding, higher or lower in pitch, louder- whatever it may be- pay attention to what your body is telling you. If it feels uncomfortable, it is probably working the muscles in a way that is unhealthy. The muscles we feel wouldn’t be our vocal fold muscles, they would be the muscles around the vocal folds that in tensing actually make it harder for our voice to function in a healthy way.
Physical Impact- The generation of physical force during exercise can translate to an increase in force and closure at the level of the vocal folds.
i. Speak When You’re Stable- Avoid speaking while you’re moving. Try not to talk while you’re jumping, demonstrating an exercise (particularly in the flexion phase), running, or performing any other exercise that involves contracting muscles around the body. This can force the vocal folds together at uncomfortable forces and speeds that can result in severe trauma to the vocal folds.
Breathing- When we workout, our breathing often becomes quicker, more shallow, and we often get caught holding our breath.
i. Keep it Moving- Never hold your breath. You heard that right. Never. Air is a fluid and so it likes to always be in motion. If we stop it, it is because we are creating tension in the body and often closing off the vocal folds. This can be dangerous for the voice. Always be sure you are timing your movements with your breath and keeping exhales voiceless (just air, no sound) as often as possible during exercise.
ii. Think Deep- This likely goes without saying, but make sure you are supporting your voice with enough air. You should always have a sensation of a bit of air left over after you’re speaking. Things should never get so tight in your chest, shoulders, neck, or throat that you are squeezing out the last few words. Take enough breaths and make them deep enough that they help relax and restore your body’s equilibrium, rather than shallow breaths that simply add to your body’s tension.
iii. Get to Know Your Nose- Research shows that nasal breaths have a ton of great benefits for the voice. You hydrate the air, you tend to take deeper and more relaxed breaths, and you also make it easier for your voice to “turn on.”
General Health- Keeping your body hydrated and taking other steps to ensure your voice stays healthy are essential in avoiding vocal damage.
i. Catch Those Z’s- Fitness instructors often have the unhappy task of having to offer classes at the start and end of people’s days. This can make it hard to navigate a consistent and effective sleep schedule. Everyone’s “required amount of sleep” is different, but chances are you know your limit. Getting enough sleep means that your attention to strategies, awareness of your voice and tension, and general health is optimal.
ii. Coughing and Hacking and Clearing, Oh My- Avoid at all costs. Your vocal folds and muscles around them contract at rapid rates so fatigue and damage can become a reality fast. In and out of fitness classes, find ways to suppress coughing or throat clearing. Typically when we throat clear we can alleviate the sensation by simply swallowing or sipping a bit of water. For coughing- similar to exhaling during exercise- the more air or voicelessness you can associate with your cough, the better.
iii. You Know What Sucks? Reflux- People who exercise can sometimes experience exercise-induced reflux (if they don’t already have it outside of exercise). Reflux can trickle over the vocal folds and cause irritation (throat clearing and coughing) or even damage to the vocal folds and surrounding structures. Avoid eating or drinking acidic beverages 1-2 hours prior to your classes when possible.
As a speech-language pathologist and voice therapist who works frequently with occupational voice users like fitness instructors, it is important for me to give back. It is personal trainers and fitness instructors who contributed to major changes in my life and so I see this as my opportunity to say thank you and give back to a community that does great work for the health and wellness of others. But like so many people working in health and wellness, we sometimes neglect ourselves.
When I work with fitness instructors, it is amazing to me to realize how much compassion and concern they place towards their clients, but how little they spare for themselves. As a fitness instructor, your voice is part of your livelihood so be sure you are training it, protecting it, and keeping it healthy just like you do for the bodies of your fit fam.