After 20 years as an elementary school teacher, Debbie took a leap and signed up for a Body Pump certification program, which led her to a new career in adult and children’s fitness.
Tell us a little about your background…
I live in Brookeville, Maryland, between Baltimore and DC. I’m married and have three sons: Zach is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, Jake is a freshman at University of Maryland, and Josh is in his last year of middle school.
There are two main things I remember from growing up in Paramus, New Jersey: always being involved in some sort of sport/physical activity (baseball, ballet, tennis) and enjoying working with kids. I went to college with the goal of majoring in psychology and possibly becoming a school psychologist. Then, in my junior year, I took my first early childhood education course and realized I’d found what I wanted to do.
After graduation, I stayed at Tufts University, got my Masters in Education, and spent the next 20+ years teaching first grade and pre-Kindergarten. The only time I wasn’t in the classroom teaching was when I took a break to be with my own children, before they started school.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My most recent classroom teaching experience was teaching pre-K at one of the local preschools. It was the perfect job: It was close to home, I was able to be home with my own kids after school, and my co-teacher became one of my best friends. I thought this was where I’d be for a long, long time.
But, after six years, a steady increase in hours, and several new preschool directors, my friend and I decided it was time to say goodbye. It was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made. Not only was I giving up a job I loved, I had no idea what I was going to do after that. I knew that, after a few months of enjoying my free time, I’d need to find something else. I just didn’t know what it was going to be.
I love what I’m doing because it’s taking what I’ve always loved to do, teaching, but doing it in a different way.
What is your next act?
I work in adult and children’s fitness. I teach fitness classes (Body Pump and RIPPED) at a gym and I work with kids at a karate school.
Body Pump is an exercise program developed by Les Mills, a New Zealand company that provides choreographed exercise-to-music group fitness classes. Body Pump is their barbell workout. It is comprised of 10 tracks and hits all the muscle groups like legs, chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and core.
I first learned about Body Pump about 10 years ago when my neighbor decided to get certified and invited me to work out with her so she could practice. I had never done any weight training before but, after doing it a few times, I was hooked.
What struck me was how strong and powerful I felt while I was doing it and how that feeling stayed with me after the workout, too. I started going to classes on a regular basis and I started noticing changes, both in how my body looked and how I felt. That motivated me to keep going. When I decided to get certified to teach fitness, I knew that was the format I wanted to pursue.
I am inspired when I see first-timers challenge themselves, make it through that initial class, and keep coming back.
After I had my Body Pump certification for about 6 months, I started looking for another format that I liked enough to teach, preferably one that included more of a cardio workout. Someone told me about RIPPED, but there weren’t any RIPPED classes in the area, so I did a little research. I liked what I saw. When my boss from the gym where I taught sent out an email announcing they’d be hosting a RIPPED training session the following month, I figured it was meant to be.
RIPPED is a choreographed, total body workout that was developed by Terry and Tina Shorter in California. It combines resistance, intervals, power, plyometrics, endurance (kickboxing), and core work, along with a diet component. The tag line is “Cardio, Weights, Fun, and Done,” and that’s exactly what it is.
What do you love about your next act?
I love what I’m doing because it’s taking what I’ve always loved to do, teaching, but doing it in a different way. I never thought I’d enjoy working with adults, but I’ve found that I truly enjoy the relationships that I’ve formed with my members; I also like teaching them the proper way to do certain exercises so they can get the most out of them. I’m a stickler for technique, and many people have come up to me after class to say how much they’ve learned from my instruction.
Exercise does so much more than help keep you physically fit. It has a huge impact on your mental state.
I also find it so rewarding to see people who are new to exercise put themselves out there and take that first class. I am inspired when I see those first-timers challenge themselves, make it through that initial class, and keep coming back.
One of the things I have discovered with my next act is the connection between a person’s physical activity and mental well-being. Exercise does so much more than help keep you physically fit. It has a huge impact on your mental state. I know I feel less stressed and mentally stronger after I’ve worked out. Members have told me similar stories.
