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Assata McKenzie - One Size Doesn't Fit All in Today's World

Fitness For All Podcast: Episode 7

Welcome to another edition of Fitness for All with Cam Jenkins, and sponsored by Lebert Fitness. In this episode, Cam talks with Assata McKenzie, who is an artist, an educator, a fitness editor, and a canfitpro Pro Trainer. She is also an R.H.N with over 10 years of experience as a certified fitness professional in the corporate and commercial fitness industry. Graduating with a B.A. from the University of Toronto and a postgraduate diploma in Workplace Wellness and Health Promotion, Assata has made a career of helping many people meet their fitness and wellness goals.

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*The following podcast has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Show Notes - Episode 7

Welcome to another edition of Fitness for All, I'm your host, Cam Jenkins and on this episode, we have Assata McKenzie. 

Can you start by telling the listeners a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I'm a fitness professional and I've been in the fitness industry, both commercial, corporate, city, and municipal, probably for just over 15 years without aging myself. I've been in different areas of fitness, from group fitness classes, corporate classes, online classes to print media including Chatelaine Magazine, fitness editorials and modelling to some television . . It's a few fitness editorials and modelling to television including the Steven and Chris Show, Breakfest Television and CityLine as well.

Can we talk a little bit about how your fitness journey started and how you got into fitness?

It's a quick story. I met a guy. I fell in love. Every time we looked into each other's eyes, we said, I love you, let's go for dinner. So, we started to eat a lot of fast food. This was really good, I thought, until my clothes started to shrink. He started getting a pot belly and I thought that was cute. Then I started getting a pot belly and I thought that wasn't cute. So he said, let's go to the gym. I said that's fine. We went to the weight room and I couldn't remember my reps and sets. Every time he'd say, "how many reps are you at", I'd say, "I don't know", then he would say "You have start from the beginning". This was not fun. So I made an excuse to leave, followed the music in the gym, and saw people moving weirdly to fitness music. I thought, oh, that's cool, I can do that. That looks so easy. Took the training. It wasn't easy, but I really, really loved it. I got rid of my boyfriend at the time and got a new career. That's how it started.

What also happened was in that story that I just kind of missed was that at one point I was walking home and I thought, someone's following me and I started to move faster and they start to move faster. So I finally got the courage to turn around and say, get away from me. It was just my butt. So my butt grew so big that I thought someone's following me. That's when I actually decided to get a new career.

Seriously, I've always been involved in a level of fitness since grade school. I ran track, cheerleading, gymnastics, all that stuff. So honestly, I really did discover fitness, the group fitness later. I really did get drawn to it. So it's the truth and all those bad stories.

But the truth is, I really wanted to improve my own fitness and I thought by improving my own fitness, I could be an example for other women and other people of colour out there and just everyone who I get to meet in my classes and so on.

I just really want to be an example. And that's the true story.

What does it mean to you to be a person of colour and how has that affected you in any way, shape or form, be it your personal life or your professional life helping people get fit?

Oh, that's a great question. Specifically, I'm a black woman, so being a person of colour and a black woman in Canada and Toronto specifically, it's a unique experience, I would think, because in my experience it's not a lot of people that look like me, especially in the fitness classes I go to, the training that I attend, the meetings I sit at, I'm not sitting at any high-level tables, and mostly front line and that's fine because I really do have a passion for fitness and movement. But I guess what it means is that sometimes I find myself in spaces, like I said, where no one looks like me and no one thinks like me. Sometimes that's a good thing because I bring a unique experience and a unique perspective to things.

I'll never, ever forget what it's like to be a newbie. I'll never forget what it's like to  feel like I'm on the outside. I'm not saying that I've never felt welcomed in these spaces in my career, but I'm saying that it's always apparent that there's not a lot of people that look like me. So that sometimes means that I feel second-guessed. Sometimes I feel the opposite. I feel like if one of the organizations has a question about how to involve black people, I am almost having to speak on behalf of the whole race. That's not cool because I can't, obviously, our experiences are different.

So I think I find myself explaining myself. Sometimes I find myself second-guessing myself. I find myself just being unique in both good and bad ways. If that's a good summary.

How do you see the world changing 5, 10 years from now? How are you going to change it?

A good question.

