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The new rules of training clients during a pandemic

The New Rules of Training Clients During a Pandemic

You’ve seen the sentiment all over social media, and it’s worth repeating: We won't go back to normal. We’re living in a truly transformational time, and people’s needs—both mentally and physically—are different than they were in 2019. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve lost jobs. We’ve reframed the way we think about our health. Plus, the virus, and its variants could be a part of daily life for a very long time.

What does all this mean for your fitness business? It means acknowledging new challenges (and opportunities), using new fitness software and referring clients to other experts if needed. If you want to succeed in this new world, you’ll need to do more than just post about these topics on Twitter; you’ll need to embrace them, live them even. So, we’ll say it again for those in the back: We won’t go back to normal.

If you’re not sure what this looks like in practice, read on for advice from trainers and yoga teachers who have shifted their methods in this strange and stressful moment.

Acknowledge trauma

“Fitness professionals should keep in mind that their clients may be suffering from a mental health issue,” says Scott W. Cheatham, PhD, DPT, and NASM’s COVID-19 course author. “They should try to be good listeners, be supportive and acknowledge their client’s challenges.”

Trainers and teachers agree. “People are traumatized by COVID-19 and trying to heal,” says Brielle Collins, founder of Practice Shraddha, a digital yoga studio that now offers yoga for anxiety. “My students share comments on the website after every class, and I try to listen to their needs even though we can’t be together in person.”

Of course, if you notice any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, refer your client to a mental health professional. “Fitness professionals should always stay within their scope of practice,” says Cheatham.

Ask clients about their COVID-19 history

There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19’s long-term effects, but many people still experience fatigue, headaches and shortness of breath after they’ve recovered, Cheatham says. “You may need to begin with less intense exercise and progress as clients improve,” he says. (Think: 40 to 60% of their peak work capacity.) Even still, rest is crucial.

Focus on anti-anxiety workouts

People have different ways of coping with stress and anxiety, but industry reports say anti-anxiety workouts, like yoga, are on the rise. “People are exercising less for the aesthetic changes and more for the mental health benefits,” says Ashley Glen, founder of Activ Balance in Harrogate, England. The good news is exercise of all kinds, even a ten-minute walk, reduces anxiety, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Encourage similar everyday acts of self-care among your clients.

Emphasize recovery

This also means doubling down on recovery. “People are burning out and realizing that rest needs to be a priority,” says Bre Williamson, yoga teacher and founder of Mindfully Bre. Even if you aren’t a yoga teacher, you should still acknowledge this reality and make sure you aren’t training your clients in a vacuum; you need to consider the stress they’re experiencing outside of the gym, too.

Try a hybrid model—and make it accessible

Experts say hybrid fitness is the future of working out. That means studios and gyms will offer both in-person and virtual training sessions via live-streamed workouts or videos on-demand. (You'll need to build a fitness website if you haven't already.) Every trainer will strike a different balance depending on their offerings and audience, but keep in mind that people may not return to their favorite gym everyday now that they’ve invested in at-home equipment and commute to work less often. (Related reading: Should you change your membership model in times of uncertainty?) This last year also made it clear that there’s a huge accessibility issue in the fitness industry. How can you help clients with different needs and budgets?

Keep your distance

Respecting your clients’ space was always important, but it’s worth a reminder given almost two years of air-hugs and elbow-bumps. A good rule of thumb: Establish boundaries and comfort levels at the start of class so you don't need to slow down your session, and ask permission before touching anyone.

Be sensitive to time limitations

It’s not just you: Research shows people worked an extra hour a day at the start of the pandemic. So even with less of a commute, many of us still had less time to dedicate to fitness. Consider offering shorter snack-like workouts via video on-demand.

Also be aware of shifts in schedule. “Virtual lunchtime workouts have been really popular,” Glen says. “They give people a break during the workday.”

Take it easy

On that note, you should also ease clients back into a training program if they’ve taken some time off, whether or not they had COVID-19 personally. “Practice a healthy dose of patience,” says Prentiss Rhodes, NASM master trainer and martial arts instructor. “People are going to be excited to get back to training and fitness professionals will want to deliver impactful sessions for their clients, but ramp back up slowly.”

Give people something to look forward to

Julianne Aerhee Byun, a yoga teacher in Miami, kept one word in mind when creating her virtual schedule during the pandemic: consistency. “We wanted people to look forward to gathering at the same time each week,” she says. This was especially important as the days, weeks and months blurred together during the height of stay-at-home orders. “People were like, ‘I don’t even know what the weekends are anymore.’”

Keep consistency in mind even as we fill our calendars with plans again. “It encourages people to show up,” Byrun says. And a weekly in-person session may be just what people need to complement their virtual workouts (see also: hybrid fitness).

Remember: Fitness has the potential to boost your clients’ moods and create community, two things people are craving more than ever. “There’s growing evidence that exercise helps with mental health and positive self-image,” says Rhodes. Exercise releases endorphins, or ‘feel-good’ hormones,’ he says, and builds confidence that translates to other areas of life.

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