I love to see my class participants’ transformation, and to know that perhaps I played a small role in making it happen.
After taking Body Pump for the first time, one woman told me it was almost like meditating for her; she didn’t realize it could be like that. I like to share the concept of this physical/mental connection with my participants and watch as they progress over time. They feel better about themselves and it shows in how they carry themselves. I love to see that transformation, and to know that perhaps I played a small role in making it happen.
Why did you choose this next act?
I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was almost 48 and teaching was all I’d ever done. A good friend started talking to me about teaching fitness classes. I had been going to the gym regularly for several years and loved it, but teaching there had never ever entered my mind. It was totally outside my comfort zone.
I also hated getting up and talking in front of adults. People are usually surprised by that, since I was a teacher and was always up in front of a group, but those were young kids, not adults. The parents of the kids in my classes, especially the first few years I taught, can attest to the fact that Back-to-School-Night was always my least favorite night of the school year!
After my immediate reaction (no way!), I did some more thinking and decided to go for it. Since Body Pump was my favorite class, I quickly signed up for the next training in my area before I could change my mind.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
Registering for the training was easy, but the closer the training weekend got, the more nervous I got. It was a full weekend of training, so I was going to be gone for two days doing something I wasn’t really sure I could do. I continued to go to the classes at my gym to get myself ready, and before I knew it, the training weekend had arrived.
My family and friends were very supportive. Being away for the weekend required a lot of planning at home, but everyone worked together to make sure I didn’t have to focus on anything but my training. As the weekend got closer, my friends kept encouraging me, telling me I could do it, and letting me know how proud they were that I was taking on this new challenge.
Sometimes, by stepping outside your comfort zone, you find that you’re actually stepping INTO your comfort zone.
What challenges did you encounter?
My biggest challenge was me. As I was making the 3-hour drive to the training, my mind started racing. What was I getting myself into? Here I was, almost 48 years old, going to a training weekend that would probably be full of 25-year olds. Who was I kidding? And how was I going to get over my fear of getting up in front of adults? Needless to say, I was VERY nervous as I walked into the gym that Saturday morning.
When I got there and found out that I was the only one with older kids, the self-doubt continued. The trainer had all of us come together to share why we were there, what we loved about Body Pump, and what our biggest fear was.
When it was my turn, I shared that my biggest fear was getting up in front of adults to teach. The trainer looked at me and seemed surprised that I’d never taught a fitness class before; then he said something that completely changed my way of thinking. It was something very similar to what my good friend at home had also told me. “Sometimes, by stepping outside your comfort zone, you find that you’re actually stepping INTO your comfort zone.” I kept those words with me the whole weekend, and I still think of them all the time.
My family and friends’ encouragement and support made all the difference and helped get me where I am now.
As the training weekend went on, I realized how much I was enjoying myself. I left with a partial certification. After that, I had to team-teach for a month or so and then submit a video of myself teaching a class on my own. The video, by far, was the hardest and most stressful part of the process. I received my full certification a couple of weeks after submitting the video. The whole process, from the training weekend to full certification, took 2-3 months.
With my certification in hand, I was fortunate to get my own class relatively quickly, and that’s when the nerves returned. But, once again, I got a tremendous amount of support from people close to me leading up to that first solo class, and even more so on the morning of my first class. That encouragement and support made all the difference and helped get me where I am now.
That initial Body Pump training was in February 2013. Since then, I have gotten my RIPPED certification and my AFAA group exercise certification.
The RIPPED certification was a little easier. It was a full day of training, after which I had to take a test and, once I passed that, I was certified.
What is an AFAA certification and how does one earn it?
This is a certification from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. The AFAA group exercise certification was definitely more involved. After registering for a training day, I was sent a 500-page book that I needed to read and study so that I’d be prepared to take a test on the training day. At the time, I was almost 49. The last time I’d studied for this kind of test had been in graduate school many years before. My complaints received little sympathy from my boys, who were juggling full classloads in high school and college.
