Meet America’s Favorite Trainer: Darlene Marshall

On July 15th, Darlene Marshall was announced as America’s Favorite Trainer. This annual Burnalong award was historic this year as Darlene is the first mental health professional who has received the title. To learn more about Darlene’s work, impact, and ethos, we sat down with her for a really interesting discussion about her background and approach.

Q: You are America’s Favorite Trainer! Congratulations! What did that mean to you?

It’s been overwhelming for a lot of reasons. You spend a decade in any industry and you think you do a good job and your clients are happy. But to have people I haven’t worked with for years, people who were other trainers that I worked with back at the beginning of my time in the fitness industry coming out of the woodwork, has been incredibly positive. But honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming.

Q: America’s Favorite Trainer was a voting initiative, and you received the support of so many people. So many left comments. A couple that stood out to me:

It would be hard to summarize the broad range of interests and expertise that Darlene embodies, but she draws on it all in personal coaching and wellness appointments. I’ve never worked with such a deep thinking and innovative coach and trainer. Wish all were like her!

Darlene is a unique trainer. She goes much deeper than physical fitness or how you look but she is vitally interested in how you feel–who do you want to be and who you are. This is a special type of person!

So many people left comments talking about the impact you’ve made on them as a personal trainer and talking about your impact as a life coach. These are people who you’ve worked with at non-profits and listeners of your podcast. What do you think that’s drawing so many different kinds of folks?

I would like to think that it’s a combination of the quality of content and the earnestness that I put out into the world. I try to be really transparent and open with who I am and what I’m about.

But what I really think it is the message. It’s the idea that taking good care of ourselves, our wellness, and our well-being as a foundation goes so far beyond what we’re typically taught by the fitness industry. Wellness is about so much more than looking good in your underwear. Rather, it’s about longevity, and relationships, and happiness, and the power of movement, and nutrition, and good sleep. All these things are needed to build the foundation of a rich, meaningful life. I feel honored to get to be the vehicle for that message.

Q: Absolutely! So shifting gears – you grew up in a small town: Valley Falls, NY. Tell me about the first time you remember loving movement?

So I just moved back to my hometown, actually. About a week after I moved home, one of my favorite teachers in high school, who was also the running coach, came by. I was in the yard working and her car came to a screeching halt on the street out front. She jumped out and gave me a hug!

I’ve been reflecting since then and recalled that one of the first times I remember loving running, specifically, was a time when I was in seventh grade.

I had decided to join the cross country team because my brother did it. And this coach took me for runs. That was probably the first time I realized I loved movement. She taught me how to pace myself because I always ran way too fast in the beginning. So I remember loving running, but I grew up with a really vibrant, physical family culture. We were always playing outside. I grew up with two older brothers so we were always rough-housing.

For me, there never was a time that I didn’t have movement growing up. I also played basketball from the time I was in about fourth grade. Movement has always played a role in my life. Then over time, the evolution of learning about how to structure movement as part of a lifestyle was its own kind of separate journey.

Q: In college, you went to study Theater at the University of Albany. What did you aspire to be?

First, you need to understand that I am 6 feet tall but I thought I was going to be Christine Daaé on Broadway. Because even though I’m very tall, I’m an E over C soprano. I was a really high soprano and I thought I was going to be on Broadway. That clearly isn’t what happened. A lot of roadblocks got in the way, which is actually how I became a trainer.

Q: So what is that story? What led you to become a trainer?

I played collegiate rugby at the University of Albany. I was in the second row for three seasons and I took to it like a duck to water. I loved rugby. But I didn’t know at the time that I actually have a genetic disorder that predisposes me to joint dislocation.

So by the time I was in my early twenties, I’d had injuries that most people don’t even get until their sixties or seventies. At 23, I couldn’t walk barefoot, at all. I couldn’t carry anything in my left arm without my shoulder starting to slide out of the socket. And one day I made a comment about getting older to my then-husband. He’s like, you should be fine at 23; you should go to the doctor. That’s when we found out I have this genetic disorder.

The physical therapist I was sent to essentially told me I was never going to run again; I was never going to play sports again. I was told I needed to change my expectations for myself. They said I have this very serious degenerative condition so I was going to be on the couch.

I fired her immediately. I went back to my orthopedist and said we have a problem.

That was 14 years ago so you couldn’t just Google it. Thus, I began self-experimenting and trying to figure it out. Well, if I do this, how does my body react? Oh, that was a mistake. Do it this way, instead. With my orthopedist’s guidance and a lot of patience from my partner, we started to figure things out.

