From University to Food Bank, Impact of COVID on Fitness Professionals

Credit: Pexel

Did you know that it is estimated that the U.S. gym and health club industry lost $13.9 billion from mid-March to August 31, 2020 (IHRSA, October 2020)? The global pandemic has brought unforeseen challenges for the fitness industry. Every member of the fitness community was affected when the fitness facilities had to be shut down. In some regions, fitness facilities still haven’t been able to open the doors. Some smaller facilities had to shut down their businesses forever. According to Harrison and Co. research data, more than 38,000 gyms and health clubs were closed down in the U.S. because of the virus as of May 2020. A community that had been flourishing for years now has an uncertain future. This industry is one of the hardest hits by the COVID-19 pandemic, from large recreation centers to small boutique fitness studios.

Despite these challenges, resiliency, flexibility, and innovation are the words that describe the members of the fitness industry. This community has come to grips with the impact of COVID-19 lockdown and is facing the new reality with grit and perseverance. A lot of gyms and fitness studio owners have adapted to a new model of service.

Among all this disruption of the pandemic are group fitness instructors, personal trainers, and coaches who have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic. These fitness community leaders who are the lifeline of this industry have had to face many challenges. According to Harrison Co., about 500,000 gym industry employees have been laid off due to COVID, and 58% of personal trainers lost some or all of their income. These fitness community leaders are the ones who have a big heart and even bigger smiles for all their clients. This blog will shine the light on one such unsung hero, and the impact COVID had on her life.

It’s the story of a friend and fellow fitness professional, Sabrina Fairchild. She is from Chico, CA. She has been working in the fitness industry for forty years. She had to face a critical blow to her career and personal health due to the pandemic. Sabrina got her schooling in Cosmetology, English, and Kinesiology. She worked as a cosmetologist for a few years initially, and then she switched to a career in education. Her teaching career started with high school English. Soon she realized that her true passion was Kinesiology, which she taught for 28 years at California State University-Chico, and Butte College. She has been teaching fitness industry certifications for Spinning® and previously for ACSM and Aerobic Pipeline. She has been working in the fitness industry for about 40 years. She has inspired many Spinning® and fitness instructors to take up fitness as their career. Her inspiration comes from many mentors, including Johnny G, the creator of the Spinner bike.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently. She sheds light on how the pandemic has changed the fitness industry and how it has affected her career. I applaud Sabrina’s courage for sharing her story with me.

1. Give us a background of your fitness career journey? My career started in August, 1983 when I got hired at a Nautilus gym in San Jose, CA. My mother knew I wanted to teach aerobic dance and sent me over to ask if they would hire me. Debbie, one of the owners, agreed, trained me, and the incredible journey began! I worked at several facilities in that region and obtained fitness certification in 1985. I still vividly remember my instructor was Dorie Krepton at Hayward state. That was my first fitness certification, and the rest is history. In 1986 I moved to Chico, CA, to attend school. While I was at school, I continued teaching at health clubs. I became a Continuing Education provider for numerous fitness companies in 1993. In that capacity, I have enjoyed presenting workshops at fitness conferences around the country. I had strong roots in Chico, CA, for over three decades. I moved to Oregon with my husband in January 2020. I began to assemble a career similar to what I had left behind when the first COVID shutdown began.

2. How did you get started with your fitness career? I got started at age 15 when I was lifting weights in a health club and heard music playing and a lady giving instructions. I went to her class and loved it. I got a membership to a fitness facility where a senior from my high school, named Patricia, was teaching aerobic dance classes. I admired Patricia very much. She was my inspiration. I was determined to teach when I was her age. I spent two years practicing in my bedroom. I had been involved in sports before but hadn’t received dance training. I worked hard to attain a proper posture and to get my kicks high. With this determination and practice, I got my first aerobic dance instructor position at 17.

3. What or who inspired you? I have been blessed to have many mentors and many inspirational leaders in my life over the years. One person that stands out as an inspiration was my hip-hop instructor, Pepper Von. I spent a decade traveling three hours round trip once a month to take classes with him at Studio One in Sacramento, CA, to learn choreography. Another significant influence in my career was Marie Phillips, manager of In Motion Fitness in Chico, CA. She provided massive support to get started as a CEC provider in the 90’s. In my life, another unforgettable inspiration has been Johnny G. I began working as a master instructor for Spinning® in 1997 and met Johnny in January 1998 at the master instructor camp. Johnny used to be a big part of the master instructor camps. His guidance and influence have been extremely important to the direction my life took.

4. How did things change due to COVID? A few months before COVID hit, my husband and I moved to Oregon. It was supposed to be our new adventure. COVID got the best of our dreams. When COVID hit, my new work-life unraveled. I was teaching four kinesiology classes at the University of Oregon. I had filled up my calendar with Spinning® events around the country for 2020, and I had just started teaching at health clubs in Eugene. When COVID hit, my University of Oregon classes got reduced, Spinning® Instructor Certifications got canceled, and Eugene’s health clubs shut down. The only work I had during April/May 2020 was a handful of virtual classes taught via Facebook and YouTube. It was challenging to learn those formats and live in the mountains where the internet is not very strong. When we moved to Oregon, we bought a house that needed some renovations. My house had just been gutted when COVID hit. My husband and I managed to put one room together for filming quickly. Sadly, in June, I was laid off from the University of Oregon. At that time, I obtained a few classes at a health club. There was so much uncertainty surrounding me at that time. I didn’t know if I will get my teaching job back, teach Spinning® instructor certifications, and if my classes at the health club will sustain me. I knew I had to make a new plan. I studied last summer for the Cosmetology licensure exam and reinstated my licenses. I have been in a salon since August now, building my clientele. I am also back teaching classes at my local health club in the mornings, but the class volume is only 30% of what I had before November.