You're saying after what happened, I hope that you're referring to the recent police shootings and the riots and more importantly, the protests that have started as a result. If that's what you're referring to, then what I see as changing is more of a magnifying glass. Racism, brutality, police brutality specifically has always been happening. I feel like it. The difference is that now there are more video cameras happening out there to capture it a little differently. I hope I don't see what's happening. I think you can only hope for the better. I hope for change and I hope for more people like yourself using whatever power you have, whatever privilege you might have to shine a light on the injustices that are happening. Then we continue to see the light. If you don't want to, see it as political and that's fine, just in whatever capacity, whatever lane that you find yourself in, my lane is fitness, your lane is podcasting, whatever lane you find yourself in. Say something, care and use your voice wherever you can. That's what I hope to see. Hope to see more people voicing it and not pretending. I remember being in one of my training, someone saying to me, "I didn't even notice that you're black and even see colour". I used to think that was a good thing. But it's not because I'm black and I don't want to not be seen. I don't want to be the invisible, visible minority in the room.

I want to be seen. I want to be acknowledged. Then from there, we can move on. I think that's a better thing to see and care about. More seeing, more caring, and more speaking out is what I really hope for the future.

I have a disability. So being in my life for disabled people, that's all you can do. As you said eloquently, have a voice and speak your truth.

Going back to the fitness part.

What is it that you enjoy the most, like the type of fitness that you do?

I think what I enjoy the most is that it's so multifaceted. What I enjoy the most is that 15, 20 years ago, I couldn't confidently say to someone, I'm a fitness professional because what does that mean?

I have an ex-partner say to me, "How do you teach fitness? Doesn't make any sense. You can't teach someone exercise". He literally said it didn't make any sense. I said "You just don't understand what we're doing here. What we're doing is so important. We're influencing, we're changing lives".

We're educating our movement educator. I think what I like most about my fitness career is that I'm doing so many things I didn't think I could do. So I'm also an educator.  I didn't mention that. I'm also a faculty member at a Guelph Humber College teaching students group fitness, teaching the benefits of health and wellness as well. I'm doing this without a master's degree. I've got a Bachelor's Degree. I did it without a Ph.D. My experience in the industry is so vast that I was invited to be a faculty member and I'm so proud of that.

In summary, what I like about my career is that there are so many different things. Even working with Lebert Fitness is never something that I thought I'd never be able to do. I got to model for him, for the company, and I got to actually meet the inventor of many of the Lebert products. I got to work on video shoots with him and other big names in the fitness industry. So pretty lucky.

Absolutely. I believe the inventor that you're speaking of is Marc Lebert, he is a pretty special guy to a lot of people. 

He's so special to me and I'm so blessed to know him and to be able to call him a friend is pretty cool.

Absolutely. There's a lot of different ways to train people and I know you specifically like to do Zumba.

Yes, I do like to do Zumba.

Why did you choose that over some of the other ways that you could train people or get people healthy?

Ok, I am choosing that in addition to other things, I also teach Pilates, Group fitness, Yoga, Meditation, Yoga Nidra. I teach hip training. I teach everything under the sun except for Aqua Fitness. I've got a really, really vast background. I teach a variety of things - Bosu, TRX, all the Lebert systems, but why I chose Zumba for my online classes during the lockdown is because it was one of the fun ways that I could build community. It was quick and the Zumba company allowed us to teach without any extra licensing or any extra money. It was also at the beginning of the lockdown of COVID and the quarantine, I personally didn't feel comfortable monetizing what I do right away. I taught for free, and Zumba was one of the fastest things I could do online and for free. That's why I chose it.

When you first started out, how did you train people? Did you have a certain technique?

So when I first started out it was totally group fitness, lots of marching on the spot, lots of squats, lots of lunges, and then more marching on the spot. I chose that because of the group element. I'm also trained as a personal trainer, I'm very drawn to group fitness as well and small group and personal training. It's that community element. It's the variety of people that I get to work within one space. I chose it because the music was always a factor. I really like the music aspect to it as well.

It's like a parent putting broccoli in a smoothie to trick kids into eating their vegetables.  I feel like I'm using music and the group mentality to take away from the intimidation factor when it comes to fitness. I personally was very intimidated by the weight room. I was very intimidated by a lot of things in the group fitness industry, again, being one of the few black people in the industry where I was, so I had to make it fun. I had to take that element of frustration or intimidation away and music really, really helps with that.

