Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Remote reps (updated)

Fitness in a time of social distancing

Hayley Guerra enters her MAX Challenge class to a welcome reprieve: her classmates are there, along with the trainer she’s grown so fond of. And for the next 45 minutes, she gets to pour the stresses of work and motherhood and life into the workout du jour.

It’s a welcome bit of normalcy amid the chaos, but it’s a new normal, and a new chaos: Rather than at the gym in Hazlet, her MAX class is on video-streaming platform Zoom. This tableau is fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Six months pregnant and a MAX class faithful, Guerra is also the director of marketing and development for the company, a Morganville-based fitness chain with more than 80 locations nationwide. Earlier last week, MAX Challenge chief executive Bryan Klein decided — before the state required it — to shut the doors of his centers indefinitely until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened thousands of people nationwide and killed well over 100.

New Jersey MAX Challenge members Jaclyn Cusack and Rebecca Ginsand

New Jersey MAX Challenge members Jaclyn Cusack and Rebecca Ginsand – STARKY MORILLO PHOTOGRAPHY

He is one business owner of many who have had to make the tough yet obvious call that their locations, which often serve as pillars of the community and popular gathering places, can’t be open right now. And he’s one of many who, in the face of hardship, have decided to innovate at lightning speed.

Over the course of 48 hours, Klein, Guerra, and other key members of the MAX corporate team created and launched MAX From Home, a way to bring workout classes online to its 20,000 members companywide. A repository of videos has been recorded, edited, and released onto YouTube in the interim, and many centers are already hosting classes on Zoom, but Klein and co. are working toward a full March 30 release of MAX From Home where each center and trainers at home are fully equipped with Zoom and able to host classes as scheduled. Zoom allows anyone signed into a class to see other participants, hear each other and be seen and heard themselves in real time.

“The reaction of the members overall is through the roof. They’re so grateful to be able to continue with their regular schedule and keep moving forward with their fitness goals, but even more important, at this time it’s just a tremendous stress relief,” Klein said.

Classes are opened up on the Zoom livestream five to 10 minutes before they begin and kept open five to 10 minutes after the end to allow classmates to socialize as they would at the gym.

“Many of these people became friends from the MAX to begin with. It’s amazing that they’re not disconnected from their friends and they still get to interact in this way. I think that’ll become more and more important,” Klein said.

And to keep paying his trainers, managers, staff and the corporate team, Klein has reduced his salary to zero, and corporate team has taken pay cuts.

“I’m protecting people’s salaries the best I can and staving off layoffs. If we didn’t have this virtual aspect going, it would be impossible, but we’re staving it off as best we can. No person can build a company on their own. Even if it was my idea, dozens of people have helped to this point,” Klein said.

“We want there to be a MAX Challenge on the other side, and if we make sure our actions are guided by compassion and care, I think we’re on the right track,” Guerra said. “A business that acts like a business is not going to be a business for too long.”

Virtual reality

Multiple other fitness centers, including CrossFit gyms and yoga studios, are following suit with a transition to online business in hopes of keeping members committed to their fitness—and their business—during mandated social distancing strictures.

Iron Crossfit in North Brunswick is offering WODs, Crossfit’s colloquialism for daily workout, on its platform Wodify with three options available: an option for members with no equipment available, one for members with limited equipment like a dumbbell or kettlebell, and an option for the few members that have access to a full gym. Owners Joe and Danielle Fraser host two live workouts on Zoom each day to give members the interactive feel they’re missing and critique their form.

Hazlet MAX Challenge member Taylor Zaborney.

Hazlet MAX Challenge member Taylor Zaborney. – TAYLOR ZABORNEY

Each class has had 20 or so people tune in live, Joe told NJBIZ, and he expects it to become more popular.

“Most people connect through video so I can critique them and give them motivation, and then they’re not going to take breaks and stop working because everyone’s online and can see them,” Fraser said. “It’s kind of how in-person class goes, it keeps you moving.”

The Frasers also opened the gym for two days to rent out equipment to members who had none, giving them something weighted to use “for them to bring back when this thing is over.”

In seven years of business, Iron hasn’t closed once, save for holidays. Joe and Danielle had to cancel the upcoming seven year anniversary party their members were looking forward to, and in the same email, implored whoever was financially capable not to freeze or cancel their membership to allow Iron to continue paying its bills. “There have been no breaks on those requirements thus far,” Fraser said.

“My insurer said this kind of event isn’t covered under business interruption insurance. And our landlord, I haven’t heard back from him,” Fraser said. “I wrote an email last week ahead of time to see ‘hey, could you waive this rent payment, we’ll pay it back incrementally when we’re back business as normal, or we’ll pay it at the end of our lease agreement,’ but I’ve yet to see if he’ll help. He’s either getting this email from all his tenants, or he has enough people that might have essential businesses that he’ll cut me a break.”

Overall, their members are understanding: less than 5 percent have cancelled or frozen, and the ones who have were all bartenders. The restaurant sector, tipped positions in particular, has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 social distancing policies and closures. Out of understanding, the Frasers are allowing those members to continue logging into Wodify and accessing WODs until they can get back on their feet.

At Great White Crossfit in Hackensack, owners Tara and Steve Ramos are offering daily WODs without equipment for free on Instagram, and are also offering a rental program for members to use the gym’s kettlebells and plates at home.

They, too, in fear of their business collapsing, have implored their members not to quit or freeze memberships during this time. Only one has. Two other members have volunteered financial help, one to cover the costs of memberships lost during this time and another to pay up front for the next five months.

Some yoga studios have pursued growth in the same vein, like Elevate Yoga in Hazlet, which is offering its regular class schedule on Zoom. (“Class sizes have been consistent,” said owner Alicia Somma Hodgskin.) And Lawrenceville-based yoga chain Honor Yoga launched its own live-streaming platform HY Now Live, which offers 10 or more live classes daily, on March 18.

How long?

For Iron, Fraser said things will get scarier if his business closure lasts more than three weeks. He’s concerned about his trainers and how they’re going to make money in this time, and said “if this goes over a month, we’re going to go terrified panic mode.” One option to pick up the financial slack is nutritional counseling, he said, but if people aren’t going to the grocery store to pick up fresh foods, “how do you give good nutritional advice when most of the nutritional stuff like veggies and chicken are gone?”

MAX Challenge instructor and member from Texas.

MAX Challenge instructor and member from Texas. – TRICIA KRIMM

It’s all an adjustment for many, but one without an option otherwise.

“I feel like we’re ahead of the game, looking at other gyms, but we weren’t ready to do remote training,” Fraser said. “This has forced us to grow.”

And for students, like MAX’s Guerra who also sees it from the company’s corporate perspective, having something consistent from pre-pandemic life is a meaningful thing.

“It felt so good for me to work out Monday, even though the dog was hitting me in the face with a toy and my son was jumping on my back,” she laughed. “But this is reality. We can still continue to help people the way we’ve always helped people, and we can do that by making sure that they’re safe.”

And for all his concern about what might happen to his business if social distancing measures and closures continue for more than a month, at Iron, Fraser sees a light at the end of the tunnel: “I do have a feeling once this is over with, it’ll be like another January. I think there will be a huge rush of people trying to get in shape,” he said. “I guess that’s the silver lining. I won’t have to do much advertising.”

Editor’s note: This article originally misrepresented the number of centers that MAX Challenge has nationwide as 600. There are approximately 600 instructors, not centers, nationwide. It was updated at 3:07 p.m. EST on March 24, 2020.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

NJBIZ Business Events