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Meaningful Side Hustles

Lucky Japanese Cat
Good Fortune Japanese cat, photo credit Alain Pham

The Meaningful Side Hustle

The phrase “side hustle” sounds vaguely shady, right up there with other expressions dedicated to things you don’t want people to know about, like “side chick.” Merriam-Webster tells us the word “hustle” comes from the Dutch, “husseln,” meaning “to shake,” but once it entered the English language, we put our own Protestant work ethic/capitalist spin on it, and it came to be a phrase to denote rapidly expending energy (picture your junior high basketball coach shouting it), and later “to obtain money by fraud or deception.”

 That last sense, of being ripped off by someone else’s hustle, was already in parlance in the African American community of the 1920s, but by the 1950s the entire phrase “side hustle” began to be in use: again, documented by Merriam-Webster, mostly in African-American newspapers. I love this quote from 1958, which seems to me to sum up the secret connotation of the side hustle that we don’t want our colleagues at our day jobs finding out about:

            That well-known Chicago Scoutmaster and church official whose friends are unaware of his lucrative side-hustle. Once he’s away from his Boy Scouts and church cronies he dons a colorful costume, pulls out a crystal ball, and becomes a “Prophet” who sells numbers and gives spiritual advice to all who pay his fat fee.
—Masco Young, The Pittsburgh Courier, 18 Jan. 1958

Although the phrase itself is old, “side hustle” only widely came into use throughout the rest of America over the last twenty years or so. You can thank the internet for that, and also perhaps the direction of the economy – as people ceased to be able to make ends meet through one job, having an extra job, perhaps one that could be done at home, has come to be more common. In the FIRE community, I constantly see references to this term – the idea being that through increasing your income through extra little hustles, all that extra money can go into saving and investing to help you reach financial independence sooner.

The Fitness Instructor Side Hustle

I’ve tried several of these suggested side hustles to see if they were worth it or too time consuming, but for the most part I limit myself to only attempting side hustles late at night when the kids are asleep, or when they won’t interfere with my day job. But today I want to talk about the meaningful side hustles. Are you making or doing something that gives you tremendous amounts of joy? Perhaps you’re brewing kombucha and selling scobies, crafting shell necklaces, or preparing decorative cakes for your friends. Maybe you’re picking up a little extra income on the side from it, but every time you do it, you feel a great sense of satisfaction, like your side hustle is also bringing a moment of joy or beauty to someone else’s life. That, to me, is the meaningful side hustle.

For me, that meaningful side hustle is being a fitness instructor. I have always loved going to fitness classes: aerobics, yoga, spinning, whatever was available. I also was a runner for years, and I went through a two-year phase where I amped up my training, raised a few thousand dollars for leukemia and lymphoma, and ran a marathon, in honor of a friend who had died young from the disease. But the training from the marathon left me with some lingering ailments that made it difficult to run long distances, so I started going to the gym more to vary my training.

For a long time I was a big fan of spinning and yoga, until I discovered Zumba classes, circa 2010, in a sweaty, packed gym where I squeezed into the back row and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. At first I couldn’t follow the instructor at all and was amazed that everyone else seemed to know exactly what she was going to do.

Intimidated, I didn’t go back for several months, but then I decided to give it another try, because I had always loved music from other cultures, especially Latin music. After a few more classes at my local YMCA, Zumba began to seem easier and more familiar. I became obsessed: front row diva, hoping-the-instructor-would-notice-me-following-her-exact moves hooked. I started to toy with the idea of becoming an instructor myself, not because I thought I could make any money, but because I had always liked to play the DJ and decide what everyone was going to listen to. If I became an instructor, I theorized, I could also be the cruise director, deciding what everyone would dance to next. There’s a lot of satisfaction in playing music people want to hear, and with Zumba, you were also creating endorphins from the dancing as well.

Becoming a Zumba Instructor

I drove two and a half hours away for an all-day training certification at a gym, which was a fascinating cultural experience. There were more than a hundred people there, mostly women, and all of us had paid over $200 to get certified.  But all these newly-licensed Zumba instructors aren’t necessarily going to become instructors, and that was apparent from some of the people who were there, who didn’t seem to see it as a fitness pursuit. (There was one woman who wore a raincoat and heels all day, for example).

