This is the second in a series of blogs about strong women I know, and this month's choice is Ivy Berke, my "Cut Above" class teacher. Her fitness career has spanned more than three decades, and she manages to run her own businesses, model for Athleta, and still have boundless amounts of energy.
From the first class, I noticed there was something about Ivy that glowed besides her incredibly gorgeous smile, and I had to find out what it was.
You've been doing this for more than thirty years. What drew you to this career?
I really did it for fun when I first started. My daughter was 11 months old, and I knew I didn't want to be just a full-time mom. The thought of going out on those play dates with other moms every single day was not appealing to me. I was looking for a balance, having enough time with my daughter and doing some meaningful work.
I was always a dancer and loved to dance. I did everything, including gymnastics and cheerleading, running and skiing. All that stuff came naturally to me. I grew up in an active oriented family and I always loved movement.
At my 3-month appointment [while pregnant for the first time], my gynecologist told me that I'd have to find something else to do besides running for cardiovascular exercise. “I bet you can't swim 10 laps!” said my husband, and within a short period of time, I was swimming a hundred! I started taking prenatal exercise classes at a neighborhood studio and the owner offered to train me to teach classes and a position at her studio. Everything I've done has fallen into my lap, and has been a natural progression. Maybe it’s because of my energy level. I've never had to pound the pavement.
How did the move from New York City to New Jersey affect your life all those years ago?
I missed all the walking, and needed to find new ways to maintain my fitness level, so I found an exercise studio. At that time, exercise wasn't that popular for the general population; it was more for people just trying to lose weight. I got certified and started teaching aerobics in the 80s when we were wearing leotards and leg warmers!
Within six months, my classes got too big for the studio. I was outgrowing it anyway, so got a job at a bigger health club in the town where I lived. Group fitness was starting to get very popular and I was teaching everything - Step, Body Sculpting, Aerobic Dance…whatever there was to do back in the day. Within a short period of time, I became the group fitness coordinator at the club.
Music has always been a big love...I was able to teach choreography, which was amazing, because I was able to use all my dance background and teach it on a simpler level. I did that for nine years. It was perfect hours for me to be raising my daughter.
How did you start to expand?
My classes were getting really popular, and the word traveled. People were having very good results, so I started getting calls for personal training. I got certified, and to keep up the certification, there were all these extra classes you could take. There was always the opportunity to learn something new, and before I knew it, I was teaching Kickboxing, Pilates, Dance fitness, Interval training classes, Indoor and outdoor training, everything! My repertoire was starting to really get big.
And nine years later, you moved to Westchester?
Yes, and I was pregnant then with my second child. My friends and people that knew me growing up, knew what I was doing, so once I got here, they contacted me about Personal training and Small group fitness training in their homes. I was working right away.
I gave birth to my son, and three months later, I was back to working a full schedule doing In-Home Training. I did that for 5-6 years, and did not go back to the gym to work. I was burnt out - too many classes, overuse syndrome, and I was exhausted. Personal fitness was a better solution for me at that time of my life and was more lucrative. I sensed the pendulum was changing back to Group fitness. Bigger and more extensive health clubs were opening all over, and I thought, I gotta go back to teaching classes. I missed the energy and socialization of working with lots of people in a group environment. So I started taking workshops and getting reinspired. Whatever was in vogue at the time, I was always there to learn.
I decided that the perfect balance would be to teach group fitness classes at the health clubs, and work with my individual clients. This way I could make as much money, optimize my business, and keep my body as healthy as possible. This was working for a long time when I was raising my kids. But then I realized that I needed to get a divorce.
My reputation was solid, and my skills were amazing, so I knew I could kick it up to the next level. There was more need for people like me out there, and I realized that I could be a single woman and have this career, and be able to do it. I strategized.
So many people are afraid to get divorced, thinking, “How am I going to function on my own?” But you already had this major foundation, not just a job, but a whole career, a versatile repertoire. You were in an awesome place compared to most women.
It definitely helped. I enjoy what I do, and so many women that haven’t been working while raising children have to first find something, and it’s not always what they want to do. It’s what gave me enough confidence. I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot when I left the marriage, so I started to save. I didn’t leave right away, but started planning.
What happened next was that I got lucky. I used to go for allergy shots with my daughter, and one day, the nurse said, “Would you be interested in teaching Pilates at Westchester Country Club?”
What? Your allergist?
I went there for five years! So everybody knew what I was doing. I was always in fitness clothes, always talking about my fitness business, and people were always interested in staying in shape, and asking me for advice.
This was the key, because it added a whole other element to my business. When I run group fitness out of country clubs, it’s my program. I am the creative director. It's better for me than working at a health club, where there is a formula and corporate ladder and all those things you have to deal with. I built my own following and was able to grow the program in the direction that I felt was appropriate for the women.
One thing led to another. And now husbands come to my classes, because I teach on the weekends, adult and teenage kids come on school vacations, I do a lot of stuff with families, and I’m training a number of these people in their homes.
