My Journey from a Personal Trainer to a Fitness Minister
I remember when I was a teenager and someone had asked me if I was going to be a pastor like my dad. I recall looking at that particular guy like he had a third eye. I politely responded no, but in my mind I was thinking that there was no way I would every pursue ministry. In fact, the last place I wanted to be on that Sunday morning was church. It was always a check the box kind of experience for me. I would have much rather been outside doing my thing. Playing sports or something at least a little more fun than being preached at.
In fact, my teenage years were marked by rebellion. A little too much drinking and looking for external validation from the girls. Thank goodness my passion for sports kept me from getting into too much trouble. But being a minister? All I could think of was hell no. I was going to be a professional football player for the Minnesota Vikings. That dream was as clear as could be.
But God had a different plan for my life. We all have defining moments in our lives. I just didn’t know it was going to happen on a Saturday afternoon in October of 1986 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. That was the day the world came crashing in on me. That was the day my knee and my life would never be the same. My knee went in a direction it wasn’t supposed and my life followed in a direction it wasn’t supposed to either.
Pursuing my Dream of Playing in the NFL
I was a sophomore at the University of North Dakota pursuing my dream of being a professional football player. When you grow up in North Dakota the two best options of playing college football were the University of North Dakota or North Dakota State University. My path lead me to play at UND. It was a dream come true to play at the college level. I was only one step away of having my dream realized.
I wasn’t the greatest athlete in the world, but I knew I could out work anyone. I was fast and determined. One piece of feedback I always got from my coaches was that I was very coachable. If my coaches told me to do something, I would do it and a little bit more. That’s how I was wired.
After a disappointing freshman season in college, I was determined to get bigger, faster and stronger. I worked the hardest I could possibly work during the summer to get ready for my second year of college ball. The high heat and humidity of a North Dakota summer didn’t keep me from running sprints mid-afternoon in the solitude of determined greatness.
When we started two a day practice my coaches were blown away by how fit I was. I led all of the sprints. I showed them I was ready to be a leader and be the best defensive player on the team.
Life Can Change in an Instant
At the time of the fateful play that destroyed my knee and my identity, I was the leading tackler on the team. It’s amazing how life can change in an instant. My pre-determined life path of playing professional football was literally derailed in a fraction of a second. I went from having a dream of playing professional football, to just hoping to walk normally again.
With my foot planted firmly on the artificial turf of the University of North Dakota playing field all I remember was a 290 pound offensive lineman fell directly on the lateral side of my knee and my lower leg going in the opposite direction that it was designed to go. I knew the instant it happened my career was over. The pain was so immense I went into shock.
I was carted off of the field and into the locker room where my mom and dad met me. I was sobbing and telling my parents “it’s over.” I am done with football. I remember my mom saying I am so glad it’s not your neck. You are going to be ok.
I had surgery a few days later. After the surgery I was told by the orthopedic surgeon that it was the worst knee injury he had ever seen. I figured if I was going to do something I might as well do it right. It turns out I tore my anterior, posterior and medial cruciate ligaments otherwise known as the terrible triad. And man was it terrible.
Back in those days the incisions were long. I have scars on both sides of my knee that add up to over a foot of scars. I have a screw that to this day you can visibly see and feel holding my knee together. I have forty staple marks on my knee and the muscle that makes up my quadriceps known as the vastus medialis is non-existent. I am limited in my range of motion where I can bend it only slightly past 90 degrees and I am missing about 15 degrees of full extension.
Those are the physical scars, but what really made my life go wheels off at that time were the emotional scars. That’s the hardest part because people don’t see what is going on deep inside our souls.
As a kid growing up my identity was wrapped up in being an athlete. I was the star on the baseball team, basketball team, baseball team and yes the football team. We won the state football championship my senior year at Bismarck High School. I made the interception that spring boarded us to an amazing win. I will never forget that day and that feeling. There was nothing better than being part of a team of guys all battling for a victory.