But I got my Zumba certificate, and was ready to find a class to teach. The problem: there were already too many people getting certified and not enough classes to go around. For a while, I tried to host my own classes, renting out a wedding chapel on Sunday afternoons where a friend was teaching yoga classes and getting $5 per person to teach a class that usually didn’t have more than three or four participants.

It was challenging to guilt my friends to show up, and I had a difficult time pulling in anyone else. Then I got my first big break – a national fitness chain in my area was adding more Zumba classes and a fellow Zumba instructor told me about it. In 2011 I started teaching two classes a week at that gym, and I stayed there until 2018, adding an indoor cycle certification in the process. I also started teaching Zumba at my workplace, which I’ve done consistently since 2011 as well.

Changing Motivations

Over the years, the meaning of being a fitness instructor changed for me as I worked to get better at what I was doing. I moved from my initial motivation of simply wanting to play music and get people to dance to seeing the positive effects that a fun exercise class could have on participants. I studied for and got a national group exercise fitness certification to help me learn more about the physical aspects of what I was doing, which helped because it gave me a better idea of how varied the people are who come to fitness classes.

Your participants may have health conditions you are unaware of, and it’s your job as an instructor to understand how to keep your class safe—by suggesting modifications, not using moves that make the body go in directions it shouldn’t, and by making your class as simple as possible so that it’s accessible to people of all abilities. There are instructors who like complicated dance moves, but not everyone can follow them, so even though it’s fun to prove you can do those dance moves as a participant, I realized as an instructor it was more satisfying to create a class that everyone could follow. After all, if you’re confused and frustrated, you’re not getting a good workout.

Branching Out from Zumba

In the past two years, I’ve changed gyms, and it seems like Zumba classes aren’t quite as popular as they once were, so I’ve started teaching more cycle classes. In a way, these are easier on my body – I often have sore feet and a sore back the day after I teach Zumba from throwing myself into jumping moves, and this hasn’t happened to me yet from cycle. (It would be reasonable to suggest that I not jump so much, but when I get into it, I can’t seem to tone it down). Indoor cycling (sometimes known as “spinning,” although that’s a name brand for a particular certification) is easier to teach because you can use notes or apps on your phone about what you want people to do next, whereas with Zumba you have to memorize routines. Indoor cycling also satisfies my desire to still play the DJ, and I like how people can dial in how challenging they want their workout to be by using their resistance knobs. In theory, there’s less pressure when you’re sitting on a bike to worry about how you look to the people around you, which is often a barrier to entry in Zumba classes.

Being a Fitness Instructor: The Pros

What I love about fitness is the sense of accomplishment people feel afterward from having completed a challenging workout, the camaraderie you can create in a class (easier in Zumba), and overall the idea that I’m contributing to people’s health and well-being. In this country, our lifestyles are sedentary, and our diets are pretty abysmal, which is reflected in a lot of health conditions Americans have, but I have seen evidence of exercise plus dietary changes really doing amazing things for people’s health. I’m grateful every day that I can teach the classes and that I’m able and well bodied, because this won’t be possible forever, but I also think a lot about unavoidable health conditions people experience that might prevent them from working out.

Last week after a cycle class, I talked to a man at my gym, who appeared to be in his sixties. He told me he’d had extensive back surgery and had been insecure about participating in cycle classes, until he reminded himself that “your 100% now is not going to be your 100% ten years ago.” This is so true, and I always try to remind people of that when they’re on their bikes – doing your best means doing your best for today.  I’m looking into adding a new variation on this side hustle, which is teaching cycle classes to people with Parkinson’s. This is an amazing cycling format I just discovered that helps people with Parkinson’s to stay healthy and delay the progression of their disease.

Fitness Instruction: The Cons

The expenses you incur as a fitness instructor include the cost of getting licensed, driving to gyms to teach, wear and tear on your own body, buying new music or clothes, the time it takes to choose music/learn new routines, and monthly costs toward maintaining certifications. The cycle certification I have never expires, which is great, but Zumba charges $30 per month to stay licensed. (They do send monthly music and choreography, but I think there are probably thousands of instructors out there who aren’t teaching but are paying that amount every month.) Also, I let my national group exercise certification expire, but it had to be renewed every two years by doing continuing education units, all of which also cost money. This adds up if you’re not teaching any classes.

