As a leader in the fitness industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely thrown a giant dumbbell in your regular fitness offerings. Instead of clients coming to you, you have likely had to pivot, bringing your expertise to clients in the form of virtually delivered fitness classes or personal training sessions. This rapid growth of online fitness allows for a significant increase in the ability to reach a much larger audience. Now, more than ever, setting yourself apart as a credible and effective fitness leader is critical.
As researchers and fellow fitness leaders, our goal is to present evidence-informed recommendations to ensure effective and efficient delivery of virtual fitness offerings that incorporate behavior change strategies and thus optimize results. In this article, we review strategies specific to the “virtual setup” and the “virtual offer” to help you provide a great experience and to ensure you are best supporting healthy exercise habits for your clients. These recommendations are drawn from our own experiences and relevant literature. We are confident these strategies will help you support your existing clients as well as those just getting started. Since everyone’s doing it, it is essential you take the time to set yourself apart and increase the likelihood that your clients will realize the benefits of online fitness and keep coming back for more.
THE VIRTUAL SETUP
- Define your offer. Fitness leaders have been successful online by offering everything from one-on-one personal training, to live group fitness classes, to prerecorded classes. Transitioning to online delivery can be challenging, so it is essential to start with where your current expertise lies. Focus on offering an experience similar to what your clients have come to expect. When considering your class format and structure, how can you best mimic what you offer in person? Considerations include length of class, filming location, set design, music, and even personal communication. If your clients are used to one-on-one interactions before their class, clearly communicate you will be online early for discussion. Once you have defined your offer, make sure you communicate it so your clients know what they can anticipate when they log on.
- Define yourself. A critical component of “your offer” is your expertise. Separate yourself from others online by sharing your credentials, your experience, and what you are bringing to your unique online program offer. This information should highlight that you are the right person to be delivering your offering. It also can be used to educate your clients about the rationale behind the cost of your program. Many participants would gladly pay for the expertise, knowing that they will be in a safe and effective online exercise program.
- Source existing platforms on social media. There are examples of safe and effective online delivery that you can tap into, as a starting point. There are reputable sources who have been offering virtual fitness before COVID-19 (e.g., Yoga with Adriene, Peloton); tune in to Instagram lives or consider signing up for introductory offers from studios that offer similar practices as yours to get a sense of what is currently offered and might work for you.
- Make it user-friendly. Online fitness is new to many of us. Ensure you test your audio and visual technology so your clients can see and hear you clearly. Troubleshooting in advance will help you feel more confident and calm before delivering your offering. To help your clients feel at ease, consider a tip sheet for both you and them — see client and instructor examples (Supplemental Digital Content 1, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A157; Supplemental Digital Content 2, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A158). This tool can enhance the likelihood of a smooth, successful experience that leaves current and new clients wanting and coming back for more.
- Create a connected community. In our work offering online exercise programming for cancer survivors, we have created a virtual fitness library for our participants. However, we also have learned that one of the most important considerations for successful and sustainable online delivery has been fostering a connected community. We believe this applies to “general healthy” populations as well as those living with chronic disease. There are different ways to do this, from providing time to connect before and after live classes (we use 15 minutes before and after each class to facilitate discussion among participants, who are most often muted during the actual class) to scheduling live “coffee chats” at separate times (i.e., once weekly) for facilitated discussion on a behavior change topic, such as goal setting. Finally, organizing online forum groups may allow clients to interact and support each other. All of these additional interactions require a facilitator or moderator to initiate or moderate conversations (e.g., have a “topic” for discussion). Using breakout rooms (a feature on many online platforms such as Zoom) for larger classes to interact in smaller groups (ideally 4 to 6 people together) also can be very useful to build conversation and engagement. These steps are helping us foster a sense of community, which is helpful for exercise adherence (1).