But it was that journey that took me five years to go from where I could not walk, had to put on sneakers to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, to be able to run a 5k. When I finished the 5k, I cried. It was this huge journey of being told to give up. But it was my athlete’s mentality that helped me approach it with the perspective of “if the training made me better at basketball, maybe training could make me better at the sport of living.”

And so when I became a trainer, my niche, from the very beginning, was working with people who have either had significant chronic illnesses or they’d had a catastrophic life-altering injury. For the first eight years of my career, while I did other kinds of training, this group was my main focus. And so when somebody came into the gym I was working for, at the time, with a condition the membership advisor couldn’t pronounce, I was the one they called in to talk to them.

Q: Tell me a bit about your trial and error process when you were trying to figure out what worked for you. What was that process like for you and how did you get through it?

Being in the mental health category, even though I’m not a clinician, I know a lot about the intimate connection between the body and our mental health. That period in my life came with some pretty significant depression, anxiety, and a lot of fear about what my future was going to include.

The clearest example of that kind of experimentation was when my physician really wanted me to be getting more cardiovascular exercise. He was concerned about how sedentary I’d become because I had to have a couple of surgeries.

At first, we thought I could use a stationary bike. But when I got on the upright bicycle, the musculature in my hips was so deteriorated and misaligned, my left hip started to slide out of the socket. I ended up pinching a nerve and then couldn’t walk for a few days. So we realized that was clearly the wrong thing.

Next, we wondered what would happen if I used a recumbent bike since then I wouldn’t be sitting up? That worked! Over time, I was able to build the strength of my hip to be able to use the upright bike. That was essentially the process of doing a little test, seeing if it works. If it doesn’t then re-assessing to see what I needed to do to make it safe or simpler.

This is the same process I used with my clients. We don’t say something is a failure if it doesn’t work, it is just a misstep and we learned something important. Then we try something new with the information we have- which is also the process you use with any science. Right?

Q: Trying to figure out what works for your body can take time. Being in an industry that is so results-oriented, setbacks can be tough because it means you need to wait to find out what will work. Has that been part of your process?

It can be! I think it can be. But when you talk about results, I think it’s really helpful for us as individuals and as fitness professionals to remember that there’s more than one type of result. As fitness professionals, we often focus on the objective outcome, right? We focus on what’s measurable like body fat, weight gain, weight loss, muscle mass, BMI, and body comp. But equally important, or sometimes more important, is the subjective outcome which is how you feel.

Oftentimes, when I’m coaching a client on their well-being, it has way less to do with the number of reps. It is about how they feel about their efforts, themselves, and their emotional landscape. If we only measure the objective results, we’re missing the whole mental, spiritual, and emotional components. Those things make up the human that you’re working with.

For every objective measure I have with a client that they’re focused on, we agree on a subjective outcome that they find equally important. This can be things like how do they want to feel when they wake up in the morning? Or what would it mean to be able to carry their groceries by themselves?

Q: A comment someone left for you said that they experience anxiety, a depressive disorder, and mental health ailments, but the combination of physical exercise and positivity through a psychological lens has helped. And that you should be held in high regard. This obviously leads to your work in positive psychology. Where did the combination of psychology and physical activity start? How did you get there? And what does it mean to incorporate a Master’s degree in psychology into personal fitness?

I was a trainer first; I’ve been in the fitness industry for 10 years. But 3 years ago, I amicably split with the person I’d been with for 15 years. And though it was truly amicable, even when you’re splitting with your partner for reasons that benefit you both, it is still sad and hits you really hard.

And a friend of mine was taking an online course in positive psychology and thought I could use the science of happiness stuff. They were totally right! But while taking the course, I kept thinking that I had so many clients who would also benefit from these lessons.

And so I started, of course, with my “trainer brain” and like any other fitness professional, I wanted to find every bit of information on this new modality. And in this case, that modality was positive psychology. And then one of the books I was reading by Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, talks about the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn. He says that the number one criteria for anyone being accepted into the program are that they believe they have a sense of calling to be there. I got chills in my whole body and I just knew I was supposed to do this. But in my head, I was thinking, “Why would they want me? I’m just a trainer.”

What I didn’t know then but do now is that positive psychology is the applied science of well-being. The applied part means that you want to share that science with practitioners who are from all walks of life so that they can share it with the world.

Positive psychology isn’t about what’s wrong with us. Traditional psychology is about fixing what’s “off” in people. We can address depression and anxiety, we could give you drugs for bipolar disorder but if that only brings you to neutral, well, that’s not flourishing either. This is why my podcast is called “Better than Fine.” You could be fine, but that’s not the same as being really good.

