Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is a sought after speaker, author, and thought leader in business development and strategic innovation. She has spent more than two decades helping impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, FIT4MOM and BOSU®. Fable co-founded GroupEx PRO® and is the Director of Content & Production Strategy for Intelivideo. She is an Emeritus Board Member and longstanding subject matter expert for ACE. As a certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps health and exercise pros navigate the industry to build scalable and sustainable careers.
Group Fitness Instructors: We See You and You Are Not Alone
As we flip the calendar pages of what seems like an endless year, if you’re like many group fitness instructors, you may find yourself reminiscing about what your life was like back in March, pre-pandemic. Spring, after all, is a bustling time of year for us: spring break is near, substitution requests flood our inboxes and we’re creating pumped-up playlists for the crowds that reemerge with fervor as temperatures begin to rise. We were looking ahead to summer and considering how we might need to adjust our schedules or switch up our programming. And for most of us, life was pretty good.
And then, just like that, the club went dark, and we were lost.
At first, it may have been a challenge to articulate exactly why this abrupt short-term closing felt so affronting. Certainly, we’d experienced times when we couldn’t teach before, whether due to illness, injury, childbirth or even an unexpected refinishing of the studio floor. But this felt different. As the days and weeks wore on, we were left to think long and hard about what leading participants meant to us. Then we had to determine if there was any way to continue teaching despite the limitations of a constantly changing new normal.
As group fitness instructors, we’ve largely soldiered on because we have to hold it together for our families, friends, other jobs or side hustles. We also had to find ways to work out for ourselves, practice our skills so we wouldn’t lose them, and stay abreast of what was happening in the world, our country, our state, our town, our communities and our gyms and health clubs. We’ve maintained our memberships with various fitness organizations, and stayed active in our industry groups and the networks associated with the clubs where we teach (or once taught). We’ve smiled (even if we didn’t want to), cried (even though we didn’t want anyone to see), laughed (even when we didn’t know why), endlessly pondered our options and commiserated with others. Because of this, and so much more, we offer you this heartfelt love letter.
We See You
We’ve watched, in awe, as you quickly pivoted and tried new things to get people moving. Many of you have mastered new technology, pieced it together and jumped online to provide services for those you once instructed, coached and interacted with in person. Others have created online groups to stay connected to class participants and virtually provide the same kind of motivation and enthusiasm you regularly produce live. You’ve also dedicated yourselves to learning while sidelined, in areas both inside and outside of fitness.
We’ve read your raw and vulnerable posts about job loss, layoffs, uncertainty, grief, sadness and anxiety. You continue to discuss your desire and need to get back to work, simultaneously professing your fears. What does this new world of face masks, cleaning protocols, smaller class sizes and a virus that is not fully understood mean to the work we do? You're wondering what’s next for you, your clubs and your participants. You’re desperate for answers, even though you know there are none. You’re searching for a path forward.
Some gyms are opening. Some are not. Some of us are ready to go back. Some of us are not. Some of us need the money. Some of us do not. Some of us have other ways to deliver our fitness experiences to participants. Some of us do not.
It’s all so much to hold; dealing with all these changes leads to frustration and feelings we can’t share with others in our community, especially our participants. We feel alone.
But You Are Not Alone
It’s not surprising that so many of us are finding it so difficult to emerge from this fog. This is an unprecedented time in history—our history—and this pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, from sending our kids to school to being able to spend time with our closest friends and family. But we're in this together and that is something to be thankful for and hold onto in our moments of uncertainty.
As leaders in our industry, we are committed to inspiring, educating, supporting and uplifting you during these trying times. We are searching for the lessons and offering a hand at your back as we navigate this new normal together.
For a dose of inspiration, we’re sharing some of the stories of your fellow group fitness instructors to illustrate the resiliency of these professionals and to underscore the impact we can have on those around us, even if we can’t do our jobs in the way we used to.
Consider Lisa, a mom of five, who had just begun treatment for breast cancer before the pandemic hit. As the owner of a small fitness studio that moved only a few weeks earlier, Lisa remained focused on providing a community for moms and their children during this time by empowering her team to continue communcating with participants and offering ways for the entire family to stay active.
And then there’s Melissa, a seasoned fitness instructor who experienced a “virtual revelation," which has inspired her to reevaluate her career choices and, in doing so, create an even greater impact on those she serves. She leaned into the idea of creating a virtual studio and, as a result, has made her workouts even more accessible.
Kari is a group fitness manager and a passionate programmer who initially was resistant to offering her services virtually at first. However, she quickly learned what a blessing it could be to both her instructors and members. After trial and error, she has used this medium to connect and build something equal to her in-person program.
Imagine being a brand-new instructor who passed her test just before the pandemic hit. That was Gina’s lot, but she used the downtime to increase her self-confidence, learning to accept herself and realize that she can use her gifts and talents to benefit others now and in the future.
