My Computer Made Me Do It

If you have an Internet connection, you can get a personal trainer anywhere, anytime

September 17, 2013

At home, anyone with a DVD player can start a workout with the push of a button. Tamara Zemlo would rather have a trainer push her buttons.

“I was trying to cheat a little bit, but she was telling me, ‘Keep those abs in.’ It motivated me to keep going,” says Zemlo, 44, who recently sweated through a one-on-one workout session under the watchful eye of Julie Bobek — even though Zemlo was in her Bethesda living room and Bobek was in New York City.

Their “Core and More” appointment was set up through Expertory, a site that promises to help visitors “learn, teach and consult practically anything online via video chat.” Founder and CEO Tony Jarboe came up with the idea after he read a newspaper article about a piano teacher using Skype with clients. In the article, the teacher mentioned some hurdles, such as setting up scheduling and processing online payments. Reading that, Jarboe realized he could establish a site that would deal with the logistics for a cut of the fee.

His next thought? This format is ideal for fitness. “You just have to get up and change clothes,” Jarboe says. Since Expertory launched this year, personal training sessions, yoga and boot camps have been among its most popular offerings.

The site is just one of a series of startups giving more people access to exercise whenever and wherever they want it. There’s FitnessGlo, which offers a catalog of videos taught by top instructors available on demand for a monthly fee. There’s FitBlok, which bills itself as the iTunes of fitness classes. And there are a few options like Flirty Girl Fitness Live, which lets people peek into classes streamed directly from a Toronto studio.

What’s missing in those programs is the ability to form relationships, says Viva Chu, co-founder of Powhow. Like Expertory, his site aims to give instructors an online platform to interact directly with students. Videos can be helpful — they’re available on his site as well — but nothing beats real-time feedback, Chu says.

When instructors sign on with Powhow, they open up a virtual studio to showcase their expertise, whether that’s yoga in ASL or belly dance, and get the tools to offer classes ranging in size from one to 100 students. Instructors can view up to three students at a time to give detailed pointers, and there are discussion groups on the site that allow classmates and teachers to connect before and after scheduled sessions.

The site solved a big problem for Evin Himmighoefer, 35, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor who is constantly being uprooted by her husband’s military career. Currently stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, Himmighoefer had considered setting up her own online studio but found the tech issues too daunting.

Instead, she pays Powhow $300 a year and can focus on training clients. That’s a fraction of what it costs to rent physical space, Himmighoefer says, and it allows her to keep her schedule flexible. She’s available to teach mornings and nights, and is adding more classes to her repertoire. Next up: Zumba and prenatal classes.

For busy parents, the online set-up can make all the difference, says Zemlo, who has three kids in elementary school and runs a honey business out of her backyard. On the rare occasion she can find time to get to the gym, “I need to have someone tell me what to do,” Zemlo says.

During her Expertory session with Bobek, she was told lots of things to do: planks, pushups, mountain climbers. And when it was over, she didn’t have to fight traffic or deal with a locker room. She just shut down her computer.

Class Distinctions

Taking classes online can mostly mimic the in-person experience, but there are a few differences.

Technology

Internet connections and video programs can require some troubleshooting. That’s why Julie Bobek offers 15-minute fitness-assessment sessions for free on Expertory. “We get familiar with the camera, and make adjustments,” says Bobek, who not only watches for form as clients go through a few exercises, but also checks that they can understand and see her. It doesn’t take long to get used to her commands: “Tilt the screen down an inch,” “Turn right,” “Face me.”

Location

Anywhere there’s Wi-Fi will do. One Expertory teacher works out of a lemon grove in San Diego. Not everyone has access to such a lovely space, but with a little creativity most people can find a part of their house to turn into an adequate studio. And even if it’s in a closet, it often beats meeting at a gym. “They can be crowded, loud and noisy,” Bobek says. “At home, it’s quieter and less people are watching you.” That privacy is a game changer, especially for fitness classes, adds Powhow co-founder Viva Chu: “No one has to feel embarrassed.”

Interruptions

When Tamara Zemlo of Bethesda was training with Bobek, Zemlo’s dog kept wanting to run over to the computer and play. But other members of the household taking an interest in class can be a good thing, too. Bobek has an Australian client whose daughter watched one session and then dragged a blanket alongside mom the next time and tried to follow along.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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