Survival of the Fit: How health and wellness professionals are adapting

The game has changed for wellness, with area health and wellness professionals creatively approaching pandemic-related restrictions mandated by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Sebastian Garbsch – a local personal trainer and the owner of Formative Fitness – made it a priority to make sure that his clients could keep up with their exercise and stay in shape.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to do in-person workouts at his gym, Garbsch says he lent out the majority of the exercise equipment at Formative Fitness to his clients.

That move not only made it easier for Garbsch to pivot to virtual training sessions during the shutdown, but paved the way for an ongoing – and still-growing – new segment of his business.

“Even now, we are doing a hybrid of 50/50 online and in-person workouts, just as much for convenience as safety,” Garbsch said. “Some people are only doing online; others are doing a blend.”

Formative Fitness’s reach extends as far as Florida thanks to remote training.

Once Formative Fitness was allowed in June to train clients in person, Garbsch had to make sure all of his equipment came back to the studio, too. For clients still wary of in-person training, he customized lists of equipment they could buy to create effective at-home gyms for virtual, or online training.

“I balanced helping them find American-made equipment – shopping with Rogue Fitness in Ohio or buying from local places like City Bike Shop or McLain Cycle & Fitness – with finding affordable, top-quality items such as dumbbells, bands, TRX, or step-up boxes,” he said. “Most people didn’t have to invest more than a few hundred dollars.”

A common fear among gym owners during COVID-19 was that clients would invest heavily in their home gyms and prefer working out from home. Garbsch says it actually ended up being an opportunity for growth.

Existing clients, he says, appreciated the safety and flexibility of being able to do their workouts from home, so much so that they began referring him to friends and family living in other geographic areas. Now, the reach of Formative Fitness extends as far as Florida.

For Soon Hagerty, one of Garbsch’s local clients, working out virtually from home started as a temporary measure and evolved into a preference. Hagerty and her husband, McKeel Hagerty (CEO of Hagerty), had been training with Garbsch for seven or eight years, usually with in-person morning workouts. This arrangement changed to virtual after COVID-19 restrictions were in place.

While moving to virtual training was an adjustment, Soon Hagerty says she’s so used to it now that it may remain her “new normal” even after the pandemic comes to an end.

“It was something that we thought about as temporary during the shutdown,” she said. “Then we started to realize how efficient it really was.”

Hagerty, who owns The Good Bowl in downtown Traverse City and serves as VP of brand strategy for Hagerty, notes that the change in her workout habits mirrors the way other businesses have transformed in the past few months.

“You pivot for crisis and because you have to, then you realize: Wow, this actually is more efficient,” she said. “…(A)ll these things we thought we were doing temporarily actually helped our business.”

That mindset is defining other aspects of the wellness world. Food and diet shifts in particular have been significant and could have long-term implications for the overall health and well-being of the local population.

Jessica Edson, owner of Edson Farms Market & Deli, says the store has seen a growth in sales this year. The family-owned full-service health food store specializes in organic and local foods.

Edson Farms, which marked 40 years in business in 2019, saw new faces and plenty of traffic as more people committed to healthier diets, supporting local businesses and handling more of their own food prep.

“People are more interested in local, more interested in organic, and more interested in things that are going to support their immune systems,” Edson said. “I think people have been taking this time to try to take care of their bodies and take care of themselves. It seems like it’s been a time to try to nurture yourself a little bit more.”

Edson says it’s been hard to keep some products – particularly dietary supplements and other immune-boosting items – on the shelves this year, due in large part to increased popularity.

Kaylee Davenport, the chef and co-owner for Traverse City’s Fuel Your Tomorrow (FYT), has noticed a similar trend toward immune-conscious eating throughout the pandemic.

This winter, FYT – which delivers chef-prepared meals to area subscribers – will be offering an entire line of immune-boosting products alongside its existing meal plans offerings.

“Our most exciting upgrade (this year) is our immunity line to fight COVID or the flu this winter,” Davenport explained. “It includes chicken bone broth, beef bone broth, vegetable broth, freezer pops, immunity juice in three stages (before sick, while sick, and recovery), and immunity elderberry gummies. We will be selling these products as add-ons to our meal plans.”

Even beyond the focus on building strong immune systems, Edson says she’s observed significant changes in shopper behavior. For one thing, most customers are buying more stuff and getting more adventurous with the ingredients and flavor profiles they choose – a result, Edson thinks, of people spending more time at home and cooking for themselves more frequently, rather than going out to restaurants.

Other trends include a jump in popularity for major comfort foods, particularly soups or anything having to do with baking and a surge in purchasing fresh, local produce.

Davenport, meanwhile, has noticed a shift away from meat this year. FYT offers meal prep to suit a variety of different diets, including keto, paleo, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, Whole 30 and Simply Healthy. At the beginning of the pandemic, paleo was FYT’s most popular dietary option; now, more than 50% of the company’s clients are opting for vegan or vegetarian meals each week.

“People are relying on vegetables now more than ever,” Davenport said. “The meat shortage earlier in 2020 caused prices to skyrocket, and I think many people learned to do without it.”

Whether it’s living without meat or incorporating more vegetables into daily meals, Edson thinks that many of the dietary habits that people have adopted during COVID-19 could stick even after the pandemic comes to an end. Just like working out from home, these once-temporary habits have stuck.

“I think that there are going to be certain dietary trends that will carry forward,” Edson said. “I think people like preparing their own foods; they like eating healthier; they like that it makes them feel better.

“And so they’ll continue to do it.”