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Illustration by Oscar Bray

Virtual Exercise: Coaching Through Zoom

What are the challenges in delivering fitness classes online? How can a sense of community and self discipline be built in virtually? Read on to see what NYU Abu Dhabi’s fitness instructors have to say.

Oct 11, 2020

We used to rush to the gym or the pool, or make the long walk to the stadium with rackets in hand. We congregated around the weight machines or sprinted past each other on the track. And now? We open our laptop and attempt our fitness journey in isolation, with the small faces populating squares on the screen as our only connection. Fitness instructors reflect on the plethora of challenges and changes they’ve faced in translating from in person to virtual fitness classes.
Tan Zhong Chen (Zack), Class of 2023 and fitness instructor for the Parkour Student Interest Group, insisted that evaluating students’ performance virtually can be difficult and that a student’s engagement should be much more focused on. “The mark of success is very much self-defined. How much do you like to push yourself? How much do you like to put in? How much risk you want to take in a controlled way … that would be the measure,” shared Tan.
This sentiment was also echoed by Eva Clarke, fitness instructor for HUA, who emphasized that moving fitness classes online has led to significant changes in how the classes are taught.
“My philosophy on [fitness] education has changed a little, it’s not really performance based, but it’s mainly happiness based. In the end of it, are you really leaving satisfied, feeling good about yourself?” noted Clarke. The changes in the pedagogy are also more student centered. Students are encouraged to self monitor and self assess their performance over time, because the aim is on the student’s improvement. Matt MacDonald, Physical Education Curriculum Manager, and Miriam Maher, Physical Education Instructor, also emphasized on a more progress oriented approach to teaching PE Courses. “The aim is to build a connection with the students and see them improve,” MacDonald added.
Additionally, the fitness instructors all emphasized building a personal connection with the students that extends beyond the classroom. They attributed the level of student engagement to the connection that students share with each other and their fitness instructors. “Make a conscious effort … to connect with people, to make sure that [the students] feel welcomed, just as they would in [an in-person] class,” Clarke suggested. “We have a WhatsApp group, and I post videos of me exercising on our WhatsApp group,” added MacDonald, describing his effort to establish a relationship with students beyond the Zoom screen.
“If you do need to reach out to us or ask questions, we will be there, we will make time for you,” Clarke emphasized. “We really want to make the time to get to know you in a personal sense.” The computer screen proved less of a barrier than most expected: “I haven’t met [the students] physically, [but] I feel I know them.”
Acknowledging that virtual classes still may not be for everyone, the instructors also suggested creative ways of incorporating fitness into our daily life. “When you look at physical fitness, it’s not linear, there are a lot of pathways you can take”, claimed Clarke, reiterating the idea that students start in different places.
“It’s not just about burpees, it’s not just about wall sits and squats, it’s about making small changes, like not using the lift, taking the stairs, going outside and walking,” noted Clarke.
“Don’t just have fitness as the only reason why you are exercising, have strong personal reasons as well,” added Tan, explaining how students can incorporate better habits into their lives.
Fitness instructors noted that while motivation is helpful, it is certainly not enough. “Motivation only works for so long, discipline [then] becomes a huge part of it, because we are creatures of habits, so what we repeatedly do is what we become,” stated Clarke. “Motivation is what gets you there, discipline is what keeps you going.”
Tan is not only an instructor, but also a student, partaking in these classes from the other side of the screen. “Maintaining that sense of engagement to continue exercising is definitely a challenge this semester,” he affirmed, describing the new set of barriers Zoom provides.
The Zoom fitness classes have surely been changed drastically from in-person courses, but the fitness instructors are optimistic about these changes. The dynamics of the classes have changed for both the fitness instructors and the students as they make intentional, active efforts toward exercising. With the fitness instructors’ efforts to encourage fitness as a pertinent part of everyday life and ensure mutual connection and discipline, the future of these classes remains bright.
Vimal Karimbhai Minsariya is Deputy News Editor. Email him at
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