This has been the key to my success. The relationships I’ve developed...these people stay with me! It’s a journey.
How has age affected your career?
I feel that I’m just as strong at 58 years old as I was when I was first starting in my late twenties. I attribute a lot of that to fitness, and the balance. People know that I’m older - they don’t talk about it, but they must know! I guess I’m looked on as a role model. The fitness population has gotten older; it’s not just young people that exercise.
I’m very people-oriented, and have discovered that this is a strength of mine. My oldest client is 88. Twice a week, when I leave her house, she gives me the biggest hug and has the biggest smile on her face. So what I’m doing for her is totally different that I would do with a younger person or in a classroom setting, but that’s what is fun about my career. There are so many different elements to it.
How about diet?
I wouldn’t recommend what I do to others, because I’m burning thousands of calories a day. My metabolism is really sped up because of my lifestyle. For a woman of my age, it’s more like a younger person’s. That’s another good reason to exercise and be in this industry - you don’t have to feel guilty about eating! I actually love to cook and eat healthy and try to inspire my clients and friends with my knowledge of well balanced creative eating. I have lots of great tips and love to spread the word. Diet has a lot to do with the way you feel. On the days I have cookies or a lot of sugar, I feel sluggish. There’s a direct relationship to the way you want to feel and live your life.
There’s such an element of creativity and freedom in this career, because you get to develop whatever exercise you want, pick your playlist, choose your schedule.
But you also have to have the knowledge of how to conduct a safe, effective, appropriate class. A lot of people think it’s easy to get up and teach a fitness class, but there is so much homework behind the scenes that goes into it.
I wanted to be a professional dancer, but my parents wouldn’t pay for that kind of education. When I went to NYU, I took a lot of dance classes and studied anatomy and exercise physiology. I graduated as an art teacher, but had dance as a minor. I took a lot of classes to understand movement and the body, so I have experience that’s very helpful. And rhythm and musicality are so important in this business! Also knowing how to motivate people - there’s a psychology to it.
What’s really exciting now is that my boyfriend is a doctor and I’m learning a lot from the clinical / medical side of things, which is very helpful for my teaching. I’m getting more knowledgeable. It’s good for me to know a lot more in detail about the human body. And so I ask him a lot of questions.
People come to my classes instead of going for physical therapy. They say that they get more out of working out with me!
I love it. I’m glad that different avenues have come up. You can get really bored with doing the same thing for years, but the versatility of my business has kept me interested. I never looked at it as a job. There was a little more pressure to take it seriously when I was getting divorced, but I got over that hurdle. I had to!
And you’ve got some new stuff in the works?
I don’t think I should talk about it yet, but I’ll give you just a little hint: there’s a whole other population of people that are not healthy and strong, that need exercise. I’m starting to learn about how to work with people with Parkinson’s disease, and that’s where my fitness is going nowadays. You can’t just stagnate. For me, I need stimulation. As I get older, I need to consider going many directions within the fitness arena.
What makes a person GLOW? I noticed that in you from the my first class with you.
I think when you’re happy! But maybe when I’m teaching, you see me in my element. I inherited that from my father. It’s a magnetism, something that draws people in, a feeling that I am kind, and that I’m open, and positive. It comes from an inner feeling of yourself.
Do you think it’s because you’ve gone through things that made you more resilient?
I think I have had a lot of challenges, and I look at it like a feeling of survival. And to be pro-active when you have problems, that’s your only choice, as opposed to hiding, and crying, and being down, and not facing the world.
For me, it’s always been about trying to conquer. I have really close girlfriends, and we talk things through. My father was my closest confidante, and he gave me a lot of strength.
Challenges make you stronger. It’s ok to show your kids that you do have emotions, and not all of them are positive, but I feel like it’s important to show them that the world is a happy place. I really believe that walking around depressed and head hanging down does not help them at all.
Many women are thinking, “Ivy is spectacular; she looks so great for her age. How can I be like that?!”
You don’t want to be me, but you want to be the best YOU can be.
I got divorced at 47, and I remember that I was in great shape, and that gave me confidence. I knew I had the ability to help others in my position restore their health and strength after a divorce or an unfortunate life circumstance. It opened up my world.
And I’m in a cool field! People like fitness instructors. Dealing with the world, dealing with people makes you feel like you have something to give, and I just forget my other problems, and the other things going on when I’m talking with people, giving to them, helping them. It’s not only about the exercise, it’s about the relationships you build, and nurturing relationships, and helping people with the quality of their life makes me feel good inside.
I’m sure diet, genetics, and inner strength, and attitude and being pro-active play a part in accomplishing things that I never thought I could do. I was married for almost 25 years, and met my ex-husband when I was 21 years old. I didn’t know how to do a lot of the things, but I rose to the occasion, and the more you do, the more you can do. The more you succeed, it gives you confidence to take the next step.
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