Where's Laurie? When 'McFitness' Axes Your Beloved Exercise Instructor

By Constanza Villalba, PhD
Guest contributor

In the annual survey of fitness trends from Zumba to yoga, one "trend" remains consistently among the top three: the importance of high-quality fitness professionals.

Why are skilled, educated instructors so important to fitness? Many reasons, but one seems to be the relationships they form with the people they teach. One recent study found that people are more likely to remain engaged in their own fitness — and indeed, may even be more satisfied in life — if they have kind, caring exercise instructors who are genuinely invested in the success of their students.

Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?

Huffington Post Headline

“The important thing here was the perception of the leader’s interaction and the message they were sending,” says Dr. Theresa Brown of the University of Kansas, the study's lead author. “Instructors who say, ‘Hey, give it your best effort and focus on your own improvement; don’t worry about what others are doing.’ Those are the instructors whose students stay engaged.”

None of this comes as a surprise to me, or to the roughly 40 people who have joined me in a campaign this fall to bring back a beloved fitness instructor named Laurie, who was fired from our Boston-area gym in August.

When we learned that Laurie had been dismissed without cause, we formed a Facebook group and started notifying other members about the group and the need to coalesce.

We wrote letters complaining to the owners, we wrote Yelp reviews (some of which were removed) condemning the gym’s decision, and several of us even filmed the short video above showcasing Laurie’s skills. Finally, after realizing that the gym’s management had no intention of bringing Laurie back, many of us, myself included, canceled our memberships.

Laurie taught an array of classes, including barbell, step aerobics, power yoga, and kickboxing, all of which were impeccably planned, richly choreographed, and layered so that people of all fitness levels could choose the intensity that suited them. Her skill as an instructor was reflected in the numbers of students she would attract, from 15 to 25 followers for each of her six classes.

We missed her. Many of the gym’s members asked the management about Laurie’s departure. In a public Facebook statement, the new manager said simply that the gym was going in a different direction.

The night I canceled my membership, which I'd had for 14 years, I realized that this “new direction” meant replacing Laurie’s classes — which she had creatively designed and choreographed herself — with prepackaged, so-called "pre-choreographed" classes whose routine is scripted by a corporation that does not allow instructors to vary moves or add personal or creative touches.

A Huffington Post piece by a health coach calls this "McFitness" and asks in its headline, "Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?"

Grace DeSimone, a group fitness expert, has seen many gyms go through the type of turmoil my gym is going through when they make the transition to pre-choreographed classes. She says people may get unhappy and complain or even quit, but she has never seen class members go to the lengths we did.

Laurie’s style of teaching, DeSimone explains, is called “freestyle,” but that name makes it sound like she’s winging it, which could not be further from the truth. Instead, freestyle is about actively and expertly customizing a workout to the audience at hand, Desimone says.

Desimone understands why gyms shift to pre-choreographed classes. “Even if Laurie has a strong following, the day that she’s out sick or can’t make it in, the gym is stuck,” she explains, “because no one can do it quite like Laurie does.” With pre-choreographed classes, any instructor can take over and teach the same class.

Still, in her own staffing decisions, Desimone avoids pre-choreographed classes, “because I want instructors who teach the group standing in front of them...If somebody has a knee or a back problem, I want to know that my instructors can modify their class and still make it safe and engaging, and in my experience pre-choreographed instructors don’t have that knowledge.”

I don’t know whether Laurie modified her classes just for me, but I do know that what kept me coming week after week, year after year, was the freshness of her routines. For the hour I spent in step, there was no room in my thoughts for professional deadlines, or ailing parents, or unpaid bills; there were only the cues, the thump-thump of the music, and the movement.

The problem is, pre-choreographed classes like the ones now offered at my gym do not provide me the same benefits.

This is what people strive for in mindfulness meditation. To be fully present, without intrusion from the chatter inside our heads. Indeed, it is the meditative escape offered not just by Laurie’s classes, but those of other skilled instructors, that has kept the stressors in my life at bay and my BMI at 19 all these years.

The problem is, pre-choreographed classes like the ones now offered at my gym do not provide me the same benefits. Sure, if I do them, they might fatigue my muscles. But because the routines are so predictable, my mind grows bored and wanders back to the minutiae I am there to escape.

The gym’s management hinted that Laurie’s classes were too hard for the everyday gym-goer. But that argument doesn't hold water. Her classes attracted people from every walk of life and every fitness level. A 58-year-old suburban mother of five; a 42-year-old male scientist and patent analyst; a 20-something-year-old New England Patriots cheerleader.

I am, by profession, a medical editor. I spend my days writing educational materials for patients, guiding them in part toward better lifestyle choices. In the profession, we focus a great deal on adherence — a term of art that refers to the persistence with which people continue to do what is best for their health.

To remind me of this, I have on my computer desktop a virtual sticky note with a quote from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Coop. It reads, “Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them.” A corollary to that sentiment is, exercise doesn’t work in people who don’t do it.

The night that I canceled my membership, there were five people in a class that used to hold 20. Three of us left midway through.

Readers, strike a chord? Have you had — or lost — exercise instructors who really made a difference?


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