9 Fitness Founders On The Lessons They’ve Learned A Year Into The Pandemic

Last March, as businesses from coast to coast closed their doors and the country came to a collective pause, the fitness industry was forced to grapple with a devastating new reality: after years of consistent and monumental growth for the sector, everything had changed overnight. No longer were there waitlists of a hundred people vying for the same spot in a spinning class or a stream of selfies from beautiful yoga studios or a row of treadmills. Gone were the days of shared equipment and overfilled studios, and no one was sure when—or even if—they would return.

A year on, gyms are starting to reopen and pre-pandemic fitness rituals are beginning to seem like a possibility once again, but the last 12 months have shaken the industry to its core and required its members to get creative in every way. Some have expanded their virtual class offerings, some have launched apps, and some have rethought their entire business models. With the future of fitness still far from certain, eight founders and sharing the biggest lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic and how the changes they’ve had to make may ultimately have been blessings in disguise.

Megan Roup, Founder of Sculpt Society

“Fortunately, I launched The Sculpt Society app in 2019 ahead of the pandemic. At the time, I had grown my community within NYC and knew that I wanted to connect with more women and could do that by taking my program digital. I was lucky that I had my program already in place digitally once the lockdown happened. At the beginning of the pandemic, I also went live on The Sculpt Society App everyday to encourage my community to move their bodies and give them the space to show up for themselves, especially if they were working from home and caring for their families. My daily live workouts on TSS App evolved into post-workout coffee chats, where I was able to further connect with the TSS family and strengthen our relationship, which motivated me to continue to create new programs and show up every day. 

This biggest change to my business is it is now fully digital. Digital went from 50% of my business to 100% overnight. Over the past year, I have learned that self-care is really important and not a selfish act. In order to show up for my TSS family every day, I needed to take the time to realign myself, and I’d do that by stepping outside for a daily walk, popping in a podcast, or catching up with friends and family. I also learned that it’s important to release some control and hire team members to take the stress off of me and allow me to flourish in what I do best. There was a time when I was answering customer service questions, dealing with the shipping and handling of my TSS equipment, and filming and editing my own videos (I still do that, though!). 

While the pandemic (hopefully) comes to an end soon, I don’t see online fitness going anywhere. In fact, I believe it will continue to thrive. Not only do many people still want to take safety precautions and feel safer working out at home, but online fitness provides an efficient, cost effective, flexible, and convenient way to get a workout in. With at-home fitness, you no longer have to choose between ‘not having enough time to workout’ and a healthy lifestyle.”

Kristin Sudeikis, Founder of FORWARD__Space

“We were somewhat prepared for this quick turn to virtual in the sense that we knew we would eventually be launching a digital expression of FORWARD__Space, which comes from my experience teaching to thousands around the globe. When we opened our physical doors and began selling out classes in 2019, guests would consistently ask for an app or a way to continue to sweat with us while they traveled. They wanted to be able to tune in and be led through the FS experience anytime from anywhere. In knowing this, we’ve consistently worked to make the digital experience for our clients as seamless as possible.

[When the pandemic began], we immediately began offering daily digital dance breaks via Instagram Live to assist in alleviating stress and anxiety. The immense response informed us that we needed to swiftly and efficiently provide a more expanded version of FORWARD__Space virtually, so we expedited our plans and launched the FS Virtual Hub on April 24, 2020 ahead of its intended 2021 release. With the Virtual Hub, we were able to offer Live and On-Demand sweat sessions globally, introducing us to a much wider audience very quickly. We also began offering FS Interactive sessions via Zoom, where guests could connect and dance together from around the globe. Since the launch of our FORWARD__Space Virtual Hub, members have streamed nearly half a million hours of content, across more than 98 countries and in the past six months, annual memberships have doubled. We also launched our Virtual Corporate Wellness program as a way for brands and companies to engage with their colleagues and/or clients in a new, fun, and engaging way. In some ways, it has replaced team happy hours or team offsites. In this time where we may not be able to share space, we can still share time—and moving and dancing together to incredible music is, and has been, one of the great connectors and community builders.

The biggest lessons have been in staying malleable, staying flexible, intently listening, and staying in clear communication surrounding topics such as what is needed for the internal team, the growing FS community, and the world at large. We then listen and work to innovate and execute from those exact and immediate learnings. People are ready to be a part of brands and experiences that are contributing to the individual self as well as the world around us. The hybrid of virtual and in-person experiences is most definitely here to stay, which to us, is phenomenally exciting.”

Erika Rayman, Founder of The DB Method

“We’re fortunate that our mission has always been to support our customers’ fitness journey at home, so the transition was pretty seamless for us. I could never have imagined, though, how central we would become to people’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic. I feel incredibly grateful that so many people have trusted our machine and our method to provide them with an effective workout and some fun during such a difficult time. We introduced our new app in late 2020, which was way ahead of schedule! We hired a Chief Fitness Officer to deepen our focus on workout development for all fitness levels and design goal-focused fitness programs, such as weight loss, pelvic floor health, and, of course, glute definition. Our entire team put in countless hours of work to produce content and get it off the ground.