After I blew out my knee, I was completely lost. I lost my battle mates. I lost my identity as Troy the star football player. I had nothing else. Everything was taken away from me. I fell in a deep pit of loneliness. I was isolated from the team. I was in a cast for two months. I remember when they took my cast off I didn’t even recognize my leg. It was a shriveled up piece of meat with staples sticking out everywhere. I remember breaking down and crying.
I missed about a month of school. I didn’t want to drop out or delay my education. I dug down deep and found a way to get back to class. I got a handicap sticker for my car. Driving to class was an adventure. I would drive to class with my casted leg up on the seat while driving with my left foot. I had to get real creative, but I was determined not to quit. Fortunately, I was a good student and was able to keep pursuing my degree.
While all of this was happening, I started spending more and more time lifting weights by myself as part of my rehab. It was just me and the iron. I was no longer part of the team. I tried coaching for a while, but it was just too hard. I didn’t want to be around it if I couldn’t play. To this day it’s hard for me to watch football. I would rather watch golf as watching football brings up so many memories for me. Some good, but many of them bring back hurt and heart break.
Intense Passion for Health and Fitness
As I was spending more and more time in the weight room I was feeling my depression being lifted. I was finding something I could replace my identity as a football player with. My identity was slowly transitioning to Troy the bodybuilder. As is my pattern I went all in. I started lifting weights religiously. I started taking nutrition and exercise physiology classes in college. I had already declared psychology as my major, but I started to develop this intense passion for health and fitness. It started to fill the deep, dark hole from football. I was finding a new identity.
I got a job at a local gym. I started to hang out with bodybuilders. I started to learn what I could do with my body through weight lifting. I became obsessed. One thing I want to make clear. I have NEVER done steroids or any illegal substance for that matter. I don’t believe in them. To this day because of my physique at the age of 52 people have questioned if I take steroids or human growth hormone. To me that never did make sense. That was cheating. I believe in a good old fashioned work ethic. Yes, looking great at that time was really important to me, but never at the sacrifice of screwing up my body for life.
I became so passionate about health and fitness I decided to go on and get my Master’s degree in Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Utah graduating in 1993. That has taken me on a path of being in the health and fitness industry both full time and part time for over twenty-five years. I took a detour for seventeen years of being in pharmaceutical sales, but had always been at least a part time personal trainer.
I am Changing
I have always loved helping people reach their health and fitness goals. Whether it was helping an elite athlete get bigger, faster and stronger or a general fitness client to lose weight. I found deep satisfaction in helping people reach their goals. I love to geek out on nutrition and exercise physiology. I am always learning and wanting to get better at my craft. I will always be passionate about health and fitness. That will never change. But something is changing. I am changing.
About ten years ago I gave my life to Christ. I went through a devastating divorce about ten years ago. I was crushed and heart broken. I lost the single most important thing in my life, my family. I was lost, broken and desperate. It was at that time I realized that no matter how physically fit I was, I wasn’t going to be able to move forward without some type of spiritual guidance in my life.
In my moments of darkness I would pick up the Bible and start to read it. I had really no idea at the time what it meant, but it gave me some sense of peace. It gave me some sense of hope. I would find myself reading and praying for hours.
God started to bring people in to my life that spoke words of encouragement into me. I started going to church for the first time in years and I began to realize church was so much more than a check the box experience. It was about developing a personal relationship with God. It wasn’t about image or performance as I was led to believe. For the first time in my life I actually belonged to a church family.
Once God got a hold of my heart I knew there was no turning back. I wanted to learn and grow as much as possible. That’s when I knew that God was calling me to more. That’s when I knew that I was called to start to integrate my passion for fitness with my growing passion for my faith.
That’s when God put this vision on my heart to start the Divine Wellness Academy. This is a ten week course that helps people understand the connection between their physical and spiritual health. So many people struggle with their health and try to make lasting lifestyle changes, but are challenged to overcome self-limiting beliefs that keep them from truly stepping into the life that God created them to live.