And finally we want to introduce you to Jen, a small studio owner who is dedicated to helping older adults and individuals with Parkinson's disease. A breast cancer survivor, Jen was already dealing with a water-damaged studio just before the lockdowns went into effect. During this time, she was able to shift quickly and offer her participants a source of connection in their time of need. She also found the courage to use her voice online and transition from being a self-proclaimed fitness “lurker” to realizing she, too, had something to say and contribute to the fitness industry.
Consider Your Own Impact
If you’re feeling stuck or discouraged, take a minute to think about the personal actions you’ve made, both big and small, throughout these last few months. Consider the impact you and our fantastic community of health and exercise professionals have had on our communities during what has been, arguably, one of the most challenging periods most of us can remember. If you never considered your work as a group fitness instructor to be all that important or impactful—perhaps you even labeled it a hobby from time to time—now is the time to look in the mirror and realize just how important you are to the health and well-being of the world, whether you teach one class a week or work full-time.
Few things are certain, but this pandemic has unquestionably underscored the importance of maintaining good health. As we emerge from this crisis, there still remains a massive need to get people moving. And you will be a part of the army that makes this happen. Through the classes you teach, you create opportunities for people to enhance their physical and emotional well-being. More than ever, we need your passion to help people of all ages, stages, abilities, wants, needs and socioeconomic backgrounds find an outlet for physical activity.
We have always known the importance of group fitness instructors. You are an incredible combination of educator, performer, connector and cheerleader, all rolled into one. The number of people you get moving daily is unparalleled. You help people find joy in moving their bodies, and when they find joy in movement, they actually do it. And that is what it's all about!
More Valuable Than Ever
You were valuable in the old model, but you are equally, if not more, valuable, in this new reality. The people who attended your classes came back day after day because of how you make them feel and for the connection and the community. They followed you onto small screens because they wanted to continue to experience that connection, even from a distance.
We are confident that there is a path for all of us to be able to continue to inspire and get people moving, although it will probably look a little different than it has in the past. We will get through this and come out stronger on the other side. It’s important that you take the time to advocate for yourself and communicate with those you’ve worked with in the past. Ask about their plans and continue to think about how you want to make an impact, whether in your own community or on a wider scale. Put yourself at the center of your ecosystem.
It's also important to realize that, in these economically uncertain times, a club’s closing or contraction is not representative of your worth. Being furloughed or let go is a financial decision, not a personal one, although it can be hard to see that in the moment. There are and will be other opportunities, although it may require auditioning and building a new group of loyal participants. Just keep in mind that these experiences are unlikely to be like they were before the pandemic. We’re all in the same place—starting over, starting fresh and with new perspectives.
And because our work has never been more critical, we must remain steadfast in our approach. Yes, exercise programming and sequencing is important. Yes, the sets and reps make a difference. But the number-one thing we provide is the magic that happens when someone finds the right space, place, format and group fitness instructor that makes them want to move and keep moving. Do not lose sight of this.
We are here for you. We love that you are there for each other. There has been more community, conversation and camaraderie in the past five months in the group fitness community than we've ever seen. We can only hope that the positive side-effect of this extended pause is learning that we are all in this together.
So, team up with other health and exercise professionals. Learn more about the industry and identify skills you may need to brush up on to keep moving forward in this new normal. Explore your options and think both inside and outside of the (big) box. And more than anything else, do not give up. It may take some time, but we will all work again.
I hope we can continue with this approach in the near-term and well into the future. Rather than debating which format is the best or which method to teaching garners the best results, I am more hopeful than ever that we can lead the fitness industry through this time with smiles on our faces and 8-counts in our hearts.
As the renowned author Maya Angelou so famously wrote, “Together, we rise…”
Expert Insights on How to Deliver an Online Exercise Session
In this unprecedented time of work and social disruption, you may have considered turning to virtual settings to provide exercise and coaching guidance to your participants and clients. Others of you have already made the transition, navigating your way through the process of learning how to deliver engaging workouts. It can be a challenge to know where to start or, if you've started, to know if you are being effective. In the webinar below, ACE’s panel of online-exercise experts offer their best practices and tips for creating an engaging virtual workout that leaves participants and clients wanting more. A summary of their discussion appears below, or you can watch the full webinar here:
Connect with Your Participants
As families continue to find themselves spending most of their time at home, you may be the only person your participants get to connect with during the day. Use your virtual exercise classes to provide your participants with a great workout and social connection. Here are some tips to get started:
- ACKNOWLEDGE THE TIMES: This is an unprecedented period where participants who used to respond right away may now be taking time to figure out their new normal. Shana Verstegen, fitness expert, recommends not being too pushy on sales; instead, check-in with participants, share what you are offering, share options for participants and allow them the space to identify what works best for them. As participants engage in your virtual classes, stay flexible and play with new variables that were not present at in-person classes. For example, Michael Piercy of The LAB shared that he has complimented his participants' decor or invited their children to join the workout as appropriate. Also, don’t feel like you need to jump into the workout right away; take a moment to connect with your participants. Finally, check-in on participants' goals, which may have shifted since COVID-19 began.
