By Constanza Villalba, PhD
In the annual survey of fitness trends from Zumba to yoga, one “trend” remains consistently among the top three: the importance of high-quality fitness professionals.
Why are skilled, educated instructors so important to fitness? Many reasons, but one seems to be the relationships they form with the people they teach. One recent study found that people are more likely to remain engaged in their own fitness — and indeed, may even be more satisfied in life — if they have kind, caring exercise instructors who are genuinely invested in the success of their students.
“The important thing here was the perception of the leader’s interaction and the message they were sending,” says Dr. Theresa Brown of the University of Kansas, the study’s lead author. “Instructors who say, ‘Hey, give it your best effort and focus on your own improvement; don’t worry about what others are doing.’ Those are the instructors whose students stay engaged.”
None of this comes as a surprise to me, or to the roughly 40 people who have joined me in a campaign this fall to bring back a beloved fitness instructor named Laurie, who was fired from our Boston-area gym in August.
When we learned that Laurie had been dismissed without cause, we formed a Facebook group and started notifying other members about the group and the need to coalesce.
We wrote letters complaining to the owners, we wrote Yelp reviews (some of which were removed) condemning the gym’s decision, and several of us even filmed the short video above showcasing Laurie’s skills. Finally, after realizing that the gym’s management had no intention of bringing Laurie back, many of us, myself included, canceled our memberships.
Laurie taught an array of classes, including barbell, step aerobics, power yoga, and kickboxing, all of which were impeccably planned, richly choreographed, and layered so that people of all fitness levels could choose the intensity that suited them. Her skill as an instructor was reflected in the numbers of students she would attract, from 15 to 25 followers for each of her six classes.
We missed her. Many of the gym’s members asked the management about Laurie’s departure. In a public Facebook statement, the new manager said simply that the gym was going in a different direction.
The night I canceled my membership, which I’d had for 14 years, I realized that this “new direction” meant replacing Laurie’s classes — which she had creatively designed and choreographed herself — with prepackaged, so-called “pre-choreographed” classes whose routine is scripted by a corporation that does not allow instructors to vary moves or add personal or creative touches.
A Huffington Post piece by a health coach calls this “McFitness” and asks in its headline, “Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?”
Grace DeSimone, a group fitness expert, has seen many gyms go through the type of turmoil my gym is going through when they make the transition to pre-choreographed classes. She says people may get unhappy and complain or even quit, but she has never seen class members go to the lengths we did.
Laurie’s style of teaching, DeSimone explains, is called “freestyle,” but that name makes it sound like she’s winging it, which could not be further from the truth. Instead, freestyle is about actively and expertly customizing a workout to the audience at hand, Desimone says.
Desimone understands why gyms shift to pre-choreographed classes. “Even if Laurie has a strong following, the day that she’s out sick or can’t make it in, the gym is stuck,” she explains, “because no one can do it quite like Laurie does.” With pre-choreographed classes, any instructor can take over and teach the same class. Continue reading