The Future is Female Coaches - Janeil Mason

The Future is Female Coaches - Janeil Mason

In this series we talk to female coaches and leaders across a variety of aspects and disciplines within the running and fitness space about their experiences and insights as coaches, leaders, and game-changers.This week we’ve interviewed Janeil Mason, M.A., personal trainer and creator of Fit & Lit, a unique dance workout that combines elements of HIIT, strength, and cardio with great music. Janeil's work brings together her 20 years of dance experience and her expertise in exercise physiology. But more importantly, Janeil's classes express her passion for creating fun and engaging workout experiences that offer the opportunity to build a life-long commitment to fitness and health.

Bakline continues our Future is Female Coaches series in celebration and recognition of the women of our sport who lead, inspire, and make us all stronger. In this series we talk to female coaches and leaders across a variety of disciplines within the running and fitness space about their experiences and insights as coaches, leaders, and game-changers.

This week we’ve interviewed Janeil Mason, M.A., personal trainer and creator of Fit & Lit, a unique dance workout that combines elements of HIIT, strength, and cardio elements with great music. Janeil's work brings together her 20 years of dance experience and her expertise in exercise physiology. But more importantly, Janeil's classes express her passion for creating fun and engaging workout experiences that offer the opportunity to build a life-long commitment to fitness and health.

You can follow Janeil at @janeilmason and @fitandlitnyc.

How did you get your start in the fitness space? How have your involvement and interests changed over time?

I first got started in the fitness space when I was younger taking Taebo classes at home with my mom! Thinking back, I think she planted the seed. I first got introduced to group fitness during my senior year of high school when a good friend of mine told me about a Zumba class that she loved--because of her raving reviews I decided to check it out with my mom. WE HAD SO MUCH FUN and instantly loved the class and instructor. Throughout college I would love taking all the group fitness offerings but never considered going into it as a profession. I thought I was going to be a child advocacy lawyer. Fast forward. After graduating college and studying for the LSAT, I decided to start teaching Zumba as a way to make money in the meantime. After teaching for a few months I realized that this was the profession I wanted to go into. I loved people’s reactions to my class and I loved how I felt while teaching. I decided 'this is fun and I want to keep doing this.' BYE BYE, law school!

Over time I started to  appreciate and become familiar with the benefits to strength training. As I started to learn more about the benefits of exercise I still had a desire to know more and decided to go back to school to get a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology. I value the education and research I was able to do there because the knowledge I acquired is threaded throughout my current teaching today.  

Did you have any coaches in your athletic history who particularly shaped your experience of sports or impacted your own approach to coaching and training?

Yes! I’ve had several, but I would say four have been the most influential. The first two were Nathan Blake and Jasmine Sanker. Nate taught the first Zumba class I ever attended which was so much fun. I always looked forward to attending his classes. When I later became an instructor he introduced me to Jasmine who is also an amazing instructor that I admired for her quality instruction and fun zumba/dance cardio classes. She was also the first Black woman in fitness that I had formed a bond with early on in my career.

When I first started to teach non-dance cardio formats, Shay Kostabi was a huge part of my development. She taught me how to coach HIIT classes, cue proper form and structure a HIIT class. And lastly, Josh Holland who was one of the first trainers I met who was outspoken about having a holistic approach to health, which planted a seed for me to seek out more information on how health is more than just working out. During my graduate studies, my professor Dr. Chris Emdin was an exemplar of a great teacher. His customs and ways of teaching are admirable and I have adopted some of his practices into my own classroom spaces and group fitness classes as well.

You changed direction on your career path when you decided to become a trainer and coach. What inspired you to create Fit and Lit and your work in the fitness space? 

Being a  group fitness instructor, I also love taking other group fitness classes. Whenever I would take an intense athletic conditioning or HIIT class I would find myself dancing to the good music in class during the rest periods. Those little dance breaks energized me to go hard again with the exercise when it was time. While in grad school I also did research on music and exercise adherence. As you can assume, there is a correlation with music and exercise adherence. Over time I started to wonder, if these high intensity exercises were done to the beat of the music, would people enjoy doing them more? I would play around and do this for my own workouts and implement them into some of the HIIT classes I was teaching at the time. I noticed squat thrusts and burpees on the beat are a win! I saw people in my classes want to stop doing the exercises, but because they loved the music--and the exercise went to the beat of the song--they would keep going, SUPER LIT! It wasn’t until a few years later that I created the signature Fit and Lit format that includes: easy to follow dance-cardio, HIIT, and mindfulness. 

Mindfulness was a component that I started to value towards the end of my graduate studies. After researching music and exercise adherence I became interested in Black women and exercise adherence. After seeing how multilayered that was, I started to narrow down focus on the media representation of black women in fitness and exercise adherence. My goal at the time was to find an outcome that would create more exercise adherence among black women so that we can have more positive health outcomes. According to the numbers, we were disproportionately having more negative health outcomes compared to our counterparts. Because exercise is a behavior that can create more positive health outcomes, I wanted to see what I could do to create more exercise adherence and positive health outcomes for women like me.

