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Instructors power up outside of the gym

By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, November 18, 2010

I know that the man in gray spandex shorts yelling out, "I want you to beg me for mercy!" is Jeffrey Lesk, the 56-year-old managing partner of the D.C. office of Nixon Peabody, a law firm. But to the dozen other folks perched on bikes and pedaling like mad, he's just Jeff, the guy who teaches cycling classes at Energy Fitness Metro Center.

His double life began eight years ago, when he'd gotten into the habit of dashing out of the office on his lunch break to take classes. "There were always those situations when you're dressed and ready to go and the instructor doesn't show," says Lesk, who one day decided to pick up the slack by hopping on the bike in the front of the room. Next thing you know, he was a certified instructor.

But don't expect Lesk to give up his legal practice anytime soon. In Washington, he would have to ride all day to make a living with this gig; most group exercise instructors get a free gym membership and a stipend per class, usually between $25 and $50.

That's why most of the perky people you'll find teaching kickboxing, step and yoga around town have a day job. And often, it's a demanding one. It shouldn't come as a surprise that such high-energy personalities gravitate toward high-powered work, and yet, it does. The question Lesk always gets in the locker room after shucking the spandex, showering and putting his suit back on is, "How do you do it?"

Most of us kvetch about not being able to make it to the gym at all, let alone develop lesson plans and pick a soundtrack for hour-long workouts. But it's a matter of putting it in your calendar and sticking with it.

"You make the time even if you might get a little less sleep one day," says Jennifer Shevchek, a 31-year-old lobbyist for the American Medical Association who moonlights as a Pilates instructor at Results.

It helps that the majority of group exercise classes are scheduled around the 9-to-5 workday, so instructors are usually called into duty before or after work, or on weekends. Or, in the case of Hansen Mak, all of the above. Mak, a 32-year-old adviser to the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, has his hands full teaching Spinning at three gyms, but knowing that rooms are packed with people waiting for his strobe lights, playlists and choreography keeps him motivated. "It forces you to go," he says.

Leona Agouridis, the 49-year-old executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, knows exactly what would have happened if she hadn't been teaching Zumba, BodyPump and every other conceivable class as a sideline since 1986. "I'd be fat," she jokes.

She would also be much less fun to be around, as she uses her class time to de-stress and forget about the pressures of work. "When you go in to teach a class, you have to be focused for that hour. If you take your eye off it, you fall apart," she says.

Not that her two careers are entirely unrelated, Agouridis adds. Both require creativity and encourage her to strive for improvement. For other instructors, the connection is even more apparent. Take Meaghan Parker, who spends her days at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History employed as a molecular biologist. When the 35-year-old talks to her Pilates classes about anatomy, the scientist in her can't help but get giddy. "I geek out on muscles and bones," she admits.

Lizzie Turkevich, a 27-year-old television producer, brings the same sensibility to her body-sculpting class as she does to a show. "I want good music, to use the whole room and have a really strong beginning," she says.

Co-workers seem to have a knack for finding out about these side gigs. But the greatest hazard of letting the word get out isn't around-the-watercooler mockery. It's the constant hounding for fitness advice and tips on handling mysterious injuries.

As for Lesk, he's proud his outside activities have helped foster a pro-health environment at the law firm. "People are never nervous walking by my office with a gym bag," says Lesk, who has also organized a weekly on-site yoga class - which he participates in but doesn't teach - and an office-wide bike-sharing program.

Hopefully, the balancing act will prove just as seamless for Betsy Miller. The 36-year-old, an attorney for Cohen Milstein and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, started teaching trampoline and balance training last month at Vida Fitness as a way to channel her athletic energy.

When she immediately apologizes for her bio on the gym's Web site ("The typo isn't my fault!"), it's clear her lawyer side won't disappear just because she's bounding around to '80s hits. But maybe that's a good thing. Years of courtroom experience means she's anything but shy.

"Standing in front of a class is not a problem," she says. "Looking at a federal judge who wants to interrogate you is much more intimidating."

And students can only benefit from a teacher who can't help but prepare for everything like it's the bar exam.

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