- Arrange your “welcome committee.” If you are leading a class alone, it can be challenging to have time to welcome everyone to the class. Consider adding a moderator to your team for live classes. Someone who is there to ensure everyone is greeted when they enter. This can be useful to make sure clients are set up and feel comfortable — see our example of a moderator tip sheet (Supplemental Digital Content 3, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A159). If you do not have capacity for a moderator, try sending clients an introductory video or adding a brief spiel for on-demand/recorded programs. In a Zoom class, you also can post a message in the waiting room, which can welcome participants and offer critical safety and/or equipment information. These efforts can be particularly helpful for those who are trying fitness for the first time. The moderator (or the welcome video) handles logistics, ensures safety, and makes sure participants feel ready. After this, right before starting your session, consider delivering a warm and welcoming message like “yes you can,” “glad you made it,” or “welcome back.” This can set a positive motivational tone to start your class. Energy is infectious, even through technology. This seemingly small touch can make a big difference.
THE VIRTUAL OFFER
- Maintain safety. Maintain safety by prescreening clients as well as implementing reporting of adverse or negative events. Both are rarely being done now that we have transitioned online. However, just because they are not being done does not mean the risks associated with exercise are less. Indeed, with more sedentary individuals starting online exercise programs, safety should be our foremost focus. To stand apart and to show your commitment to your clients’ safety, consider sending clients an intake form or waiver. If that is not possible, you can consider tracking and following up with clients to ensure they feel supported with postclass e-mails. This also is how you identify challenges clients are facing and how you can improve your offerings to better suit their needs. The Get Active Questionnaire can be a useful tool for your potential clients to determine their readiness for your class.
- Include behavior change strategies. Now that you are set up to deliver an excellent virtual fitness experience, how do you help your clients foster a regular habit of attending your class? What motivational tools do you use? You are in a critical position to help clients be successful in developing an exercise habit, so take this opportunity to build in support for goal setting, scheduling, and recognition of achievements. You can incorporate these elements into your offerings by doing the following:
- Providing people with time to think about their goals. This can be as easy as asking them, “What brought you to the online class today?” “What is your goal today, for you personally and from this class?” “How is this class helping you work toward your weekly or longer-term goals in health and wellness?” Offering people time to think about their fitness goals and encouraging them to write them down is one of the most important behavior change strategies you can use to help clients exercise regularly and thus achieve sustainable improvements to their health and wellness (2,3).
- Encouraging clients to plan ahead. Suggest to your clients that they take 30 minutes on a Sunday to schedule their workouts for the week. Not only can this help with adherence to their activity (4), but it also can help your business thrive when you know your clients are planning to show up each week.
- Rewarding those who stick with their program. A great way to keep people coming back is to provide incentives. This external motivation is helpful, especially for people who are newer to exercise (5). Can you offer discounts for people who sign up for more classes? Or can you provide rewards for those who achieve certain attendance goals? Both of these strategies can help clients feel rewarded for their ongoing active choices.
- Helping new clients relate to each other. A great way to support behavior change is to show those newer to online fitness how they can be successful and how others, like them, have done so too (6). With permission, take the time to feature clients on social media and share their stories. Encourage clients to tag your business profile on their social media as they share their fitness journey.
- Offer a space for self-compassion. These past several months have been unprecedented in numerous ways. People have had to make massive, and unexpected, changes in their work, social, and personal lives. For some, the changes have been more difficult than for others. However, everyone has experienced some form of stress and adjustment. One of the most effective strategies to help people cope with difficult times is to practice self-compassion (7). Self-compassion is the simply stated, but hard in practice, act of being kind to oneself. You have the opportunity to help your clients learn to be kind to themselves. This will set you apart and keep your clients coming back for more as they hone their ability to notice and change their critical thoughts. Here are some simple self-compassion strategies you can incorporate into your offering:
- Encourage your clients to become aware of their self-talk. You can do this by asking if they speak to themselves as they would a close friend. If not, invite clients to work to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Self-kindness is a key predictor of quality of life and well-being and is an effective coping strategy when faced with adversity (7).
- Help your clients recognize their common humanity. It is true that everyone is struggling with something right now — difficult times are normal and part of being human. Reminding your clients that they are not alone, and that other people may feel this way too, can reduce the intensity of the stress they feel.
