Staff Q&A with Katie Huber

Once upon a time, Katie Huber was skeptical of group exercise classes. Before signing up for a BODYPUMP class in her early 20s, she says she wasn’t quite convinced that the classes would give her the strenuous, endorphin-filled workout she favored.

“By the end, I was totally convinced,” she says. “I was like, ‘I want to do what this instructor is doing.’ There was a really good energy in the room and people were seemingly a part of this team and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Whatever that feeling was that was happening in the room, it was a good feeling and I wanted to continue coming back.”

Through more than 50 group exercise and instructional classes offered at the Pottruck Center and Fox Fitness Center, Huber, assistant director of group exercise and instructional classes at the Department of Recreation (Penn Rec), strives to bring improved health, good feelings, and positive energy to Penn Rec members. From start to finish, she is responsible for hiring instructors, managing the day-to-day operation of the classes, and evaluating the programs to ensure that students, faculty, and staff are well-served.

“It’s actually a lot of people management,” she says. “I have probably between 50 and 60 instructors that report to me. Some are teaching one class a week and some will teach up to five or six classes a week, depending on their availability and what our needs are.”

An out-and-out group fitness convert, Huber both partakes in group exercise classes and teaches.

“I always work out a little bit harder when I’m surrounded by a motivating group,” she says.

The Current sat down with Huber in the Pottruck Center to chat about exercise classes that help the Penn community stay fit.

Q: How did you become interested in recreational activities?
A: I’ve been pretty active my entire life. Growing up, I was always doing different activities, running around, playing basketball, playing softball. I was probably better at softball but I just really loved the fast pace of basketball. I played intramural sports throughout my undergraduate years at the College of New Jersey. After I finished my undergraduate degree in 2002, I got a side job as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor. I got very into fitness; I felt that it was a great way to connect with people and I really enjoyed it.

Q: How do you select which group exercise programs to offer?
A: I look at the numbers from semester to semester. Because I’ve been here for a couple years, I notice trends and what people are really interested in. Spinning classes are pretty consistent year to year. Zumba was a big thing for a little bit; I think it still is. I really try to have some variety to the schedule, so we have strength-based classes, cardio-based classes, and dance-based classes. There is a fitness-ballet fusion class, ‘Too Toned,’ on the schedule right now. That’s a big trend in the industry right now. Usually I try to add new classes on the schedule and if it goes well, we continue with that class. We try to add more classes based on what instructors can do. A lot of the time my job is to have a pulse on what is new and what programs people are enjoying.

Q: What do you look for in instructors?
A: Beyond having the skillset and certifications, I’m really looking for someone who loves what they’re doing and who understands how to connect with people. I think that the ability to connect is really important to have as a group exercise or instructional class instructor. People need to feel welcome to a room, people need to feel really comfortable, people need to feel safe. People need to feel that the instructor really has a good understanding of what they’re doing. I try to look for diverse approaches to instruction. Sometimes you’ll have an instructor who brings a lot of humor to a class, and then sometimes you’ll have an instructor who’s more intense. I look for instructors who have the ability to manage multiple fitness levels. We try to recruit instructors that teach classes that the University and the populations here want to attend. Ultimately, they have to care about their participants, they have to be skilled in what they’re doing, and they have to be willing to improve and be open to feedback. We have a great instructor team at Penn Rec and I really would not be able to do the job that I do without them. Our instructor team is extremely dedicated to what they do. They really love providing opportunities for health improvements for people in a group environment.

Q: Have you taken any of the fitness classes?
A: I try all of the classes. One of the cool parts about my job is that with any new instructor that comes in, I get to check out a demo of their class. Sometimes there are certain classes that I never thought I would take, like a modern dance class. I’m not a dancer by background but I have the opportunity to hire dance instructors. If the instructor can get me to do certain moves, chances are they’re doing a pretty good job. I’ve tried pretty much all of the classes on the schedule, even golf. I teach BODYCOMBAT regularly; I’ve been teaching BODYPUMP off and on since 2004. I can also teach spinning.

Q: Is there a latest fitness craze?
A: Our BODYPUMP classes are doing really well. It’s interesting, during Spring Break, usually our participation numbers drop a little bit based on the undergraduate students not being on campus, but we ran a mini-schedule this year and our Wednesday BODYPUMP class had 42 people in it. Our max is 46, so you can tell people are still attending it. Participants are very dedicated. People are loving the BODYCOMBAT class, which is a martial arts-based group exercise class. Depending on the time, Zumba classes still do well. And spinning. We try to keep up with what’s going on in the fitness industry and provide it to the Penn community.

Q: You offer a number of different yoga classes. Can you talk about the yoga program?
A: When people are looking for stress relief, yoga is a great option as an activity that can provide physical and psychological benefits. For people who are looking for ways to improve their heath, yoga is a great program and I’ve seen the attraction increase. Different outside groups, like Wharton Women in Business, have reached out to me to set up classes specifically customized to their group. So once a week—maybe for eight weeks in a semester—we’ll do a yoga class, a Pilates class, a different group exercise class. Some of our varsity sports teams will reach out to me to set up yoga classes. Right now, we’re working with football and track. The track team does yoga once a week and the next week they’ll do a Pilates class.

Q: A lot of people seem to struggle with making exercise a regular part of their lives. Do you have any advice on how people can exercise more consistently?
A: I think that’s probably the crux of the problem. Most people will say to me, ‘What can I do to be consistent?’ And that’s hard to say. It’s making a commitment to yourself and your health. For me, working in the group exercise and instructional class realm helps to keep my schedule consistent. There are times when, even though I work in this facility, it’s hard to get up and get my workout in. Sometimes having a buddy or a group exercise class helps keep you accountable and can make working out a lot more enjoyable. I also tell people to find something that they like to do activity-wise. When I was a personal trainer, people would say to me, ‘I hate running,’ and I would say, ‘Well, let’s find something else because there are a whole lot of options out there to do cardio fitness.’ Be open to trying new activities, find something you enjoy, and commit to your health.

Q: Do you think exercise is an important part of student life?
A: Yes, I do. I think it’s about balance. I know students are pressed and I see a lot of busy students. I actually just finished a graduate program here in August in school counseling and mental health counseling at the Graduate School of Education, and it was a very consuming program, so I’ve been a student here and I understand the pressures to get things done. I tried to continue throughout that process—even when I didn’t really have time—to take a half-hour for myself at some point during the day to make sure I was taking care of my health. I see students who come [to the gym] and they make it a priority to get here. Sometimes students will make a comment and say something like, ‘I had a study break and I knew I could come here and maybe relieve some stress and it’s helpful.’ I’ve had students come up to me at the end of the semester thanking me for just being consistent in classes or having different programs because participating in the fitness classes has helped them get through their semester with balance and with the ability to manage a very heavy workload. Students are busy at Penn; they have a lot going on outside of the classroom and are very ambitious. The goal, I think, of recreation is to give students the opportunity for some down time. I believe in balance and a holistic approach to mental and physical health.

Katie Huber