It’s not necessarily a therapist who you would go to when you want to learn how to live a life full of meaning, purpose, vitality, and to really flourish. Positive psychology, I think, is the next big tool for the fitness professional because we’re the ones who are out there trying to help people live their best versions of themselves.

Q: Did you feel unique, or out of place, with your cohort and colleagues at the program at the University of Pennsylvania?

We all did. There is horrible impostor syndrome there. Partly because if you’re in a room full of positive psychology practitioners, you’ve never been in a nicer, happier room. Everyone is so nice, genuinely kind, and wants each other to win. Other than my own immediate family, my positive psychology classmates have been the most active at congratulating me this week (the week of winning America’s favorite Trainer). So yes, I walked in on day one with the story in the back of my head that I was just a trainer, wondering why I was there. And maybe on day two, I went to one of the assistant instructors and said I thought I had made a mistake in being there.

Everyone in that room was so exceptional and it’s very easy, at that moment, to tell yourself that you’re not exceptional, when you are. There are a handful of other fitness professionals who have done that program, mostly group fitness instructors, plus a couple of yoga instructors, but I am the only active certified personal trainer. I’m a unicorn! I joke with everyone in positive psychology that we are the unicorn convention because everyone is coming from a very unique lens into positive psychology. Then, they bring it back with them into their own practices.

There are cohorts around corporate productivity, restructuring, meaning, purpose; there is even a cohort for teachers. But there are very few of us on the fitness side. It is a weird thing to be the one certified physical trainer with this degree. But there are a lot of opportunities to bring something desperately needed, I think, into the fitness industry.

Q: You had to go get your Master’s Degree from an Ivy League university to become an expert in Positive Psychology. What can other personal trainers do to learn more about this, themselves?

For someone who’s interested in the surface level, there are a few great online courses. You could take the course “The Science of Happiness” from Yale. The instructor is Laurie Santos. It’s the first one that I took. If you are interested specifically in movement and wellness outside of the aesthetic lens, I’d say read the book “The Joy of Movement” by Kelly McGonigal. I also have some cool projects coming down the line, so you can follow me on Instagram (@Darlene.Coach) and find out what they are in the coming months.

Q: So you signed up to be a trainer on Burnalong a little bit ago. Why did you choose to use Burnalong?

I think it’s a really interesting opportunity for fitness professionals. Having been in the fitness industry for 10 years, I know that the attrition rate for a new personal trainer is that you lose 30% in the first 90 days. So someone finishes their certification, they don’t know how to build a business, they’re struggling to make an income, and they have to go do something else. You lose the next 30% in the first two years. So maybe they get their initial business, but they don’t know how to sustain it. They continue to struggle. And then that last 30%, we kinda hang on for a while, as long as we can.

I think Burnalong provides a real opportunity for fitness professionals to find a new way to generate revenue. Also, I appreciate the scope of impact you can have on the platform.

While my content might be a little bit different, my parameters are the same as other trainers as I genuinely want to help people, I’m looking for a way to do that sustainably, and I desire to help as many people as I possibly can. As a personal trainer, I’m not a group fitness instructor, so I’m used to working one-on-one. As a result, my content is a little bit different, but the opportunity is still there.

You are a mental health expert but a personal trainer, first. You’ve been selected as the first recipient of America’s Favorite Trainer to have a mental health background. What do you think that says?

I think being the first and also coming from a mental health lens this win says that we are looking for something different. As positive as it is to celebrate someone with a great physique, who might have a fantastic genetic gift, or they’ve worked really hard to look a certain way, there is so much more movement and wellness can offer us, as people.

And I think, and hope, that my win says people are ready for something else. They’re ready to learn about the way movement changes the brain, how it boosts your mood, that it makes you more productive, more creative, that it helps you focus when you’re struggling, and that it decreases depression recurrence. You can also use movement as a tool when you’re having an anxiety attack.

There’s all of this great information about what movement can do for your overall wellness and well-being. Movement can impact not just how you look or how you feel in your body, but how you feel in your feelings. And I’m excited to get to share that message because of this opportunity with America’s Favorite Trainer.

Want to Learn More?

Burnalong congratulates Darlene Marshall for her historic win of America’s Favorite Trainer and we thank her for her time to share more of her story with us. To view the full interview, full of additional tips, stories, and highlighting her excellent work with the Travis Manion Foundation, watch it below.

To connect with Coach Darlene, you can follow her on Instagram (@Darlene.Coach) or you can shoot her an email at [email protected] Her website is also www.darlene.coach. You can also find Darlene’s podcast, Better Than Fine, anywhere you can find podcasts or on www.betterthanfinepodcast.com.

To learn about becoming an instructor on Burnalong, introduce yourself to us here.

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