Once again, after months of anticipation, we are proud to present to you Canada’s Top Fitness Instructors 2023.
This is our sixth year recognizing some of the best in our industry from across Canada. Each summer nominations go live for you to nominate your favourite personal trainer, or group exercise instructor (alternating years) who has excelled in their profession, and contributed to the health and well-being of others. This year did not disappoint—every single nominee deserves recognition and we have highlighted them all below.
Nominees were scored by merit and equally across the board. This included areas such as education, certiﬁcations and accreditations, years in the industry, philanthropy and community service. Additional questions included ‘their why’ and personal ﬁtness philosophies which were ‘blind-scored’ by our professional, expert panelists who spent many hours reading these inspirational stories. What has never been part of the scoring criteria is how many social media followers one has, or how many nominations one received.
Fitness instructors have a wealth of education and expertise to share, but above all they are genuinely passionate about helping others live their healthiest lives. Every instructor has an inspiring story to tell, and has given back to their community in a unique and positive way.
Congratulations, our deepest respect and recognition goes out to all nominees this year—we celebrate you! Thank you for your passion and dedication.
Heather Gardner | 41
Growing up in an active family, Heather Gardner has long known the benefits of movement. But she soon found out that not everyone felt the same way. “For me to be able to help others find that joy in movement, to feel welcome in our community,” she says, “And to know they have an emotionally safe place to move and grow has been most rewarding in my career in fitness.”
“Whether it is helping people take their first steps as a runner, push a higher watt during a training ride, or find a love of their own bodies flow and grace in yoga, being able to support my clients’ goals and subsequent love of movement is gratifying.”
Jessica Hastings-Lesperance | 36
A busy mom of three kids, Jessica Hastings-Lesperance is an advocate for mental health. She was managing four businesses and had a newborn baby when she lost her father suddenly. “It was chaos, and fitness is what kept me strong,” she says. “Teaching kept me focused on learning anything and everything I could to manage my anxiety, my son’s, and manage grief as a family.”
“There is a need for mental health awareness, and I know my impact from my experiences is helping a lot of people. This is why I became a fitness instructor, to teach others through my experiences and inspire them to be the best they can be.”
Lori Kirwan | 53
Lori Kirwan has her PhD in exercise physiology and has been teaching group fitness for over three decades. But when the pandemic forced fitness businesses to close, she had to learn a new set of skills: virtual instruction. “I feel that I grew as an instructor and became such a better teacher through this very negative occurrence of the pandemic,” she says.
“I believe that exercise is the solution to almost all health issues that exist. …I believe that fitness classes offer the added opportunity to provide a social setting and enable people to connect and interact together which adds a whole level of social belonging and community. I believe that we are stronger together than we are alone and believe in the power of group dynamics.”
Shakera Martin | 35
Founder & Group Fitness Instructor at Carnival Spice virtual and in-person clients, Guest Instructor at Humber College, Trust 15 in the Toronto District School Board, Habitual Fitness and Elle Fitness & Social, Toronto, ON
Instagram - Facebook
Shakera Martin became a fitness instructor to be the person for others that she needed along her own journey. “Fitness is a right that I believe everyone should experience regardless of their circumstance,” she says. “Unfortunately, most of the spaces I attempted to train in did not make me feel comfortable or welcome. I eventually drifted away from gyms and leaned on dance as my source of physical activity.” Martin became a professional dancer, and loved performing for others.
“I was often asked to teach classes until I eventually did. This allowed me to create beautiful spaces where folks of all colours and creeds could come together, cultivate joy, and feel comfortable in their different bodies.”
Gareth Nock | 41
Gareth Nock has taught fitness classes far and wide, from Canada to Australia, but he had to develop a completely new set of skills when he started teaching online. “The responsibility for the energy in an online class falls a lot more heavily on the instructor, as you cannot feed off the energy in the room as much,” he says. “Another major difference is the coaching language you use. It is a whole different ball game helping people move better through a screen. Your descriptive coaching really has to be dialed up.”
“Learn how to do an exercise, learn why you are doing it and learn how to improve it! It builds an appreciation and understanding of movement and promotes longevity.”
Kaye Peñaflor | 44
Kaye Peñaflor’s journey as a fitness instructor began when she took a hot yoga class with a group of friends. Soon, it became a regular activity in her life. “Having struggled with my mental health since high school, yoga opened the door to mindfulness and a connection back to my body,” she says. “The desire to become a yoga teacher came because I wanted to dive deeper into my own personal practice. What I learned about myself ignited a passion to share with others how the practice of yoga could benefit their lives too.”
“For over a decade, and with my background in events, hospitality and entertainment, I have been able to create programs, workshops, events, and classes to help my students build a stronger, healthier relationship with themselves.”
Erin Phelan | 50
When lockdown began in March 2020, Erin Phelan pivoted immediately to virtual, offering free daily classes for six months. “I knew we would need exercise for our mental health more than anything else,” she says. Erin launched her business, the FITFAM, in September 2021, and has never looked back. She provides daily inspiration and amazing workouts to her members, delivering a daily dose of medicine.
“I grew up on grapevines, hi/low and step, and fell in love with Jane Fonda, leg lifts and the way exercise made me feel. … When I realized you could teach fitness, I signed up right away and got my YMCA instructor training in 1992—and I have never looked back.”
Dana Rocket | 48
Dana Rocket was 19 years old when her father suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed on his left side. She dedicated her young life to helping him recover. “I started to work with him every day and encouraged him to move his body, challenge his mind and dig deep into his capacity. Through my love and passion for music, fitness, dance and psychology, together we slowly started to put the pieces back together,” she said. “It was this defining moment where I realized how much I have to offer others and that I can make a difference and be an integral part of helping people feel, heal and live real.”
“I’m truly grateful for the opportunity every day, to do what I love.”
MJ Shaw | 44
At 18 years old, MJ Shaw became a fitness instructor through the YMCA to pay her bills during her theatre school undergrad studies. “I’d always loved fitness classes and thought, ‘I can teach aerobics classes!’ It was better than cleaning the Argonauts’ residences, which is what I had been doing. I started with two classes a week and by the time I graduated, I was teaching 12 classes a week.”
“I’ve been teaching dance fitness in the city for years. There is the most beautiful range of folks; some have been dancing for years and others are downright terrified newbies. The honed ability to bring everyone together on the same foot, same beat, and same vibe is pure magic. I feel honoured that this is my life’s work.”
Fyonna Vanderwerf | 52
As a kid, Fyonna Vanderwerf was uncoordinated; she struggled with team sports. “People wrote me off,” she says. “Being written off as someone without merit in their movement ticked me off. Everyone has an ability, and just because you cannot do five pushups, does not mean you cannot find joy and achievement in movement.” Fyonna now has 90 fitness certifications and leads a fitness community in Ontario’s cottage country.
“I remember what it felt like to be laughed at during my first step class and I vowed to never shame someone for not knowing a triple repeater. So I learned how to teach it. … Movement is joy. No one likes to be put in a category and having people come to your class is such a community builder: to give back a fire, a joy, an energy, and a sneaky groove that makes you smile however you do it.”
Read This Story in Our 2023 Inspiration Issue
Read about our 2023 Canada’s Top Fitness Instructors – our top 30 from across Canada! How to Train Smarter in 2023, Yoga Nidra for What Ails You, Racing the World’s Highest Ultramarathon, our favourite plant-based recipes and more!