Jill Miller: When Reps Are a Bad Thing

Why many seasoned instructors and fitness leaders are living in pain, and just now going public about it.

It’s the industry’s biggest dirty little secret: Many of the fit bodies teaching your workout classes as well as celebrated fitness idols are broken from the high intensity and repetitive patterns of training and teaching over the years without taking time for proper conditioning, ample time for recovery and healthy self-care practices. Seasoned instructors are too often living in pain, getting surgery or leaving the business. Despite years of silence on this topic, some in the industry are beginning to speak up about this phenomenon—and it’s finally gaining transparency and becoming a proper, and public, conversation.

One of the voices breaking this silence is Jill Miller, co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model Method®, who announced on her social media channels that she would be needing a total left hip replacement on November 1.

24Life caught up with Miller to ask how her life-long pursuit of fitness and health led her to a hip replacement far earlier in life than most expect, and how fitness professionals—and the rest of us who love to move—can avert physical trauma and ultimately, avoid chronic pain and the need for surgery.

24Life: When did you start working out and how many hours a day or week did you push your body physically?

Jill Miller (JM): The big picture was that I was never “in shape” as a kid, and preferred reading books and playing with dolls. I didn’t enjoy athletics and felt miserable when I ran. I was overweight and always the last chosen for sports.

I first started practicing yoga at age 11 or 12. I was quite “inflexible” at that time, and couldn’t touch my toes. I remember stretching in my bedroom attempting to do the splits and deep forward bends and feeling the misery of those initial stretches in a body that was activity-averse.

But at the end of sixth grade, my mom brought home the Jane Fonda Workout and the Raquel Welch Yoga Video (Beta versions) and we started doing them together. I became obsessed and did them back-to-back every day—and watched my body transform. At the same time, I also became anorexic. I had stopped eating and was obsessed with my weight.

These videos led me to other personal practices: yoga, running and the aerobics craze. I would go running for three miles every morning and then attend evening aerobics classes my senior year of high school. The term “Exercise Bulimia” was not yet in public discourse, but I was, without a doubt, a compulsive exerciser at age 16.

24Life: What led to you needing a hip replacement? What specific moves, training or patterns got you here?

JM: In college I continued to over-exercise every day. I would run or swim and practice yoga in the morning, then took dance classes every day for my major. After college, my personal yoga practice became my refuge as I healed from my eating disorder. I would practice up to two to three hours daily to calm my nervous system. This included lots of asana (yoga poses) as well as meditation. One of my favorite moves was the lateral splits, also called “straddle splits” or sometimes “saddle splits.” Every time I slid to the floor in that pose, my left hip would audibly pop, but it didn’t cause me any pain, so I didn’t think it was an issue. I now know that the straddle splits were likely one of the main culprits in damaging my hip joint by moving it beyond a safe range.

Jill performing the straddle splits in 2006; pose retired in 2008

I maintained my yoga practice throughout my 20s in Los Angeles during the peak of Power Yoga and the ashtanga yoga craze. I was so mobile, I could do any pose the teacher suggested, and would often be used as a “demo” because my body could be folded and molded into virtually any shape. But it was too much stretch and not enough strength or stability … and eventually my connective tissues started to scream.

I remember waking up in the morning at age 26 unable to straighten my knees without searing pain. At the time, I was heavily into ashtanga where we would jump into and out of full lotus position every day. The repetition of that move was over-stretching my knees (and my hips) but I was not listening to their agony. I would brush my teeth, drink some water and then head back to the yoga studio to repeat the damage again.

By age 33, I stopped exercising the way I had been for the prior 20 years, got myself into behavioral therapy and started concentrating on the particulars of my movement, as well as diving into studies of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology. I was tired of living in pain and I needed to reform my approach to living in my body from inside and out. I developed my Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® programs out of my inner quest to heal. I believe that the reason I was stunned by my diagnosis of needing a total hip replacement was that the way I rehabbed my body on a daily basis through my new approach, insulated me from feeling the “ouch” part of my hip pain.

24Life: Why do so many trainers and instructors and fit bodies experience this phenomenon of physical breakdown even though they’re dedicated to health and fitness?

JM: Overuse injuries can come from doing too much. As a coach or instructor, we often need to demonstrate the moves in our classes or for our clients in order for them to learn their routine and move safely. But the repetition of the same moves day in and day out, under stressful conditions (not enough rest, racing to meet family commitments like dropping kids off at school, illness or compassion fatigue) can be the straw that breaks the trainer’s back. I believe that fitness pros are naturally people pleasers and caretakers, and I believe many of us push aside our own needs in order to make our students or clients happy, and we become a casualty of our own best intentions.

24Life: Why haven’t we been talking about this until now? And why do we need to be talking about it?

JM: The dirty little secret in the fitness world is that many of us hide our emotional stresses by using exercise to uplift our spirits. But you cannot out-lift, out-stretch, out-run or out-meditate your own emotional demons. Eventually, the body pays a price for doing too much and not taking enough time to recover, regenerate and renew.

24Life: How can those who love movement and fitness keep themselves from overworking, living in pain and needing surgery?

JM: This is a complicated question for me, because I am a big fan of embodying my body by developing the inner listening skills of proprioception (positional sensing) and interoception (physiological listening). I have developed an acute sixth sense for both of these and yet I was SHOCKED to find out that my hip was destroyed. Unbeknownst to me I was living in chronic pain that I didn’t actually “feel.”

I still think the best practice is to develop these inner listening skills and become educated about anatomy, physiology and pain science. My embodied education helped me to become a healthier mover and make better movement choices. My conscious self-care fitness approach (Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model®) likely prevented me from having acute pain symptoms over the past decade.

Be a friend to your body and treat yourself with respect. Give yourself a wide variety of movement, motion and play within the context of your day. Listen to your emotional triggers as well as pain signals. Value the quality of your sleep. Surround yourself with positive people and nurture your relationships. And if you do find that you have frequently recurring pain, get it assessed with a physical therapist that you trust. You may be able to avoid surgery or minimize surgical interventions by reworking the way you move and live in your body.

For more regeneration tips and practices, check out Jill’s column for 24Life.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jill Miller