At the J, contactless training is an exercise in reinvention

June 8, 2020

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Tires on cars, in parking lots, is so 2019.

Pandemic life touches just about everything and everyone. Some of the efforts to adapt produce marvel-inducing change.

When COVID-19 struck and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s ruling made it no longer possible to use the Simon Family JCC’s state-of-the-art fitness facility, Tom Purcell, Wellness director, and his team of instructors and trainers began to improvise.

Their first step was to produce a series of fitness videos and conduct online classes so that members at home could workout with the instructors they are accustomed to spending their exercise time with.

And, then, as soon as the governor allowed classes to take place outside, Purcell and the JCC fitness staff quickly adapted and learned that tires in parking lots make more sense for bootcamp style step-ups and spinning, than they do on cars.

At the Sandler Family Campus, cars are currently diverted so that the scenic Lake Sandler-facing parking lot is now the JCC fitness stage for Spin, Stretch, Body Pump, HIIT, Zumba, Line Dancing, and Bootcamp classes, among others. Instructors whiz around loudly cueing members to execute a mix of cardio and stamina moves with bikes, ladders, barbells—and tires.

As the first phase of re-opening progressed, Newport News native, lifelong runner and longtime JCC member Howard Roesen gradually eased back to work seeing patients as a foot and ankle specialist. Even with multiple obstacles, Roesen sees the JCC in a unique position to rebound from lockdown. “You can take a challenging class virtually from home, or you can go outside and get a good workout,” he says. “It’s great how Tom and his staff were able to convert a large paved parking lot into a fitness facility. They have the right space and spirit to offer members virtual, interactive, and outdoor classes. Most gyms in this area don’t have that.”

Pushing a weighted tire even a short distance requires agility, but so does keeping clients in shape and steering members online and to outdoor classes that are weather-proofed and virus resistant. “I was lucky to find my life’s joy over 20 years ago. Working with clients in the fitness industry, being trusted to help people in this capacity has been a tremendous benefit to my own self-esteem and confidence,” says Purcell. One could say Purcell has been training his whole life for this moment. “Challenges motivate me. There’s always a way around the obstacle. I like to embrace them and tackle them as opportunities to grow stronger and better.”
One of those clients is Norfolk attorney Brian Sykes. They met when Purcell worked at the Norfolk Yacht Club and Sykes, a runner, had a broken leg. An injured runner is a cause that Purcell, also an avid runner can get behind. “I was in a really bad place. Tom brought me back fast,” says Sykes. “He has a special gift for motivating people. He embodies a healthy lifestyle, and he gets in your head in a way that makes you want to do better. You just know he’s invested in your success.”

Purcell and Sykes came to the J together.

In May, Sykes completed several virtual sessions with Purcell. “I was hesitant at first, but was also very unmotivated on my own and I knew that this COVID thing wasn’t ending anytime soon. It was so much better than what I expected. Tom has to do the exercises with you…it’s almost as good as having him in person. He’s probably in the best shape of his life. My daughter did one of the sessions with me and said, ‘that guy is so jacked!”

It will take a lot more than a virus to break the bond between Purcell and his long-time clients. The success of virtual training may come as a surprise to some, even those who experienced it to the fullest.

“In March, the impact of coronavirus was devastating. The gym was closed and I was afraid that I would lose all of the gains that I had made over the past 14 months. However, a member of the group introduced us to Google Hangouts,” says Joe Siqueira, a JCC member. “Now, we work out three days a week under Tom’s watchful eye. We do not have weights, so he has us use our body weight for resistance. We perform pushups, dips, planks, jumping jacks to name a few exercises. He regularly changes up the routine to continuously challenge us. We did 100 pushups yesterday. I’m over 60 and I never imagined doing this. My knee didn’t touch the ground once!”

Chantel Kushner, another member who says she lifts heavy so that she can pick up bags of salt to put into her pool and her 30 pounds of dog food bags, says that “Having Tom train me has been invaluable. I have big dogs, mastiffs that weigh 145 and 160 pounds. Sometimes I need to be able to lift them. Tom makes sure I can do these things safely. His goal is to make sure my body and heart are healthy so I can enjoy my retirement years when I get there.”

Kushner is part of small group that meets at 5:30 am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through Google Hangouts to keep up with workouts. “Even though we are working out in living rooms and garages with him, he keeps it interesting and gives us different workouts each morning.”

For JCC member Diana Nadell, the fact that Purcell makes sure she does exercises safely and correctly and stays within her limits is important. “Tom can adjust me in real time, which makes virtual live training different than doing it on my own.”

JCC members Howard Roesen and son Evan look forward to getting back to the gym as soon as it opens. Until then, Roesen says he is ready to try something new such as pickleball and outdoor spinning. He accepted and completed Evan’s bold challenge to run four miles, every four hours, for 48 hours. Running through the night proves just how seriously they take their workouts. “Virtual classes can be very challenging and intense, which is good news for all of us, because I think they’re going to be around for a while.”

- Lisa Richmon

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