The New Year typically prompts many of us to think about health and fitness and losing weight, but for gym owners this is not your typical January. Lauren Harte talks to three fitness instructors about keeping people on track with their exercise goals.
Jenna Turkington, who owns JW Fitness in Gilford, Co Down, has, like many businesses, had to diversify as the Covid-19 crisis continues. With gyms now closed again, at what should be their busiest time of the year, Jenna (30) is back online, hosting five fitness classes a day via Zoom.
The Tandragee native introduced 30-minute “lifestyle chat shows” during the first lockdown, allowing her members and newcomers to discuss the struggles of living in self-isolation and keep spirits high.
In a further effort to help people’s mental health, Jenna, along with JW Fitness’s Alex Costa, also conducted personal check-ins with members through 30-minute phone calls to make sure everyone is on track.
Now, instead of welcoming new members through the gym doors this January, her focus is keeping those still on board on their feet.
“Like everyone in this industry, we’re back online doing our PT sessions and classes after a few weeks of being open just before Christmas and we currently have 30 classes running across the week,” says Jenna.
“We’re running the classes from an empty gym. It’s so surreal to be going in at the start of the new year and seeing no one else in the place and not having the chance to meet all the new people we would typically have wanting to join.
“All our equipment is gone, too, because it’s all being given out to our members to use online. For them, it’s not really what they originally signed up for and like all of us they want to be in a physical place to work out with others.
“It’s tough, but we don’t want to be trying to attract new members, as we normally would at this time of year, when we’re not able to offer them our typical service. For now, we’re just trying to keep the members we do have happy and make sure they can get the most out of the lockdown.
“Perhaps I was naive, but after the first lockdown, I didn’t think this is how we would be starting 2021. It was great to get back to some form of normality over the summer and see people again, but here we are now, back to square one.”
But as Jenna explains, keeping track of everyone on the books without that physical interaction has its own challenges.
“We can see people tapering off a bit and we try to get in touch with them to see if there’s anything else we can do to help them. We’ve set some January challenges from next week, where people have to complete a certain number of sessions each week and track their nutrition and sleep just to try and keep them more focused after Christmas.
“It’s also hard for us, as trainers, to get back into it all again, too, as we’re not always motivated, but you have to just get moving again. You can feel a bit deflated at times, but you just have to keep going and put the focus into the members and ensuring that they’re being looked after.”
Co Fermanagh couple Dylan and Hannah Quinn, of Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre (DQDT), have also been bringing normality to these abnormal times by switching their weekly dance classes online.
For over 10 years, DQDT has been delivering Zumba and Strong dance classes to thousands of people of all ages from their small Enniskillen base.
At this time of year, Dylan (46) and his wife Hannah (51) would normally be travelling the length and breadth of the county and as far as south Donegal for classes.
“In an ideal world, we would have already started our classes for the year and done a few in between Christmas and New Year, too,” says Dylan. “We didn’t do that this year and we’ve pushed the 2021 classes back by a week.
“The uptake is definitely much slower than it would normally be and that, I think, is because people are finding it more of a challenge this January because of the new lockdown.
"It's much more emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting this time around and people are struggling to find that energy, but I believe we'll get there as time moves on. Myself and Hannah aren't going to put ourselves, or anyone else, under pressure to get going this year. But we will be setting sessions that have a goal at the end of them as an incentive."
While Dylan can foresee the need to continue having some sort of a digital presence when in-person classes are allowed to return, he realises it's not for everyone and has had to contend with dwindling numbers.
"Some people have tried to keep going with the dance classes digitally, but it just didn't work for them.
"We had one woman who came to our Friday class every week for 10 years who really misses it and she will be straight back into the live classes once we get the green light.
"We had nearly 100 people logging on for the first lockdown sessions and then you could soon see the numbers starting to drop off to 80, then 60, 50 and then hovering in around the teens to upper twenties, which is where we've been in last few months. We have our staple lot, but keeping most people engaged and motivated has been really hard."
Just a few days into the New Year, Kirk Long, who runs Burn More 24 exercise classes in Belfast, has already seen a 90% drop in new memberships compared to this time last year.
"January and February are always our busiest times of the year, with the whole 'New Year, new me' concept. Online classes are all any of us can offer at the moment and it's definitely putting people off," Kirk says.
"Now, I have three or four new people starting online this year and normally you would have those sort of numbers every week. I hope we'll have what should be our normal January further down the line when this is all over."
Almost three years ago, Kirk's 24-minute "HIIT"-style exercise classes were being held in a car park before eventually expanding across three different venues. With the addition of bootcamps, more classes and a Burn More PT Studio, he would regularly see between 120 and 150 people coming through the doors each week.
Just two weeks before the first lockdown last March, Kirk (39) had opened his brand new gym and, when that quickly had to close, he had no option but to get to grips with technology.
"I'm not technical at all and the first few days involved a lot of shouting down the screen at family members, trying to work it all out," he says. "We can all laugh about it now, because it's become the new normal, but it's never the same as face-to-face."
He's now back to hosting five classes a week online for around 50 members, as has been the case over recent months.
"I've still tried to keep the community aspect of the classes going throughout, even though we're not meeting in person. Luckily, I have so many loyal members who have stuck with it over the past few months, but I know it's not the option they prefer."
Kirk acknowledges that it's much harder to keep people on track and motivated when they're at home. "If they're waiting for the classes to start and get stuck into watching something on TV, then sometimes they can't be bothered to log on. I'll always make a point of contacting everyone on my list to find out why they weren't there.
"For me, this is not just a job. I genuinely love to help people hit their goals, watch their progress, correct technique, assess their injuries and generally feel better about themselves. This is why I hope Burn More is different than other online fitness classes.
"Some who do the class have said I'm more of a life coach and not just all about training, as I cover everything with them. That's always really nice to hear."
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