I learned to believe in myself. I learned not to listen to those doubters out there.
When I got to a chapter about the chemical reactions that take place in the body to produce energy, I felt overwhelmed and had to put the book down for a while. After rescheduling my training day once, I finally got through the book. If someone had asked me how to get three kids to three different places at the same time, do a load of laundry, and get dinner on the table, I could do that in a snap, but now I had to relearn how to study.
I definitely was nervous going into the long, rigorous day of training. Part of the day was spent going over material from the book and the rest was spent performing and leading exercises with proper technique—while being graded on it. The written test was the final part of the day. I went home exhausted, both physically and mentally, and was thrilled to find out a couple of weeks later that I had passed.
You mentioned teaching at a karate school too?
For 14 years, everyone in my family had been taking karate classes at Scott Teague’s Academy of Martial Arts and received at least one black belt. Everyone except me, that is, as I was happy sitting in the audience and watching. I used to joke that I could do all the techniques just from seeing them done so many times.
Then, about 2 1/2 years ago, the Academy offered a Women’s Self-Defense class, and I thought it would be a good idea to do it. When I was out on the mat kicking and blocking and hitting, I realized I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I met a couple of women that night, and we decided to take the owner up on his offer to try free classes for a month. I started as a white belt, and I am now a brown belt working towards my black belt.
There are several things about karate that interest me. In addition to the physical piece, there’s a huge mental component to karate, as well as an almost spiritual one, so it’s really about making all three of those pieces come together, and that appeals to me. The techniques we learn are precise and challenging, and I’ve always loved a challenge. Lastly, it’s about the camaraderie. I’ve met a lot of great people through karate and have become good friends with several of them. Everyone who trains here is very supportive, regardless of age or rank, and I like being a part of that.
About 6-8 months after I’d started training, one of the women who worked there and was taking classes with me asked if I’d be interested in starting a karate class for 4-year olds with her. By this time I was teaching Body Pump so I jumped at the chance to work with kids again. When we approached the owner, he countered with a different offer: starting a summer camp together. It would be a combination of karate, physical fitness, and good, old-fashioned fun and games. We agreed to give it a try. We started small, just two weeks over the summer. It was so successful that we ended up adding a third week, and the following summer we offered six weeks. Things snowballed from there.
One day, as we were playing some games, I looked at my friend and said, “you know, this really has the makings of a birthday party, and if I could get past the fact that I have a Masters in Education, this could really be something.” Well, fate works in mysterious ways. The next day, one of the moms whose son was at camp asked if we did birthday parties! My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and that was it. We were now in the birthday party business.
In addition to the physical piece, there’s a huge mental component to karate, as well as an almost spiritual one.
Then it was time to readdress beginning a karate class for 4-year olds, and we were given the green light. We got busy planning and working on ways to advertise and get kids in the door for this new class. That was almost a year and a half ago. My friend has since moved on to other endeavors, so now I am in charge of the 4-year old classes and run the birthday parties, as well as co-run the summer camp.
I get great satisfaction when I see the difference karate can make in a child’s self-esteem, confidence, or coordination because of the work we’re doing with them.
My son, Josh, has been taking classes at the karate school for over 8 years and is working toward his 3rd degree junior black belt. Josh loves kids, so when we were looking for junior counselors for the summer camp, he was quick to volunteer. That led to him helping with the birthday parties as well. Working together has added a new dimension to our relationship. Not only is it a special time for us, but it has allowed me to see him in a different role, not as the youngest son/brother, but as the responsible big kid who is looked up to by the younger kids.
Teaching classes at the karate school has been a joy. I get great satisfaction when I see the difference in a child’s self-esteem, confidence, or coordination because of the work we’re doing with them. I also truly enjoy the connections I’ve made with the children and families there, something I’d missed since I left the preschool.
