BECOMING A VIRTUAL FITNESS INSTRUCTOR DURING COVID-19

Fen Tung is a seasoned exercise instructor, personal trainer, and co-founder of the BollyX workout. Prior to the pandemic in March, her teaching schedule was in full swing with multiple classes each week. She and other fitness professionals were stunned in mid-March when Covid-19 shut down all gyms and fitness studios. Many scrambled to offer virtual workouts via Zoom or Instagram Live, but both instructors and participants would agree that this new format did not feel quite the same. I reached out to Fen to see how she forged ahead during this unprecedented pandemic.

1. What was your reaction early in the pandemic in March when gyms and fitness studios first closed?

My initial reaction was, this stinks, but hopefully it won’t last more than a couple of months. I knew of On Demand platforms and fitness apps where you stream pre-recorded classes, but I was very new to virtual live-streamed classes. After doing research, talking to colleagues who had taught a couple classes on Zoom, and experimenting with my family, I taught my first live-streamed class on March 23, 2020. Little did I know I would still be live-streaming today. I think it’ll be here to stay, even as gyms slowly start to re-open. 

2. How did you adjust throughout the spring and summer when the pandemic worsened, with your exercise classes as well as your own personal fitness?

I planned to continue teaching virtually, seeing what people liked. By the third month, I’d created a weekly schedule of a variety of formats so that those who were taking my classes could create a routine. It helps to have as much consistency as possible when other areas of life are chaotic and out of your control. My own personal fitness was basically the classes I taught. Prior to the pandemic, I’d lift weights 2-3x a week at the gym in addition to teaching fitness classes; without weights or equipment at home, I no longer did that. By the time September rolled around, I created a more formal registration system since I anticipated virtual classes would be here to stay. 

3. Many people have changed their workouts by doing home videos or walking or biking outdoors. Since we’re “self-regulating” our exercise in this way, how can we know if we’re doing enough? For example, would a 20-minute barre video 3 times a week be enough?

This is a very common valid question. It’s always challenging to answer the question “is it enough?” since each person is so different. I’d say that, now more than ever, your mental health is as important as your physical health. Instead of judging yourself on whether you’re doing enough, ask how you’re feeling. If you LOVE to dance and it brings great joy and decreases stress, then go dance. Don’t worry too much if you’re dancing enough, or if you’re doing enough variety. For example, I know I need to stretch more or do more yoga. But it oddly causes me more stress to do yoga because I can’t keep my mind focused. However, I can focus on the workout when I dance or do bootcamp.

If you’ve gained weight during this pandemic and don’t feel like yourself, rather than beat yourself up and feel guilty, sit down and make concrete plans. It might be calling up a friend to go for a masked walk or jog, or walking to the grocery store (instead of driving) and carrying the groceries home. It might be looking at your schedule and marking times that you want to do a virtual class, and then actually registering and committing to the class. You’ve heard the saying, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Make realistic plans you can stick to. Adding exercise 7 days a week to your calendar isn’t realistic and gets you into the habit of ignoring your calendar. Set daily and weekly goals. As long as there is forward progress, no matter how little, it is progress. What is enough should be defined by how you feel mentally and physically after you do it. Only you will know what that is for yourself. 

4. Now that you have switched to all-virtual workouts, what are the pros and cons you face with this platform?

The best part about virtual classes is that I’ve been able to reconnect with so many people. When I taught fitness classes at MIT, I’d get to know students for 3-4 years and then they’d graduate and leave. Or people I’d gotten to know from weekly classes at gyms got new jobs and moved away. It’s been so great to be able to exercise with all of them again! The biggest con about virtual classes is the technical side. Even with setting up the strongest WiFi, there are days the streaming is just NOT streaming properly, and there’s very little I can do about it. I also miss the energy and vibe of teaching in-studio classes. Dancing alone in your living room to a screen is just not the same. While I can see a few faces on my laptop of those who share their screen, it’s not like seeing the smiles of everyone dancing and sweating right next to you.

Also when I teach on Zoom, I’m always thinking how best to position my body so that those watching can understand and follow the movement. While I’m a 3D person, my movements on a 2D screen don’t always come across clearly. When doing lunges, for instance, I’ll show it from multiple angles. Since I’m unable to watch every person via Zoom, I give a lot of extra cues to make sure I cover common mistakes I saw when I taught in-studio. At the end of the day, I feel very blessed we have the technology to be able to connect at a time like this. The pros definitely outweigh the cons. I know I’d be going crazy if Zoom and virtual classes weren’t an option during this pandemic. 

5. What advice do you have for people who want to start virtual workouts because they’re still not feeling safe going back to a gym? What is your personal feeling about doing indoor gym workouts as some gyms reopened in November with limited capacity and increased sanitizing procedures?

If you haven’t tried a virtual live-streamed workout yet, try it at least once. It’s a different experience than pulling up a YouTube video and following a pre-recorded class. Don’t let technology scare you: it’s pretty user-friendly. I say this as someone who isn’t very tech-savvy. My parents are even less tech-savvy and they’ve figured out how to join my classes weekly! 

I plan to continue teaching virtually for another year, and may continue even when gyms fully reopen. I’ve heard from many folks that there are days where they want a “live” experience but don’t want to leave their home due to the weather or traffic. Having both in-studio and live-streaming options might be the wave of the future. At this time, I personally don’t intend to teach indoors at gyms, especially since I teach group fitness. Nothing against the gyms who are doing a lot with regards to sanitizing and setting up social distancing policies. But since I can’t control the number of people who are going in and out of the studio, I have no idea who they’ve been around. We’ll be breathing heavily (even with masks on) in an enclosed space next to 5-10 people, so it’s risky to teach indoors. As much as I miss teaching at gyms, I’m willing to wait it out. I taught one outdoor class back in August with a mask on, socially distanced to a group of 10 people. Mentally, it was awesome to see people I hadn’t seen in months there, but physically it was difficult to breathe so the intensity of the class was less than usual. When the weather warms, I may consider teaching another outdoor class, but not an indoor one. 

The year of the virtual fitness class! If you choose to share your screen, others can see you. If not, you can turn off the camera and you will appear as a black screen. It’s not the same as exercising together in a studio, but still offers a fun social interaction and pick-me-up when you’re stuck inside all day!

To check out Fen’s virtual fitness classes, join her Facebook group Fitness Fen’s Way for Zoom registration links. If you’re not on Facebook, sign up for a weekly email about classes at fen@bollyx.com. The first class is free! Cost varies per format and is dependent on each person’s situation. Payment is via Venmo, PayPal, Zelle or Apple Pay: $7-15 for each class ($3-6 for students, unemployed or retired individuals). With the pandemic end not in sight, Fen plans to continue to make fitness classes accessible to everyone. Once a month, she donates a portion of the proceeds from classes to a charity. Previous donations have gone to NAACP LDF, ACLU, Loveland Foundation, Color of Change, Equal Justice Initiative, and Fair Fights 2020.  

Fen’s current virtual schedule:

  • Tuesday 6:00 pm Bodyweight Bootcamp
  • Wednesday 5:30 pm Bodyweight Strength
  • Thursday 6:00 pm Mat Pilates
  • Friday 5:30 pm Zumba

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