What are some other ways that you motivate people to get them to work out, or do you find that they just always have it within themselves to be able to go there and to work out or to show up online for one of your Zumba classes?

Great question. Motivation changes with the day. So online has given me a chance to remember. I always do this, but I'm doing this a little more now, just checking in the beginning with how people are feeling. Then from the check-in, I decide right there on the spot what the warm is going to be and what the vibe of the class is going to be. Sometimes in my mind, I want to have a really high intensity, no breaks, just go for it. Sweaty, lots of jumping and then if I feel that people are feeling fatigued or people are a little frustrated, I sort of ease into it and change the vibe of the class or do a little less jumping. Have a little more HIIT style in a simple class where you have a high intensity, high energy song followed by a lower energy, lower intensity song and back and forth. A lot of checking in changes the way motivation happens depending on the group.

What have you learned over these years that you can take and teach other people?

Great question. Over the years, I've learned that the best-made plans are just plans, but they can always change. Being a group fitness instructor has definitely helped with my improv skills and my ability to use a variety of motivational techniques and coaching techniques, the ability to communicate with people not just verbally but also non-verbally, to talk to my kinaesthetic learners, to talk to people in different ways on different days is definitely what I've learned. 

Every day is different is what I've learned. Even if you're working with the same group, every workout can be different. To be really open with that, this concept of staying in the moment is one that I've really come to appreciate as a group fitness instructor. Again, every class, every moment is different. No matter what plans you have, someone may show up and may not be able to do it and you want to have that group feeling without people feeling isolated or intimidated.

Can you give an example of how you've been adaptable in the past for someone that can't necessarily do something?

A couple of examples are pregnancies and minor injuries. So ankle issues, knee issues, back issues can often happen in the class. So having in mind what the progression or regression of an exercise is, and also watching my language as well. So instead of calling an exercise harder, easier, I'll say hard, harder, and hardest. Knowing what my group might need in a moment, scanning the room, I can start with always the hard guys. This is going to be a hard exercise. We are doing push-ups on the knees and this is hard because, you know, you're using your upper body. More muscles are working than you think. You're not just using your arms. We we make this hard exercise even harder, we're taking it to the toes. We can take the feet wide apart. We want to make it the hardest option. OK, here comes one-handed push-ups. That is a silly example with an extreme example. But I hope it illustrates the fact that you need to have a good understanding of exercise, physiology, and anatomy to be able to make the changes that need to be made on the spot.

So what is next for you in the next year or five years?

I am really afraid to say what's next because I don't know what I can hope that in the next year I just continue to discover where I go next. A lot of my work has been by word of mouth.

So I just hope to continue to have an open mind and be open to whatever cool opportunities come my way. I'm also a wellness professional, with a diploma in fitness and health promotion so I'll be doing a lot more health promotion and more corporate work than commercial. I hope to be doing a lot more online and virtual fitness and remote fitness classes. I'm still an educator for Guelph Humber College so I hope to be teaching remotely for them as well.

If anyone wants to be able to reach out to you and to be able to take your classes, be it personal training or Zumba, how can they reach out to you?

Please follow me on Instagram. I'm also a canfitpro Pro Trainer so if anybody in the world wants to know how to teach group fitness in general and just enjoy the options of group fitness and take it wherever you want to, you can definitely contact me for that.

How do you become a canfitpro pro trainer?

Right, great. So as a canfitpro pro trainer, you have to audition, so to speak, with a video of yourself teaching, not just teaching theory, but also teaching physically. If you are accepted, then they give you a course curriculum, and then you're able to shape the curriculum to meet your personality and your experience as well. Then again, because of the quarantine, I am teaching classes online. So you have the option to teach face to face or online. I'm using Zoom as my platform for teaching online classes.

Thank you so much for being on the show today.  We talked a lot about fitness, but also about the Black Lives Matter and I think that's very important in today's world as well. So before I let you go, is there any other message that you want to get out there to the world?

Black lives matter. They've always mattered. And all black lives matter is the message that I want to give them. 

Key Takeaways From This Episode:

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