I’ve learned that fitness truly has no bounds! What started as a booty machine has now helped people to transform their bodies, improve their posture, become stronger athletes, reduce body pain, run faster, and feel better about themselves from the inside out. When you look good, you feel good, and when you feel good, you look good! Mental and physical health are so closely tied together, and so many people have been isolated and have felt like they’re alone. This made our highly engaged community even more valuable than before. Our Facebook group has nearly tripled in size and remains a supportive space for customers to talk all things DB but more importantly, to understand we’re all in it together.

The future of home fitness is very bright. I think we have all gotten used to the efficiency of working out at home without the commute to and from the gym. The great thing about The DB Method is that our workouts are only 10 minutes a day, so when things begin to return to normal, finding time to transform yourself won’t come in the way of life!”

Dale Borchiver and Elizabeth Endres, Cofounders of Sweats & The City

“Everything completely changed rapidly—all of a sudden, studios, gyms, and so much more shutdown overnight. We were incredibly lucky and grateful that our business model allowed us to pivot immediately. We really did not hesitate and switched our content to cater to virtual fitness to help keep our community moving and inspired. We had to cancel and change partnerships that no longer made sense and start catering towards the virtual and at-home fitness scene. We immediately created and aggregated lists and guides of at-home workout deals, Instagram live schedules, then eventually outdoor studio openings, COVID precautions, safety reviews, and more. We most recently came out with our own platform, Sweat with Sweats, which was in response to the strong need in the market of people wanting to be held accountable to their at-home fitness routine, all at an affordable price.” -Dale Borchiver

“The last year has really emphasized the importance of community when it comes to fitness, on both a personal and business level. Whether it means working out on Zoom, FaceTiming a friend, or doing an IG live, we personally felt best when we were sweating with others. It was a very difficult year, but evolving to find that sense of community in places other than the boutique studios we used to frequent was not only important for our physical and mental health, but it also allowed for a lot of growth in our business. I know there has been a lot of debate around the stickiness of virtual fitness, but I truly think that the last year has shown people how effective, efficient, and connective at-home workouts can be. That said, I know there are a lot of people itching for that studio vibe, and we are really excited for all of our studios to reopen. I think both virtual and in-person will remain strong through all of this. The pandemic has definitely shown us that movement remains a constant no matter that!” – Elizabeth Endres

Rachel Katzman, Founder of P.volve

“While the pandemic was filled with unprecedented challenges, we were able to double down on offerings we already had in place and be nimble in defining new opportunities for new and existing members in the P.volve community. Our on-demand offering had been stable for two years, but we did pivot quickly to launch our Live Virtual Studios. We knew that our community needed that group experience to feel connected and grounded so we worked quickly to get that up. This hybrid approach (on-demand plus Live Virtual Studio) to fitness has been a conversation within the industry for years, and we’re proud to have brought this to our community so quickly. 

We’ve approached most challenges as opportunities. Even while in-person workouts became unavailable across the country during the pandemic’s peak, we knew the demand for virtual options was increasing and made the decision to move forward with, and ultimately accelerate, our brick-and-mortar expansion plans. We opened studio locations in Chicago and Los Angeles and went a step further by opening up P.volve’s streaming services for 30 days free to all new streamers throughout March and April of last year. To provide value to our customers, we needed to raise the bar and become even more solutions-oriented, creative, and communicative with our community, and in response, we integrated virtual one-on-one training programs, expanded our offerings in our digital library, and diversified our Live Virtual Studio to reflect the new and trending hybrid model. We’ve gained a deep understanding of the shifting landscape by really listening to our customers’ priorities. This created room for us to grow and meet our customers’ demands in real-time. We learned the value of flexibility, which was an incredible opportunity for us to enter the homes of our community virtually—at any time, at any place. What used to be people who found it difficult to focus on their workouts and health from home are now leaning into the benefits of at-home or hybrid fitness options, which allow you to focus on your health, both in a physical atmosphere and in a digital one at your own time.

I envision a continued conversation underscoring the importance of regular exercise and movement for not only the body but also the mind-body connection. Especially as people begin transitioning from WFH back out in their real-life scenarios, it’s so important that they’re keeping their health at the forefront and really understanding how their bodies work. After a year when many were confined only to their homes, we are prioritizing how we can continuously educate our community on the numerous benefits that functional fitness has on overall health and wellbeing. I also strongly believe that we’ll see consistent commitment to at-home training, long after the pandemic, likely utilized in tandem with in-person training.”

Sadie Lincoln, Cofounder of barre3

“We launched our first barre3 subscription business in 2011, and as fate would have it, we had just invested in a digital re-platforming in 2019, which included a deeper and more premium experience for at-home workouts. We were prepared to take care of our communities instantly with a product we are really proud of, and because of this, we have been very resilient this year with 100% growth in our digital business. We switched from being a studio-first brand of fitness to a digital-first brand of fitness essentially overnight. We have over 170 studios all owned and operated by women, who together decided to launch a livestream studio business in addition to our premium digital subscription, allowing their clients with emotional connections to their instructors to continue barre3 together. The vast majority of their clients chose the livestream classes because it helped them feel less lonely and a part of a community. 