The vision that God put on my heart is to turn the fitness industry upside down. I want to do for health and fitness what Dave Ramsey has done for finances. When it comes down to it, until we see ourselves the way God sees us, we are always going to struggle to change. We are always go to struggle to live our best life. We won’t feel worthy and will have self-doubt expressed through every fiber of our being. Therefore we will live a safe life not willing to take a chance on ourselves.
Called to be Revolutionary
As I look back at my life, I have struggled with self-doubt for years. I think if we are honest most of us have. As God has put this vision on my heart there are many days I feel overwhelmed by what I am asked to do. To not only have an impact in this world that is desperately in need of better physical health, but to truly share the love of Jesus with everyone I meet. I am being called to help churches do fitness and gyms do ministry. To be a leader in this area. To be revolutionary.
I have always thought of myself as a personal trainer and to think of myself as a minister has really freaked me out. As I shared earlier, I have never thought of myself as being a pastor. It’s the last thing in the world I ever thought would be part of my life. I have put up resistance to this in my life even to the point of having health issues do to my body resisting this calling. It’s so much easier and safer to call myself a personal trainer. But I know I am so much more than a personal trainer. I am a healer. I heal peoples’ souls. I just use fitness as a platform.
Ministers are Servants
I was curious about what the actual definition of a minister is so I looked it up. This is what it says on gotquestions.org about what is a Christian minister? “A minister is, literally, a servant. In the Bible, the role of the minister is not linked to licensing or being an official wielding some kind of authority. In Romans 5:16, Paul says that he was called to be a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. (God) gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Following in Paul’s footsteps, any person who desires to serve God by “proclaiming the gospel so that…others might become sanctified by the Holy Spirit” is a Christian minister. Broadly speaking, being a servant of Christ makes one a Christian minister.
So there you have it. As Christians we are all called to be ministers. To be servants. To show people the love of Jesus. So why have I and so many other Christians been resistant to being ministers. For me personally, I haven’t fully stepped into my calling yet. I gave my life to Christ ten years ago and it has been a slow process and often times painful process of seeing myself the way God sees me. I have lived a smaller life because of believing the seeds of self-doubt that have been planted in my mind.
This is the area of my life that I am working really hard on as we speak. The life I live will only be as powerful and impactful as the way I see myself. If I don’t see myself as worthy I won’t live a life that is worthy.
If I don’t see myself as a minister that can change the world, than I won’t change the world. If I don’t see myself as a servant, than I will continue to put my own needs before others.
See Ourselves the Way God Sees Us
So how do we start to see ourselves the way God sees us? I believe it starts by not only reading the Bible, but believing what the Bible says about us. How come it is so much easier to believe the lies of the enemy instead of the truth of God? It’s a daily battle for sure.
I have also been spending a lot of time meditating. When I do this consistently in my life I always have a deeper sense of inner peace. For whatever reason I let life get in the way of this life changing habit and stop doing it from time to time. It’s amazing how just ten minutes a day of meditation can make a huge difference.
Surround Ourselves with other Godly People
We also need to surround ourselves with other godly people that will speak the truth into us and encourage us. Just in the last few days I have had two people speak words of love and encouragement into me. They see more of the minister in me than I do. I have to hear and receive those words and most importantly believe the words they are speaking into my life.
Personal Trainer Mindset to Fitness Minister Mindset
Any time we are making major changes in our lives there is going to be resistance. Going from a personal trainer mindset to a fitness minister mindset is a major change and one that I have been transitioning to for some time now. I am starting to change the way I see myself. I am starting to step into the work that God is calling me to do. I am a fitness minister who just happens to know a lot about personal training.
I am here as a servant of Christ. As believers, we are all ministers. When we all step into that role is when we will collectively change the world. We are all on a journey. Spiritual growth is always an ongoing process. We are all works in progress. It’s amazing to look back on that day that happened many years ago when that man asked me if I was going to be a pastor like my dad. I am proud to say yes. I am now a minister like my dad. I know my dad would be very proud.
Troy Ismir, MS
Author, Podcaster, Speaker and Spiritual Warrior Coach