Unsurprisingly, I came across studies showing that a lot of Black women had a strong tie to religion. I began to wonder, if religious practices and exercise could be tied together, would there be more exercise adherence? I pivoted away from religious practices exclusively  and decided to focus on mindfulness and meditation practices. Because I appreciate mindfulness practices and have seen their impact on my life--and knowing that the brain is extremely receptive to learning post workout--I decided that mindfulness would be a component in my signature class format. I want people that come to my class to leave with a strengthened body and enlightened mind. 

What continues to drive you as a leader and innovator in the fitness industry? What impact do you most hope to have?

I am passionate about creating fitness experiences that people look forward to. Whether it’s a one on one client or a group fitness class, I want everyone who shares space with me while being active to have fun. Even if I’m in a running group or hike, if we find a way to enjoy the process even though it’s difficult. It  makes the process just that much less gruesome. I remember one time while on my first trail run I fell. A fellow runner said to me “you’ll always fall but you’ll always get back up again.” This resonated with me because it was true for the physical activity we were doing but it also translates to everyday life situations.

There will always be moments when we feel low energy, down, or something goes wrong, but we will always be able to pick ourselves up again and keep moving forward in a direction towards contentment. Which brings me to answering the second part of this question about impact. Yes, I want everyone to have fun, enjoy and look forward to their workouts but I also want to have an impact where people are cognizant of the transferable skills that occur in relation to exercise and mindset. Exercise provides a transformation of the body and the mind. Falling and getting back up is true in the physical form and everyday life situations. I want everyone to know and appreciate this relationship! Fun and appreciation for the mind and body transformation is what drives me as a leader and innovator in this space. It is also the impact I hope to have in this space.

How did Fit & Lit evolve from an outdoor class into its current form?

Fit and Lit started as an outdoor fitness class that I started to bring an affordable fitness option to Harlem. While in grad school my friends would want to take my fitness classes that were in downtown Manhattan. It was not convenient in location nor price-wise for them to go downtown for a fitness class. In an effort to still find a way for us to work out together nearby I sought out gyms in the area. There were none. For me, that was problematic. There are a lot of fitness spaces in downtown Manhattan but I couldn’t find one in my own neighborhood. I decided that needed to change, and started my outdoor fitness class to bring an affordable fitness option to Harlem. That was the first iteration of Fit and Lit. We were strengthening our bodies and enlightening our minds by appreciating the nature around us. The dance cardio format had been in the back of my mind but I didn’t have a place to teach it. In 2018, an opportunity presented itself for me to start teaching it and my signature format was born! 

What is your coaching/training philosophy?

“Tell yourself you can, and you will.”

Like many fitness instructors, you’ve taken your classes online during COVID. Do you see a benefit in the movement to make fitness more available and accessible at home? 

Yes! There is definitely a benefit to making fitness more available and accessible at home. I was just saying in a class earlier today that because gyms are not opening any time soon, exercisers can have more autonomy  in regards to their workouts and increase their knowledge about their bodies. I think people who enjoy exercising will take the time to increase their knowledge on how to exercise well and gain a better relationship with their body through discovery during this time. I may be biased because I’m in this profession, but I think having a better relationship and understanding of your body is invaluable. It’s the only one we have and having this time to intentionally become more familiar with it is a gift. Starting to move more and explore different movement types is a great way to increase your understanding of your body. I think being at home in your own comfortable space and gaining access to any virtual movement type you choose is very empowering. For example, in an in-person dance or yoga class you may not have chosen to move as freely as you could have for fear of looking a particular way. You’re no longer in that environment that may have had you feeling apprehensive. At home you may be more inclined to move more freely and confidently than had you been in a space with others. As an instructor and professional in the space your digital audience has the potential to grow since your reach is not limited to capacity confinements or geographical convenience. I see this as an opportunity for growth for all parties involved #growthmindset ! 

What are the biggest barriers or challenges you see in making fitness more inclusive and accessible? What steps can coaches, trainers, and communities take to change this?

Finances and inhospitable spaces are the biggest barriers to making fitness inclusive and accessible. Exercise should not just be for those in a particular tax bracket. The onus is on fitness professionals to create a hospitable environment for everyone that comes into their space, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity or religious background. In regards to financial barriers, some are being eliminated already through community and government-funded programs for fitness and exercise. If privately owned fitness companies want to also be a part of the solution they can start offering pro bono fitness services.

In order for professional settings to show their inclusive environment it is important that it’s represented on their internet and social media. At large, media representation of people participating in fitness needs to be diverse.  When someone engages in these forums to seek out fitness it’s important that they see images that are representative of their race, body types, religious beliefs, etc. This increases exercise adherence and people feeling they are in a welcoming and safe environment.