5. What were the significant challenges for your career? COVID has presented a substantial challenge for my job. Before the COVID pandemic, I had always been able to rely on my career, and then suddenly, it no longer felt true for me. I’ve worked in the fitness industry for obver 38 years. It has guided my days, my mindset and given me the ability to contribute to others’ well-being and joy. It has been a significant source of inspiration, learning, and sharing with others. It has been hard to face that the fitness industry took such a big hit due to COVID.

6. Did you face any personal challenges? Yes, there have been many unique challenges. My first challenge was being socially isolated, living in a new environment removed from extended family and friends I had known for over 30 years. My second challenge was financial as we were putting all of our savings into renovating our house, which had been gutted. My husband’s role was to oversee all labor and do as much of it as possible to reduce overall costs. My part was to bring in enough income to pay the monthly bills until he finished the house and could find a job. COVID restrictions reduced my income to about 20% of what we needed. Neither of us could get unemployment being new to Oregon, so I had to borrow money to pay the mortgage, and I stopped buying groceries in lieu of getting food boxes at a local charity. Financially, it was the lowest point for us. The third challenge was consuming the processed foods from the food bank for seven months, combined with a lack of exercise. Though my weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) were not affected, I was diagnosed with hypertension, high cholesterol, and pre-diabetes in October, 2020. This diagnosis was highly upsetting and humiliating for me as a fitness instructor. I borrowed more money from the bank to buy healthy food. Not only was I using borrowed money to pay the bills, but I was also buying groceries with that money now. The final challenge was having the gyms close again in November. For the first time in 38 years, I had no fitness classes. I was overwhelmed with grief and anger at this situation. I lost my ability to contribute to and share in the joy of movement with others. Though I still had the salon job, so many people have been out of work that it has been hard to build a clientele.

7. How did you overcome these challenges? Social isolation has forced me to connect via social media more than ever. It has become the foundation for building my clientele, including selling health products like Biocell and Trim and the Kickoff personal training platform.

The financial challenge is in process. At the end of 2020, my husband got our house livable enough to put his energy into finding employment. I believe in God’s help. The timing of his job aligned perfectly with what we needed. He landed a new job at a Ford dealership on February 1, 2020. He is getting acclimatized with his new role and is enjoying the work.

My biggest challenge has been turning around my health problems. I have had to motivate myself to train at home by myself. I have some equipment, like my Spinner® Chrono, water rower, bench step and dumbbells at home but there is no internet connection. Working out with virtual classes is not an option. It must all come from me. I set a goal to lift twice a week and do cardio three times a week. I often get my workouts in the early morning. These days, I am inspired by anyone who keeps moving even though they are quarantined at home!

I am starting to see the positive in this situation. I can now train when I want, how I want, and not worry about the outfit I’m wearing. My diet has become a combination of the foods recommended in books I have read on lowering cholesterol and diabetes. I have found the research to be quite contradicting and confusing but doing my best. My latest blood labs in January showed cholesterol is normal again, but the blood sugar is still high. I’ll get that rechecked in the next month or two and make more dietary changes if needed.

8. Tell us about your dreams and aspirations as you look ahead at your journey? I never imagined that when I moved to a new state, aside from the environment changing, my whole way of existing and interacting with the world would change as well. But here I am, 55 years old and starting my professional life all over. I have reignited my enjoyment of cosmetology; I have embraced new skills and technology to build online income through nutrition and personal training. Having experienced the devastation of losing all my in-person fitness work, I have had to put it in the category of “enjoy it if it happens, but do not depend on it financially or for my happiness.” This has been a difficult decision but necessary for my survival and well-being. I realized I loved it like a spouse or child. It was exactly 40 years ago that I decided to devote myself to it, and I would have never given it up freely. I believe our industry has forever been changed and each professional out there who has suffered this loss is also navigating their future. The re-creation of our industry must continue. So, that in the future, any pandemic or other disruption cannot dismantle it. During the pandemic, I have learned that the only elements I can control are my thoughts and reactions to this life. As a human, I am either motivated by fear or love. I choose LOVE.

Sabrina is resilient, brave and courageous woman. Despite all the challenges she has faced, she kept on pivoting and moving forward. Her strength is shining through each word she has shared. Sabrina shares an important life lesson that, the only elements we can control are our thoughts and reactions to this life. As a fellow fitness professional, I can relate to Sabrina’s challenges. She has inspired me to change the fitness industry’s operations and keep the joy of movement alive. I hope this story touches your heart and inspires you as much as it touched mine and inspired me.

About the Author

Aesha Tahir is a health and wellness coach and a certified personal trainer. She holds a Master’s degree in Applied Exercise Science and is certified by the NASM as a personal trainer. She is a certified USA Track and Field and Road Runners Clubs of America Coach. She is a 200 HR Registered Yoga Teacher. She is also a group exercise instructor specializing in barre, spinning, strength training, boot camp, and yoga classes. She has over five years of experience in the fitness and wellness arena with focused expertise in coaching, corrective exercise and injury prevention, individualized fitness programs, and group fitness programs. She is an aspiring public speaker in the fitness and wellness world who believes in this quote; “To be inspired is great, but to inspire is incredible.”



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Aesha Tahir

Aesha Tahir

Coach, writer & runner. Exercise science, group fitness and positive psychology for every athlete. Book a Call with