But what about the money you can make for being a fitness instructor? I’ve received anywhere from $18-55 to teach a one-hour class, which in the area where I live trends toward the lower amount. I do get a free gym membership, which is great if you can find the time to go back and do other workouts, and there’s usually a discount for family members and kids’ care, too. Teaching three fitness classes a week when my day job is in full swing is the most I can manage on average, but picking up sub opportunities allows me to make extra cash. The numbers definitely add up, making this a decent side hustle that adds a couple thousand dollars to my income each year.

The Side Hustle that Brings Joy

As side hustles go, this is my favorite one, even though initially I didn’t set out to make extra money (and at the beginning, I probably spent most of what I made buying neon Zumba fashions). However, the biggest benefit of all is in the mutual give-and-take of helping people get a great workout, keeping in mind that the participants come first and it’s not about you getting in a workout (although this also happens). I love consistently having to be there for my fitness classes because it means I’m in a gym, which is my happy place. However, sometimes I struggle with balance, take on too many sub requests and find myself driving off to a gym after work when my family members really need me at home with them. Finding balance is another discussion for another day.

Do you have any side hustles, meaningful or otherwise?

Published inFinancial Independence


  1. Ana Ana

    Great piece! I did Zumba a few years back and I loved it. The music makes you feel like you’re at a party and not working out. A bit intimidating at first when everyone seems to be in the know and you’re barely keeping up.

    I’ve always wondered about the commitment it takes to be a fitness instructor. I’m one who drags herself to the gym, when I actually go. It sounds like a perfect fit when your passion ties in with your side hustle and others benefit from your dedication. I hope you continue to enjoy it.

    • misFIRE misFIRE

      Thank you! Zumba is a lot of fun, I’m glad you’ve tried it! Some classes can definitely come across as intimidating, but if you keep going you’ll be “in the know” with everyone else. Yes, a lot of people tell me they wouldn’t want to commit to having to be in the same place each week for a fitness class, but I like having the obligation to be there because it means life won’t get in the way and I won’t miss my workout, which often happens when it’s not a class I’m teaching!

  2. I loved reading about your experience as a fitness instructor! It’s something that I’ve been contemplating over the past couple of months. My interest lies more in one on one fitness and health coaching, but teaching some group classes could be a blast as well. However, there are a couple things that have been holding me back, including the often exorbitant costs of licensing and legalities (making sure I don’t get sued!). The other thing is that fitness is something that is so deeply personal and meaningful to me, it is my one time of the day to just do something for myself. I worry that adding on 3+ classes or workshops per week would start to make fitness seem more like a job and less like a wonderful gift. Do you ever feel that way, or do you think finding balance in that way is manageable?

    PS would love to hear more about this cycle class for patients with Parkinson’s. I work in a genetics clinic and am always looking for interesting resources and potential ideas to get my patients out there and exercising!

    • misFIRE misFIRE

      Thanks for reading! I’m actually going to a Parkinson’s class today to see how the instructor does it so I can sub for her when she goes away in September! There’s an actual certification for it as well, but my gym allows people to teach it if they have a regular cycle certification. With some formats, you can get a certification that doesn’t expire (like I have a Keiser cycling cert), but with Zumba and general group exercise or personal trainer certs, they have to constantly be updated with CEU’s (which cost money) or monthly fees, so yeah, if you’re teaching, you make up the money, but it definitely adds up! I would work my way up to not do more classes than you can manage. I can only do three per week when my job as an educator is in full swing, but in the summer I go crazy subbing and taking on other classes. I never get tired of it but it is possible to get burned out if you do too much… so I have to constantly work at that. Health coaching one-on-one sounds like it would be super rewarding!

  3. KaLynn KaLynn

    I too started out as a “front row diva, hoping-the-instructor-would-notice-me-following-her-exact moves hooked.” LOL. I got Zumba certified and subbed for 5 years which was just the right amount of time/flexibility for me. Within the past year I got Keiser cycle certified and finally found my niche in teaching group exercise! As you also mentioned, it is WAY easier on my body than Zumba. I also found I like teaching in smaller groups better as it allows me to connect better with members. I just did some quick Googling on the Parkinson’s classes…another item to add to my to-do list when I FIRE. Thanks for the great post!

    • misFIRE misFIRE

      That is so cool you also are certified in Keiser and Zumba! It’s great to find ways to fit group fitness into your schedule and make it work for you, I’m glad you figured out how.

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