Wacky costumes and competitions: Fitness instructors create community despite covid

Fitness classes feel, sound and look different these days: beer bottles as weights, toddlers and dogs greeting us in downward dog, garages as gyms. But Brown and fitness instructors nationwide are focused on maintaining a sense of community among members of clubs, gyms and studios that have been closed since mid-March. Recreating that vibe without a roomful of sweaty acolytes has required a bigger lift creatively, emotionally and physically.

“After the first couple of weeks of transitioning my entire business online, I was sleep deprived and down in the dumps,” said Brown, co-owner of Mind the Mat, a Pilates and yoga studio in Alexandria, Va. (disclosure: I’m a member). “I was trying to be this super-serious fitness instructor on camera, and it was not working.”

On the Friday before Easter, after Brown had been “bawling and bawling,” inspiration struck, and she decided to show up to Saturday’s class as the Easter Bey (short for Beyoncé), dressed in a black, one-shouldered “Single Ladies”-inspired leotard and bunny ears. Every Saturday since, Brown has dug deep into her closet and our collective pop culture archive to squat and plank as Prince, a Bret Micheals-Axl Rose hybrid, all three Beastie Boys, George Michael and Sandy from “Grease.” And her students have joined in.

“It’s been almost medicinal, reading the comments, knowing you’re all out there dressed up and singing along,” Brown said, noting that the class has participants from as far away as Pakistan. “I do miss the party, the feeling in that room when we’re all together, but we’ve been able to make that party bigger and invite a lot more people.”

For fitness buffs who are still staying home as much as possible, online classes or activities can fill a social as well as physical void, industry experts say. “Small studios know they have a tribe,” says Stephen Tharrett, co-founder of ClubIntel, a fitness industry research and consulting firm that surveyed clubs in April about their coronavirus adaptations. The trick, he added, is keeping them engaged online.

 “These instructors have been successful because they have created a sense of community and have been able to fulfill a social need so many of us are missing,” said Joel Fish, a sports psychologist at the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia. “In this time of disruption, being able to see people online regularly, or just to know you’re all working out together, provides a sense of connectivity that we, as humans, need.”

Competitions and costumes

When Effect Fitness in Atlanta shut its doors, personal trainer Shannaan Dawda worried his clients would be anxious about working out without equipment. On March 16, he created the 0 to 100 Jump Rope Challenge, encouraging followers to use the one piece of equipment he knew they had — their phones — and a jump rope.

 Every morning, participants ask Alexa, Siri or Google for a number between 1 and 100. They multiply the number by 10 and jump that many times. In the first month, Dawda said, the challenge went viral, with thousands of people jumping rope in eight countries and at least 25 states. He received a video of a nurse jumping rope at a hospital in Namibia in Africa. “She said nurses and doctors were jumping rope to keep sane during the crisis and the long hours at work,” he said.

 Jenn Miller, founder of the Trottin’ Oxen Run Club of Northern Virginia, had a different concern. She knows the club’s members join as much for the “hydrating and socializing” afterward at Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn as for the time spent running and walking the nearby W&OD trail. “We have people who’ve been seeing one another three days a week for five years,” she said. “They know their families, their lives, and I knew we’d all be missing one another’s faces.”

Enter Facebook and the trusty mileage-covering activity: the scavenger hunt. In March, Miller created a Bingo board on the 700-member Facebook group, with a different running-related goal in each square. For example, if someone spotted a religious lawn ornament, tire swing or runner’s tan line, they posted a picture to fill the square. Other squares included running in the rain or trying a new route, anything Miller could think of to encourage folks to keep moving and posting (Miller credits another local running club with the idea and asked permission to borrow it).

For May, Miller came up with an Up to Interpretation challenge, posting a list of adjectives — dirty, suburban, hot, wet — and asking participants to take a picture of a run symbolizing the word. For the “hot” challenge, Alan Speicher, also known as the Trash King of Ashburn for picking up trash while jogging (a.k.a. plogging), ran in a full Chewbacca costume on May 28, in 88 percent humidity and temperatures in the low 80s.

After OneLife Fitness, a chain with gyms in Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, West Virginia and Missouri, shut down its sites, Northern Virginia regional director Kris Johnson knew who he needed to recruit to keep families tuned in. He launched Saturday Onesies Workouts at noon, in which he and his four kids — 4-year-olds twins Kamden and Kolton, and daughters, Kenley, 7, and Kayden, 11 — show up in a variety of onesies, from superhero to unicorn.

“If anyone has kids, they 100 percent know they love onesies,” Johnson said. “If there’s ever a time to break out the costumes and be goofy — anything to make it fun — now is the time.”

Other studios have turned to online magic shows by talented members, cooking and nutrition classes, and that old pandemic standby — the Zoom happy hour.

Mental wellness and art

Doing a burpee in a donkey onesie on Facebook is one way to show members you’re okay with being vulnerable. Sending them an email detailing your own struggles with anxiety and depression, as BoxUnion Studio co-founder Felicia Alexander did, is another.

Alexander had always been open about discovering the emotional release of boxing at 16, after her father died suddenly. “Hitting that bag was the first time I felt strong after he died,” she said. She decided to amplify the Los Angeles studio’s mental health message during the shutdown. She called 60 members to check in; the team overall spoke to about 300. During May, Mental Health Awareness month, the studio hosted an online Q&A with a National Alliance of Mental Health therapist from the West Los Angeles chapter.

 Mental fitness has always been a part of the mission at Method3 Fitness in San Jose, said owner John Heringer. The studio’s name, he explained, alludes to how people eat, move and think. “It’s always been about us helping partners be better for their physical and mental health.”

 His team created a No Partner Left Behind spreadsheet and, with two employees, reached out to the studio’s 400 members. They’ve emailed or texted each person five times since March. An artist is leading a group in creating a mural of the Method3 logo in which each person submits a piece they’ve colored or decorated. Heringer plans to hang the artwork in the studio as a reminder, he said, of “how we united together to get through this.”

 That message of sticking together can resonate beyond costumes, competitions and check-ins. On June 6, responding to the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, Brown abandoned her bunny ears and cheer skirts to deliver a more somber message. “I’m not a philosopher or a preacher, but I do know that we have the power to change ourselves,” she said. “When we show up and believe in that power, we can change our community.”

Amanda Long is a writer and massage therapist in Falls Church, Va.