UREC Instructors

Students can sign up for classes that range from Cardio Dance Party and Cycle Circuit to HIIT and Core Training. Employees hope to make a positive impact by encouraging inclusivity among the JMU community.

Music blasts, feet are moving and through the faint sound of a heavy breath, a group exercise instructor keeps the class motivated and moving. For some, working out in the gym alone may be intimidating, but the University Recreation Center has a solution. UREC offers over 100+ group exercise classes for different fitness levels and interests each week, all led by JMU students. 

“Since I already spend a lot of time at the gym, I wanted to do something more,” Meredith Valente, a sophomore hospitality management major and group exercise instructor, said. “I wanted to be able to have an impact on others and still get my daily workout in.” 

Valente teaches Express Sculpt and Core Training. She loves the athletic formats of her classes, which incorporate strength and muscle building. Valente also tries to take advantage of using weights, kettlebells, resistance bands and gliders during her classes. Students can then become familiar with equipment they might not have tried on their own.

To become a group exercise instructor, students must enroll in an eight-week course, pass an exam, learn group exercise safety, how to cue exercise moves and count to the music. After passing the exam, they’re required to do a 32-count warm up and explain effective exercises for a particular muscle in front of a panel. Students who make it through that round are then asked to be interviewed.

Jordan Shiley, a senior communication studies major and group exercise manager, met the qualifications and has been teaching at UREC since her freshman year. Before becoming a manager, she would teach five to seven times a week. She’s qualified for all athletic-formatted classes aside from High Intensity Interval Training, HIIT, and Total Body Resistance Exercise, TRX.

Shiley now only teaches Cardio Dance Party and Cycle Fitness. She’s choreographed over 100 songs for her Cardio Dance Party classes and continues to do more.

“It’s so much fun to dance with such a large group of people, see their reactions when you choreograph a new song they love and shake the stress away with people who love it as much as you do,” Shiley said. “It’s a class where people go out of their comfort zones.”

Shiley prepares for each class differently. While prepping for Cycle Fitness, she chooses her music first then pairs drills with it. For Cardio Dance Party, she puts her playlists on repeat to subconsciously practice throughout the day. 

During classes, Shiley makes an effort to get to know the familiar faces that attend, while making sure new students feel comfortable and encouraged. If she sees an unfamiliar student excelling in her class, she calls them out by the clothes they’re wearing to compliment and encourage them. 

“The inclusive community each class offers can really make an impact on someone’s day and even someone’s life,” Shiley said. “I think my favorite part of being an instructor is knowing that I get to be a part of someone’s journey to a healthy, happy and active lifestyle.” 

Shiley admires the sense of community UREC has to offer, not only between UREC and its employees, but between the employees and their participants. Her day is brightened by her energetic classes even on her worst days. 

Although motivating their students seems to be a part of the instructors’ routine, it isn’t always easy since each class is different. 

“People are tired after a long day of classes and sometimes are just not responsive,” Valente said. “I try to lighten the mood a little, tell a few jokes or just be weird and try to make my participants laugh.”

Valente typically experiences a lack of motivation during evening classes. Another tactic she uses is having her students interact with each other, whether it be high-fiving after finishing a circuit or introducing themselves to someone on the mat next to them.

“My go-to phrase is ‘you’re stronger than you think,’” Valente said.

She reminds her students that their body is strong and to not let negative thoughts overtake their mindset. Group exercise classes provide a safe place of encouragement for students to work out — a place without judgment or fear.

“We talk about loving your body and loving yourself,” Josh Bensink, a sophomore kinesiology major and group exercise instructor, said. “I love the ability that everyone kind of comes as they are … Nobody is trying to fit a mold or be different than who they are.”

Bensink believes that group exercise classes are for “anybody and everybody.” There’s no one type of person that these classes are designed for. He encourages students to break the misconception of these classes being typically female dominated.

“I think that group exercise helped me become more comfortable in my own skin, and so I wanted to provide that opportunity for others,” Bensink said. “I wanted to add to the environment that I already love being a part of.”

He now teaches Step, Cycle Circuit and HIIT. Originally, Bensink’s heart was set on teaching Cardio Dance Party classes, but he quickly realized Step classes were his calling when he learned it was one of the more challenging classes to instruct.

“I try to use moves that everyone knows but add a funky twist to them,” Bensink said. “Sometimes, if we’re doing an arm curl, I’ll add like a dab or something.” 

Group exercise instructors are positively impacting their students’ lives while impacting their own too. They have the chance to work on their mental and physical health while teaching. 

“Teaching my full first hour of a class ever was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” Bensink said. “You feel so accomplished … You feel like you can do anything after that.”

A sense of reward comes with their job. After their classes, group exercise instructors are reminded of why they do what they do. They’re also comforted knowing their students want to return and experience new classes. Registration for classes begins 48 hours in advance. 

“Having someone walk up to you after class to tell you how much fun they had, how your language positively affected them and asking when they can do it again feels as good as Chipotle tastes,” Shiley said.

Contact Maria Keuler at keulermc@dukes.jmu.eduFor more on culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.

Maria Keuler is a senior media arts & design and Spanish double major. She writes about what she loves — fitness and a healthy lifestyle. If all goes as planned with her future, you'll catch her on TV in the mornings broadcasting your local news.