I am so proud of all of our owners and their instructors for having a growth mindset and quickly adapting to teaching into a camera. It is a very different skill set, and they continue to impress me with their ability to teach remarkable classes in this environment. We are all very thankful for our studio clients who continue to support their local studios. This year has truly been a test of our brand and the authentic connection we have with the communities we serve. We have signed 14 new studios this year and have only lost two during the pandemic and consider this a strong indicator about our future performance as a company. 

Living our entire lives at home has been incredibly challenging, but it has also given many of us an opportunity to evaluate the importance of our health and wellbeing. I have had countless conversations about how appreciative people feel for a more introverted lifestyle, a regular sleep schedule, and time to do simple things, like taking a walk around the neighborhood. We have time to notice how different behaviors positively and negatively impact our stress levels. None of us are exercising for external reasons, like a wedding, a reunion, or a beach vacation. We are exercising with an internal motivation to feel good in our bodies and cope with this challenging moment. We are all learning how powerful it is to be still, to be present, and to exercise in a mindful way. What is really exciting for barre3 is that this is what we have been teaching since we opened our doors in 2008. When our clients let go of future results and exercise to be honest and present in their bodies, they build a healthy and rewarding relationship with their bodies and with fitness. Before the pandemic, this mindset was a big departure from traditional fitness motivations, but now we are seeing a larger moment towards mindful fitness. We are really excited to show people that they can continue to workout this way after the pandemic, instead of restarting that battle with their bodies to get to an end result.”

Rebecca Balyasny, Founder of bande

“I had not realized how much I missed connecting with friends and family through fitness until the pandemic. I have always loved playing sports with friends, from being a kid playing every and any sports to my Columbia tennis days to my 20s playing pick-up basketball. In my 30s, I turned more to working out independently, as I had so little time between kids and work. Once the pandemic hit, my typical independent workouts became unfulfilling, and I craved connection during that time. This was what prompted me to launch bande. The virtual fitness space needed a platform that stimulates social connectivity. I started the business in June on the premise of improving the technology of the livestream fitness experience and establishing close connections between instructors, students, and fellow students. I believe in this thesis more than ever and am excited to be executing on that vision. Building the technology was more involved and took longer than I anticipated. I know that I was optimistic and overly aggressive in my original timeline but learned that we will always get there! 

I’ve learned so many lessons, big and small, that apply to fitness, tech, and managing and hiring people. It’s hard to boil down. What I try to focus on above all else is the positive impact we are having on our members and how we can continue to improve our product to improve their lives. It’s important to see through the weeds and create a business that makes people’s lives better in the end. It’s both fulfilling on a personal level and will enable us to build a best-in-class brand. 

The future will likely be a hybrid between virtual and in-person offerings. There will continue to be tons of opportunity in the space for innovative brands to emerge. We are just at the very beginning. Bande will have its pulse on all the different tech opportunities out there and how they can improve our customer experience. I’m constantly looking at VR, wearables, gaming, et cetera, and seeing where we can innovate. I’m excited to be in a space that is at a pivotal point in time and that will truly improve people’s lives. My goal at bande is to do everything in our power to help people connect through fitness, and get the best workout at the same time!”

Angela Manuel-Davis, Cofounder of AARMY

“We were not prepared at all! But we are an instinctual company and our instincts led us to pivot immediately, so we did. We closed our doors in LA and NYC on a Friday, and by Saturday, we were offering free practices on Instagram Live and did so for 150 days straight. We had multiple practices each day, out of both coasts, as a unified AARMY team to reach a global community. We all have a tremendous conviction to provide community, to be of service, to provide encouragement, and to coach individuals to live their very best lives, and the pandemic allowed us to do that, in a different way. 

AARMY always had the intention of launching a digital platform, so while our business strategy didn’t necessarily change, the timing and execution of our platform was accelerated. We know transition periods are our greatest opportunity for transformation, so we showed up on Instagram Lives and learned on the fly then launched our digital platform earlier than originally planned, which has allowed us to extend our reach well beyond our HQ locations. I believe a digital footprint is still going to have a massive role in how people work out. The pandemic launched us into future thinking and forced us into executing the future sooner than we imagined, thinking bigger and wider. AARMY’s role will continue to be a beautiful hybrid of live in-person experiences and a digital platform to connect with a global community.

As a Black female business owner, the learnings and opportunities of this past year have been monumental, as this time has required us to put pressure on progress in our personal lives, in the fitness community, and beyond. I have learned that the ability to be innovative and agile is mandatory. And I have always believed in the importance of community, so we quickly learned to be creative in how we connect with others, in how we sweat alongside and encourage our community through a screen, all while providing a space of connection and belonging. I learned to be even more intentional with my time and energy, being present with my family and prioritizing what is most important. I always coach my athletes that how you do one thing is how you do all things, so even with the global pandemic, I knew that no one was going to hand me my best life or a successful business, so I had to give my 100 every single day.”