Navigating the Unknown: Fitness Professionals Innovate to Survive as Their Industry Remains ClosedAug 18, 2020 08:00AM ● By Elyse Wild
Industries across the state are reopening and life is beginning to feel somewhat normal (ish). Mask wearing, however much debated, is becoming second nature as we exchange the minor inconvenience to once again shop retail, eat at our favorite restaurants and get our haircut in a salon by a professional. Walk into any one of these places and you will likely be greeted by a sign explaining how to proceed in your customer experience per new policies and procedures to protect against the spread of COVID-19; the floor will bear social distance markers; the clerk manning the check-out will be guarded by a plexiglass shield; and a jug of hand sanitizer by the door will encourage you to help yourself.
While our community slowly comes back to life, the fitness industry remains shuttered, leaving gym owners and trainers to innovate in order to survive as the pandemic continues.
Sara Grey was a longtime runner when an injury forced her to hang up her running shoes. Without the release of her regular workout routine, her stress-level skyrocketed. Then, she discovered cycling.
“The stress level was so overwhelming ... my husband took me to a cycling class, and I felt like a normal human afterword,” she said. “I had found my thing.”
In January, Grey opened Lunar Cycle Fitness o fill a gap she saw in the local market: a fitness studio entirely dedicated to indoor cycling.
Lunar Cycle offers various high-intensity workouts, all on an indoor bike, driven by motivating music laced with hot beats.
“The response was awesome,” Grey expressed.
Lunar Cycle took off, and for seven weeks the studio welcomed an eager and growing client base. Then, the pandemic hit and businesses across Michigan were ordered to close immediately. At first,Grey anticipated re-opening in a couple of weeks.
“By the end of the second week, I thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go, but all I know is that what matters most is for me to demonstrate to my team and myself that I can be nimble,’” she said. “There is no way I could survive as a business owner if my strategy was to sit on my hands and hope that someone comes and fixes it for me.”
Grey took action. She decided to rent out her bikes to clients, deliver them to their homes and start doing virtual rides; but due to significant technology hurdles, the transition seemed impossible. She describes a moment of feeling utterly defeated.
“I was literally on my knees in the studio. I was whipped out and filled with dread. Our DJ, Tony Bank, came to me and said, “I got you.’ He helped me figure out all of the technology glitches, and then we went virtual.”
“It was one of the most impactful periods of my life,” she said. “It was such a challenge.”
The virtual rides were a success, both for clients and Grey’s staff.
“It allowed my trainers to feel engaged,” she said. “It helped to give them a sense of hope and normalcy and a sense of connection that we were all craving.”
Grey didn’t stop there — Michigan’s soggy spring was quickly turning to a hot summer, and people were longing for any kind of in-person experience. And, while the virtual rides were going well, Grey didn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of security.
“We have no idea how long this is going to go on for,” she said. “We need to stay relevant, we need to find a way to be connected beyond a computer screen.”
With a 24 ft trailer,Grey began transporting bikes to conduct cycling classes in outdoor locations across the city. Five days a week, Lunar Cycle’s loyal riders get their workout in on various bridges across downtown, on GVSU’s downtown campus, in the Studio C piazza and by the Grand Rapid Public Museum.
“I am a different person since we started doing the outdoor rides,” Grey said. “I am not stressed out. It has been fantastic.”
When Grey speaks about her partnerships — with the locations at which the outdoor rides take place, and Sweatnet, a membership-based in-person and virtual fitness platform, which lent her drop sound headphone for the rides — it is with great emotion.
“Without them, I don’t know if we would have made it,” she expressed. “They all showed up for us in a huge way. I can’t express the gratitude I feel to live in a community like this.”
While the outdoor rides have been wildly successful (according to Lunar Cycle’s website, they are booked out through September), Grey notes that there is still no end in sight for those in the fitness industry.
“We have a long way to go,” she said. “I have learned how critical it is that in times of trouble, we show up for each other. It is absolutely critical.”
Valerie James founded VSJ itness to inspire the everyday woman to embrace a healthy lifestyle and commit to physical fitness — whether that means balancing the demands of motherhood, multiple-jobs, and feeling limited by a low-income. Jame’s personal experience with depression and the positive impact of exercise inspired her to start a business that combined both the physical and mental benefits of working out.
Along with her blossoming fitness career, James also worked as a social worker. Before COVID-19, she says she was always on the go, training clients at a studio or in their homes, teaching Zumba classes, hosting various fitness events such as trap yoga.
“I was just going with the flow,” she said. “When the gyms closed, it all halted ... it was scary. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose anymore.”
Like many fitness instructors, James immediately began teaching classes over Facebook Live; but she quickly recognized that due to poor camera quality and copyright issues with music, the platform was less than ideal. She experienced a significant loss of clients as people flocked to free virtual classes.
“ I went through a period where I was asked myself, ‘Am I meant to stop doing this? or do I keep going?’ I cried a lot,” she expressed.
James did keep going. While considering the unique employment and financial situation most people were thrust into, she knew she needed to find a way to stand out. She began offering classes through Zoom, which generated a new client flow and a dedicated following.
“I felt like I had to start all over with branding who I am and what VSJ fitness is,” James said.
Those initial Zoom classes have now blossomed into a fully-fledged virtual gym. For $25 a month, members tune in three times a week for workouts led by James; get monthly challenges and nutrition assistance; unlimited access to video replays; and a private Facebook group in which they offer encouragement, hold each other accountable, celebrate successes and share their stories. While her clients are reaping the benefits, James acknowledges that she is, too.
“Even though we can’t physically be together, this group helps us feel connected,” James said. “It has been a huge positive. While I can be professional, I can also be vulnerable and share myself in this virtual community.”
Because VSJ Fitness was built to help people experience both the physical and mental benefits of exercise, James’ approach to teaching may be particularly beneficial to mitigating the stress of the pandemic.
“I don’t want you to focus on the scales,” she said. “I want you to focus on how you are feeling internally. Let’s say on the first workout, you struggle with doing a push-up, but by week three, you can do five push-ups. That is a win! The other results will come, but you have to focus on that type of progress.”
When asked how her background as a social worker impacts her work as a fitness trainer, her face lights up.
“It’s beautiful,” she smiled. “My initial consultations are 30-minutes and it supposed to be about someone’s fitness experience. It ends up being an hour. I work a lot with women, and sometimes that is their time to pour it all out and vent. I can connect them to other resources they may need to help with body image, relationships, lack of support at home.”
As of this writing, gyms and fitness studios in West Michigan remain closed with no sign from the governor’s office of a reopening in the near future. Many facilities have closed permanently, and the YMCA of
Greater Grand Rapids announced the permanent lay off of more than 1,000 part-time staff members. James and Grey are among those left standing, determined to find solutions.
“I am glad I didn’t allow the negative thoughts to become my reality,” James said. “This was a true test of my resiliency. I am proud of not allowing myself to quit.”
Grey echoes that sentiment.
“I have learned that I am resilient,” she said. “There were moments when I was on my hands and knees, but I got back up, went to work, and we made it happen. When you demonstrate that to yourself over and over again, you over time know that you can weather what is in front of you.”