Gym Closed and Income Gone, a Barre Instructor Reinvents Herself

In an empty Miami gym, 25-year-old Valerie Senior greets students for her cardio barre class as their faces pop up on her MacBook. They’re from New York, Puerto Rico, Italy—even Australia.

Welcome to workout class in the era of social distancing.

The exercise industry, which researcher IBISWorld pegs at $38 billion in the U.S., has been dealt one of the harshest blows by the coronavirus. Attendance at gyms, yoga dens and spin studios quickly collapsed as governments told the masses to stay home to slow the spread of the pandemic. Thousands have already been laid off. 

Senior’s income from leading classes at gyms like Equinox disappeared in a few days, she said, raising fears about how she’d afford rent, student loans, even food. Like millions of Americans faced with such a drastic and rapid shutdown of their livelihoods, the Miami native is trying to pivot. She had to.

“I felt like the word was kind of falling on my head,” Senior said.

Last week, Senior touted her “first live workout” on Instagram to her nearly 3,000 followers. The post ended: “Let’s get sweaty fam!” To sign up, people direct message her. After paying (a class costs $15 or $50 for five), she sends a link to a Zoom video conference.

Senior is quick to put her students at ease in this new virtual world. During one class, she says that if they don’t have weights, just pick up whatever they can find at home, even cans of garbanzo beans. On Instagram, post-workout comments are some version of “awesome burn” and fire emojis. One attendee says how she had to stop going to Senior’s classes because she lived too far away and now “you did something amazing…Livestream!!!

“I don’t want to miss a beat,” said Janette Rodriguez, who had been attending Senior’s in-person classes for about two years before becoming a fan of her Zoom sessions. “I want to continue doing things I was doing before.”

Rodriguez is not alone. Millions around the world are itching to stay in shape in the face of weeks, if not months, of social distancing. This burgeoning market has already boosted demand for in-home workout machines, like those from Peloton Interactive Inc. Nike Inc., the world’s biggest seller of athletic gear, kept its business in China from collapsing during the peak of the outbreak there by engaging customers through its array of workout mobile apps.

At Fhitting Room, a workout studio with three Manhattan locations, Chief Executive Officer Kari Saitowitz is trying to evolve, too.

“Our studios are basically almost 100% of revenue,” said Saitowitz, who founded the company in 2012 after a career as a marketing executive for the likes of PepsiCo. “That is the business.”

That’s why it’s offering a $10 monthly subscription to unlimited online workouts through mobile app and streaming platforms like Roku. Just last week, it debuted live Zoom classes for $20.

Even the YMCA, founded in 1844, is making the move to digital. Last week, it launched online classes around the U.S. The options include yoga and boot camp. The YMCA of Greater New York is offering Pilates and meditation. 

“The Y recognizes the need for healthy living and youth development programs that can be accessed anywhere,” Ronn McMahon, President and CEO of the Greater Wichita YMCA in Kansas, said in a press release. Online classes “felt like the best way to continue to live out our mission to strengthen communities.”

Of course, how much any of this will help these businesses in the long run remains to be seen. How long are people going to keep paying memberships if the gym is closed? And are they going to spend as much on virtual classes as the real thing?

Back in Miami, Senior is in her second week of Zoom sessions. 

“Many of us trainers and coaches have had to reinvent the way we bring our passion to life and also to earn a living,” Senior said in an Instagram post on Tuesday. “It is so unclear how this will unfold, but your support in taking my classes will be key in me being able to continue our journey together.”

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