The repercussions of COVID-19 on our lives have been overwhelming for most, but there is a unique stress to being the owner of a business forced to close its doors, and most especially, new business owners like myself.
In the summer of 2019, I took the next big step in my fitness career and became the owner of a personal training studio. The increased responsibility, the decrease in personal time, and the weight of a new spotlight on myself would wake me up at 3AM, my mind racing with anxiety or new ideas. This new state of perpetual stress left me tired and scrambling for any extra hours in the day to get everything done. I was overwhelmed by the new demands. I struggled to keep up with my own training and nutrition habits.
I want that stress again.
It’s not because I enjoyed it, but rather because my fate was in my own hands. I was not at the mercy of an all-encompassing crisis. My health habits were tested, but I was able to navigate those trials with effective planning and goal setting because this new level of stress was expected.
COVID-19 Ushered the Totally Unexpected
My studio is in San Diego, California. Both the city of San Diego and the state of California have helped lead the nation in its response to COVID-19 in their public health policies and relief efforts. Like all other responsible gym owners, I kept up with the new public health recommendations as they were released: I purchased more potent sanitizing products, increased cleaning frequency during and between client sessions, advised our trainers and clients to wash or sanitize their hands before and after their sessions, and asked clients and trainers to reschedule sessions if they had any respiratory symptoms or felt unwell.
On March 16, I decided to close the studio. Two days later, March 18, all gyms and fitness centers in San Diego were ordered closed.
The Decision to Close my Doors
The day I closed, the newest public health order for San Diego was to restrict any unnecessary outings and to reduce gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Earlier that day San Francisco issued a stay-at-home order as well. As the public health orders became more and more restrictive, it was clear to me that this was systematically progressing to lead us all to stay at home.
I take tremendous pride in and advocate for the importance of my work, however it is not essential in the way “essential” has come to be defined in this pandemic. Many of my clients are 60 years of age or older, and as a business owner, I could no longer in good conscience ask them to risk exposure to the virus.
I called all my clients to let them know that I would no longer be providing in-person training services temporarily. Some of them said they didn’t have a problem continuing to train at my studio because of the standard of cleanliness I maintained, but it was no longer a question of hygiene. All the public health orders were leading us to limit interactions.
I explained it like this: if someone has the virus and is asymptomatic, or early in the infection, and comes to the studio, they can still spread the virus through the heavy breathing that happens during exercise (droplet spread), or they might touch something without thinking that I didn’t notice and don’t know to clean immediately, and now everyone who comes into the studio is potentially exposed.
Finances vs. Ethics
As a new business owner, I operate on thin margins. Many small businesses do not have a lot of financial cushion. The survival of my business and my career depends on my ability to safely and effectively protect and improve the health of my clients. Sacrificing a bit of my finances to protect the safety of my clients was a no-brainer.
Not all trainers and gyms share my conviction.
Long-term health strategies lead to long-term success. This is true with any type of extended planning. A staggering number of trainers and gyms on social media denigrated the few gyms that chose to close early out of an abundance of caution. They tried to take advantage of a market filled with fear and ignorance about how the virus spread to advertise their locations and training openings. This short-sighted strategy would have led to a larger spread of the virus had the city and state not mandated the closures of all gyms and fitness centers two days later.
I understand the need to make money. I really do. The prospect of having no income terrifies me. Most people and businesses only have a few weeks of financial cushion. My business is my livelihood. This is not a side-project. It’s not a hobby. It’s my career and primary source of income. I still chose to shut down early because my ethics value the health and wellness of my clients and community above my financial well-being. We have an ethical duty to model the behaviors we ask our clients to adopt. We must set the example. We do not deserve the trust of our clients if we cannot be the vanguard of their health.
Like many trainers and gyms, practically all my training was done in-person with all the amenities of a gym at my disposal. I had no problem writing workouts for my clients if they or I would be out of town, but the new reality of forced closures meant that everything had to be done virtually.
I had never done a virtual session. I had limited experience using any training app.
The first week I closed, I wrote workouts for all my clients with a note that I was busy transitioning our training online. I registered for four webinars and looked at countless websites and programs dedicated to starting an online training business. The idea of online training daunted me more than the reality turned out to be.
I had a laptop with a built-in camera, a smartphone with an HD camera, and my years of knowledge and experience. These were all the tools I needed: the laptop to provide virtual training sessions via video conference and to write programs, a smartphone to record exercise demonstrations and explanations and check in with clients, and my knowledge and experience to help my clients maintain their health and strength progress with limited equipment.
I would love to say that all my efforts succeeded and I did not lose a single client. However, that would not reflect reality. Some of my older clients (in their late 70s and early 80s) felt overwhelmed by the idea of having such technology-heavy interactions when it’s all they can do to successfully navigate emails and text messages.
Other clients were laid off and could no longer afford to continue training. The overall effect of the stay-at-home orders and economic ripples of job losses resulted in the loss of approximately two-thirds of my normal business.
At the time of writing, I am waiting on approval of our relief fund applications, federal small business loans, and the stimulus check. The clients who have been willing and able to continue training have been exceptionally generous and supportive, with several pre-purchasing their sessions and scheduling extra ones.
Because COVID-19 has upended all our lives, I’ve made it a point to keep in contact with my clients who stopped training due to the pandemic, making a phone call every now and then to check-in. If the world had not changed the way it has recently, I have every confidence we would still be training together.
It’s important for personal trainers to maintain these client connections and commiserate over current events in the world and in our lives. Crisis reveals community, or lack thereof. I created programs for these individuals to continue with their training on their own, using whatever equipment is at their disposal. It’s an expression of gratitude for what they invested with me, and genuine caring for their continued progress, that I offered them training guidance after they could no longer train with me.
I am cautiously optimistic that my business will survive and re-open its doors again. I trust that engaging in a client-first approach serves everyone’s best interest as the world navigates these rough waters.