Personal trainers pivot to outdoor, online workouts due to COVID-19 gym closures

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- With gyms closed for nearly five months now, a lot of fitness enthusiasts are finding it hard to motivate themselves at home and are missing their personal trainers.

But some have found a way to get a workout in while maintaining social distance.

One recent morning at Dix Park in downtown Raleigh, the sound of clapping hands mingled with the buzzing of cicadas.

After the clapping Mike Winkfield yelled, "There we go," and clapped some more.

Winkfield, a personal trainer from Raleigh was trying to motivate a client during an outdoor workout.

He's been holding these workouts across Raleigh for a few months.

"Before COVID-19, we did everything at our physical brick-and-mortar location. However, when COVID-19 hit we were able to pivot," Winkfield said.

When his gym closed and he started looking for a new business model, he realized he already had it.

To try to keep routines from getting monotonous, Winkfield had experimented with outdoor sessions well before the pandemic.

"We were just going to parks like Dix Park, we would go to Shelley Lake, we would go to different places in Raleigh to try to get our presence felt so that we can kind of grow more from that aspect," he said.

And so he dusted off the concept and started advertising his idea.

His timing was perfect. "People have cabin fever now and they just want to get out of the house now, whereas before people were really trying to stay in," Winkfield said. "So now we are able to open up our playbook at places like Dix Park, where we can come and get great workouts in, be social distanced and safe all at the same time."

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Winkfield said his business is now booming.

He was already doing pretty well by offering online workouts using video chat services, an offering that quickly brought in business at the start of the pandemic.

"I have clients in China. I have clients in Durham. I have clients in West Virginia. I have clients in California," he said. "Even though COVID has hit us, we still were able to pivot and profit."

Winkfield became a certified personal trainer after taking a course at Wake Tech.

Although that course is now only available online, it's become extremely popular.

"Our personal training courses are in high demand. They're filling up. We actually had to create some more classes," said Wake Tech's Wellness Director Frank Fields.

He said the classes are helping Wake Tech fulfill its mission to put people to work, especially during the pandemic.

"It's a win for everyone," Fields said. "It's a win for Wake Tech because we are obviously filling up our classes. It's a win for the trainers because they are obviously ready to hit the ground running. And it's also a win for the clients because now they have a creative way to try and stay in shape with the gyms being closed right now."

The nine-week class costs $125, but when completed, it comes with a $150 discount off the $400 fee the American Council on Exercise charges for certification.

So, for $375 you can have a career.

"You can have your certification on Friday and then on Saturday you're out training, making money," Fields said. "So it's a great employment opportunity which is why we really, really, really like to push it at the college because we're always trying to get people in jobs. Our (personal training) students are ready to hit the ground running. They start training clients immediately."

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While Mike Winkfield hoped his story of success during the pandemic will inspire others, it's hard for him to celebrate that success because so many other businesses don't have the options he does.

"My heart goes out to the people that have not been able to pivot in this time because there are no moves to make," he said.

He said he also feels bad for his competitors and hopes all gyms can soon be back in business.

"My heart goes out to everyone affected by COVID-19. And as soon as we can get a vaccine and get life right back to normal, I'll sleep a lot better at night knowing that will happen even if it's a lot less business for me."
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