- SOCIAL INTERACTION AND ENCOURAGEMENT: Provide space in your exercise classes for social interaction and encouragement. This may mean letting participants chat with each other before the workout starts; creating friendly competitions; and asking participants to count off. In addition, don’t assume participants will feel a connection just because they attend the class. Anthony Wall of ACE compares this experience to attending a party but not talking to anyone; many people were at the party, but you may not have felt a connection with anyone. To maintain a sense of connection, use participants’ names to cheer on or help them with their form (e.g., “Great push-up, Lindsey!”). Overall, let participants embrace the experience.
- CUES: You may need to modify the cues you use during in-person classes to best support your participants in a virtual session. Use visual cues such as demonstrating a movement if your participants will be able to clearly see you on their screens. In addition, Wall strongly recommends using visualization cues to help enhance the experience (e.g., “Imagine stepping over a tree stump”), and Verstegen suggests using positive cues. This means staying away from negative statements like, “Don’t bend your knee too much,” and instead offering cues such as, “Think about keeping your knees aligned over your toes.” In this way, cues will help you facilitate proper form while simultaneously connecting with your participants.
Bring Your A-Game
All panelists recommended coming to your virtual classes prepared and committed to keeping participants engaged and excited for future workouts. Consider the following when preparing for your virtual classes:
- EQUIPMENT: What equipment and space will your participants have access to during the online exercise session? Use this information to design your class. If your participants don't have a specific piece of equipment, modify the class so it includes existing equipment or does not require equipment. It’s also important to determine the amount of space your participants have available to safely exercise. Temporarily moving furniture or pulling a car out of a garage may provide increased space so participants can safely perform the full range of exercises in your class.
- VIDEO PLATFORM: Which video platform will you use? What settings will you need to be familiar with? It’s important to identify and test the video platform you will be using prior to the session and understand which settings you’ll use during exercises and where to update your program to ensure a great client experience. For example, to prevent the main video image from switching to the individual talking the loudest, put your group participants on mute during workout instructions. In addition, Verstegen recommends testing your online class with friends and colleagues first so you are not troubleshooting during your participants' time.
- VIRTUAL VISABILITY: How will you and your participants see the session? Consider how you will be filming and monitoring your session. Michael Piercy, owner and founder of The LAB, recommends using a laptop or tablet, whose larger screens allow you to see your participants better. It’s also important to understand where your camera is and what it can view. For instance, if your camera will not capture ground-based exercises without a camera adjustment, consider removing ground exercises from the workout. In addition, you may need to start off by demonstrating a move then getting closer to your screen to watch your participants’ form. Similarly, determine what devices participants will use to view the workout. Participants on a phone may have a harder time seeing visual demonstrations due to a small screen.
- PROGRAM DESIGN: Can an in-person exercise class be adapted for online classes? Yes, the panelists agree, with modifications. For example, creating a multiple-station circuit may not be possible due to space, plus your participants' attention span may be different without you physically present. A class composed of simplified choreography or short sets may be better suited to keep your participants engaged. Piercy also recommends to always consider the participants' experience; change the class design to maintain client motivation.
Take Advantage of New Opportunities
During this unique time, new opportunities may be present to support your clients, expand your clientele, and enhance your expertise. For instance, the following opportunities may be available for your:
- FOR CURRENT PARTICIPANTS: Take advantage of this time to go back to the basics and refocus on fundamental movements with your participants. This is particularly attractive if your participants have limited equipment available. With improved technique, your participants will be in a better position and ready to return to your in-person classes
- FOR NEW PARTICIPANTS: This is the perfect environment to engage individuals who were interested in your in-person classes but never showed up. For example, Piercy shares a story of a participant who always tried to get her husband to join her in-person workouts. Then, at a recent virtual session, Piercy and the participant were able to encourage the husband to join in for a few minutes. Perhaps some potential customers never came in due to time or travel; this is a great time to explore what you have to offer online.
- FOR YOUR BUSINESS: Use this time to enhance your expertise through professional development and show off your personality and dedication to your work and the success of your participants. Piercy strongly encourages virtual instructors to play to their strengths as individuals who connect with their participants. Unlike highly produced, pre-programed exercise recordings, you have an opportunity to personalize your classes, connect with participants and motivate them to keep going so they can reach their goals; recordings don’t and can’t provide this. But you can— shine!
- ACE’s COVID-19 Webpage- Find additional ACE-specific COVID-19 content here, including special equipment discounts to share with participants for virtual classes.
- Legal and Insurance Issues in the Time of COVID-19 – Review liability and insurance considerations for exercise professionals and health coaches providing virtual sessions.
- ACE Online Courses – Use this time to enhance your skills and expertise with online ACE education opportunities.