- Incorporate mindfulness. Encourage your clients to acknowledge and notice their experiences with nonjudgment and acceptance. Whether you offer mindfulness yourself, share popular apps (e.g., Headspace or Calm), or cross-promote other fitness leaders, helping your clients attune to the sensations in their bodies will build greater mind-body awareness, providing them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to choose (and continue choosing) what is best for them.
- Be true to your business and yourself. It is important you show up as the most authentic version of yourself. Clients know when you are authentic, and it is definitely harder to provide a supportive climate when you are not showing up as yourself. Although being authentic happens quite naturally in person, this is absolutely something we need to consciously work toward when offering online fitness. Be open and share appropriate information about yourself. In a time when we are working out in our living rooms, allow your clients to truly be “welcomed” to your space. To ensure you are showing up fully, you also can start a practice of checking in with yourself before you log on. Is there anything you need to set aside or let go of before you begin leading? Take at least 1 minute to get yourself ready to teach. You can do this by taking five slow breaths — breathing in for the count of three and breathing out for the count of three. As you breathe in and out, notice the sensations. The cool air entering your body on the inhale and the warm air exiting your body on the exhale.
- Build a positive motivational climate. Communication is key, especially for virtual fitness offerings where we do not have the same nonverbal cues. Building rapport and communicating clearly can help you and your clients feel more comfortable in class, but it also has the added benefit of encouraging desirable health behavior changes (8). Here is a brief list of tips for effective communication to foster rapport:
- Listen. This can be hard when participants are muted and you are the only one talking. So think about how else we listen — watch body language, ask for “thumbs up/down” feedback, consider how your class builds energy, and when possible, have some open dialogue time during or after class to foster connection.
- Use open-ended questions. When possible, use open-ended questions so that you can foster dialogue. Even if you do not get an immediate answer in a group class, keep your questions open so that clients can think about their response.
- Teach from the positive. It is easy to focus on the “do not do this” when we teach exercise, especially as we try to ensure safety and proper technique. Focusing on the positive builds an “I can” mindset versus a focus on “what I cannot or should not do.”
- Do not “should” on your participants. A central tenet of motivating positive behavior change is supporting your participants versus telling them what to do. If you can remove one word from your fitness instructing vocabulary, it’s “should.”
- If you don’t know, you don’t know. As you develop rapport, participants may ask health- or other-related questions that are outside of your scope of practice. Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and if you can, refer them on to a resource that can provide the answer. You will look far more competent, and will instill greater trust, if you recognize your professional limitations.
- Educate and empower. As fitness leaders, it is important that we teach and empower our clients. Letting clients know about your background, training, and credentials is one way to do this. It will help clients feel more at ease and safe in your classes, but it also will equip them when they go online to search for other accredited fitness leaders.
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we are seeing an influx of negative mental and physical outcomes. As a fitness leader, you can play an important role in reducing these negative effects during and after COVID-19. Stay attuned to what your clients need from you, what is happening globally, and be prepared to adjust your offerings. As we transition and governments and cities are reopening (with restrictions), you may need to consider changing schedules, including in-person offerings, developing online libraries, or providing more “live” experiences for those who are still hesitant to exercise outside of their home. Regardless, COVID-19 is providing many of us the opportunity to show current and prospective clients how exercise can fit into their lives from the comfort of their own homes. Know that you are helping improve your clients’ health and well-being during a very difficult time. Take this opportunity to enhance how you are showing up for your clients so they continue showing up for you.
BRIDGING THE GAP
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an explosion of online fitness offerings. To enhance effectiveness, fitness leaders can use evidence-informed approaches to ensure effective and sustainable online fitness programs. Based on the literature and our own experience as fitness leaders and behavior change researchers, we provide a step-by-step approach to setting up and delivering online fitness class offerings. These strategies were selected to help fitness professionals effectively deliver virtual fitness offerings to maximize safety, ensure positive client experiences, and support exercise behavior change.
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