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How one fitness coach found community through virtual reality

This story is part of TechConnect, a series about how Facebook’s tech innovations and investments help people build deeper connections and community.

Growing up, I was the anti-athlete. I hated sports and competition — I skipped gym class and made excuses. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I really formed a meaningful relationship with physical movement.

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“It was a revelatory experience, coming to see working out as something that supported my mental health and made me feel empowered.”

It was a revelatory experience, coming to see working out as something that supported my mental health and made me feel empowered. I really wanted to help other people find their way and share that working out isn’t just a way to punish yourself into being smaller — it’s something that can make you feel strong and brave.

As a coach, I fell in love with group fitness. I was really touched by how it felt like a community — it felt like church. Seeing people from different backgrounds encouraging each other, it was just this joyful, ecstatic experience.

I also focused on working with people who are returning to fitness after having eating disorders, because that was something that I experienced. I know it’s a vulnerable place to try and re-approach exercise after that kind of recovery. So I’ve done a lot of one-on-one training with people who want to move again in a way that feels healthy and nourishing.

I helped open treadmill studios in California and was filming some workout videos on the side. A director I worked with was consulting for Supernatural, and he invited me and a handful of other trainers to test it out. It was my first experience with virtual reality, and I couldn’t believe it.

One of the most shocking and exciting things for me was that people were going to have this way to move their bodies where their body was abstract — where they weren’t looking in a mirror and their movement wasn’t even based on a reflection of their physical body. They were interacting with other elements and standing in these beautiful places.

In my work with people recovering from eating disorders, a key element is being able to workout without being surrounded by mirrors. The fact that putting on an Oculus Quest headset and jumping into Supernatural automatically solves this problem was amazing. I just knew it was going to be huge and so healing for people who don’t want what the traditional gym experience has to offer them.

“The great thing about VR is that we get to create an experience that we would never be able to create inside of a gym.”

The great thing about VR is that we get to create an experience that we would never be able to create inside of a gym. You can keep the coaching, music, and mental health benefits — with results — while taking away the self-consciousness, sitting on a bike that goes nowhere, being surrounded by mirrors and concrete walls. I can take my class to the Great Wall of China to coach and talk about the amazing things that humans can do while we stand on this man-made creation.

“It’s amazing — our members have created this culture of support and encouragement.”

A key challenge is recreating that magic that happens when a group of people — often total strangers — get together and do something vulnerable while supporting each other. That’s where our Facebook Group comes in. It’s grown from a small, intimate community to thousands and thousands of people. It’s amazing — our members have created this culture of support and encouragement. When someone posts that it’s their first day, there are dozens of people responding, welcoming them to the family, and giving each other tips.

More than targeting a certain muscle, performance level, or size, the thing any trainer is trying to do is to train you to like working out. You’re really trying to help somebody cultivate a habit they enjoy enough to come back to. I constantly hear people say that working out in Supernatural is the first time ever that they’ve enjoyed a workout and gotten excited to come back the next day. That’s pure magic to me.

“I think we’re going to see VR change the face of fitness through accessibility of movement.”

I think we’re going to see VR change the face of fitness through accessibility of movement. We have lots of members who are in wheelchairs and find a great upper-body workout, or people with limited range who are rehabbing from an injury, so they can tailor their movement. But it’s also accessible in terms of where you live, your access to these trainers, this diverse music, and these amazing environments.

The Supernatural coaches get together weekly, and we talk about the members of the community by name — the people who are tagging us in the Facebook Group and the things we’re seeing. This work is really personal. And I hope our members know that there is so much heart behind the scenes.

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