What did you learn about yourself through your reinvention?
Most importantly, I learned never to doubt myself, for any reason—not because of my age, nor because of past experiences. I learned to believe in myself. I learned not to listen to those doubters out there, the ones who made me question whether I could or should do something. I learned that I am much stronger than I thought and that I can do anything I set my mind to. I’ve really found myself these past few years, and I think embarking on this next act was a big part of that.
Figure out what would make you happy and then do what you need to do to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone!
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Some women get close to 40 and start to panic. Yet I’ve found the 40’s to be some of the best years of my life. I have more confidence, more time, and I’ve been able to focus on me and becoming the person I want to be much more than I have in years.
This is the time to really think about what you want. Are you happy with where you are in your life? Are you happy with what you’re doing? If not, figure out what would make you happy and then do what you need to do to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone!
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
It’s never too late to start! Figure out what kind of fitness training appeals to you. Are you more interested in teaching group fitness? Personal training? Both?
There are so many different areas of fitness in which you can get certified. There are specific formats like Body Pump, RIPPED, kick boxing, Pilates, yoga…the list goes on and on. Is there a particular format you like? For me, that was the best way to get started; I picked the class that I’d been doing for a while and knew I loved. Then, I waited until I found another class I really liked before I got my second certification.
I learned that I am much stronger than I thought and that I can do anything I set my mind to. I’ve really found myself these past few years, and I think embarking on this next act was a big part of that.
There is also general group fitness certification or personal training and, again, there are many different organizations you can go through to get certified. Some gyms prefer certifications from certain organizations. My gym requires group fitness certification from either ACE or AFAA. Ask your local gyms to see which certification they prefer. Some organizations have more hands-on training, and others have more of a “learn on your own” approach. Think about what works best for you, and go from there.
Be aware that, realistically, it’s hard to make a good living just teaching classes. I can’t speak for everyone, but most group exercise instructors I know teach classes in addition to another job or to supplement their household income. Some of it would depend on how many classes you teach a week as most of us are paid per class.
It’s never too late to start!
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I do have one more next act I’d like to see come to fruition one day soon. One of my passions has always been helping kids, especially those who struggle with social and emotional issues. About 4 years ago, a psychologist I’d known for years asked if I’d be interested in running a social skills play group for 4-6 year olds. She knew about my background in psychology and teaching and had found there were no playgroups in the area for younger children.
The idea intrigued me. It was a chance to get back to my early studies in psychology and help kids who were anxious, had difficulty making friends, or struggled with other social/emotional difficulties. And, my theory is, the earlier you catch them and get them “back on track,” the better off they are. Unfortunately, the timing just wasn’t right, so I put the idea on hold.
About a year later, working with a child in my class inspired me, and I filled out the necessary paperwork to begin my own LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), I Think I Can. I started to get the ball rolling and then life interfered, so things were on hold again. Just recently, I’ve been working with another child who has given me the itch to finally get my social skills playgroup going, so I’m hoping to get it up and running in the very near future.
What resources do you recommend?
AFAA – Personal Trainer Certification, Group Exercise Certification, Aerobics Certification and more…
Les Mills – Taking fitness to the next level (Body Pump)
RIPPED Fitness Instructor Program: Workout Training Course
You can contact Debbie Chass Kram at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you live in the area and want to try one of Debbie’s classes:
Tuesdays and Fridays at 9:30am: Body Pump at Gold’s Gym in Columbia (Overlook Center)
Wednesdays at 8:30am: Body Pump at Gold’s Gym at Wintergreen Plaza in Rockville, MD
Thursdays at 9:15am and Sundays at 8:00am: RIPPED at Gold’s Gym in Olney, MD
Sundays at noon: RIPPED at Scott Teague’s Academy of Martial Arts in Olney, MD
Karate classes for adults and kids, summer camp, birthday parties, Women’s Self-Defense classes:
Scott Teague’s Academy of Martial Arts – 301-774-4995