Nfld. & Labrador

How the pandemic sent a Paradise woman's virtual workout client list soaring

The list of places where people log on to Gill Whelan's virtual boot camp reads like a backpacker's bucket list: Australia, Malaysia, Nunavut, Alaska and Austria, to name a few.

Gill Whelan's basement business has grown 500% since June

From her home gym, Gill Whelan reaches an online workout community of thousands. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The list of places where people log on to Gill Whelan's virtual boot camp reads like a backpacker's bucket list: Australia, Malaysia, Nunavut, Alaska and Austria, to name a few.

From her basement gym at her home in Paradise, the fitness trainer is living her dream and sharing it with the world. 

"It's incredibly, incredibly exciting," the constantly upbeat Whelan said

"My goal always has been somebody who creates impact and somebody who creates a community and that's exactly what we're doing."

In late June, just as gyms were preparing to reopen under the province's COVID-10 Alert Level 2 guidelines, Whelan was closing in on around 700 members.

It was under lockdown that word of Whelan's Wellness spread online and began to grow as an alternative to traditional workouts — with massive gains. 

"We're about 4,200 to 4,300 members worldwide right now," she said.

Each member pays a $50 monthly fee and gains access to her virtual workouts, which can be done live at 5:30 a.m. NT or any time, in any time zone, as the classes are archived online.

This before and after picture posted on Facebook shows how her gym has evolved to keep up with the program growth. (Gill Whelan/Facebook)

Her success is far from an overnight one, as she had the idea for this in 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic just helped it move along faster than expected. 

"I was on a mission to smash all of the barriers," said Whelan.

"Child care? Not a problem. Commuting out of your home, [finding] babysitters, all that stuff, not a problem anymore. We can do this on our own time. Anybody, any age, any shape, any size, anywhere, any time."

Her passion for what she practises isn't an up-sell tactic; while she may be the founder, she's also a client. 

"I do absolutely every rep right along with them," Whelan said. "I practise the eating concepts that we develop. We do all of this together hand in hand."

Whelan sets up her lights and audio for one of her online boot camp classes. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

With the business growing by more than 500 per cent she's expanded her services from more than just three virtual workouts a week. 

Whelan hosts a tea time mindset session twice a week, where comments and concerns from members posted in the Facebook group are discussed. 

She's recently partnered up with cookery school Alder Cottage, which provides each member with a free cooking class each month, and added a yoga instructor, a spin class teacher and a local clinical psychologist, with each offering up a session each month. 

"My ultimate goal is to provide a complete, whole optimal wellness experience — holistic," said Whelan.

"I want to offer things like the fitness piece, like the nutrition piece, like the mindset piece, and I've collaborated with different people so that it becomes a much broader experience than just exercise classes." 

Whelan has also branched out into branded merchandise. (Whelan Wellness)

The expanding business has meant growth behind the scenes, requiring her to hire staff and update her lighting and sound system. It's a big step forward from where she started, when she just used her computer's built-in camera. 

"We are a team of four at this point, but four very busy and very invested individuals," Whelan said.

"Everybody who is on the team is just as aligned with the values toward wellness. We're just constantly trying to make it the best experience out there." 

Despite the massive growth she's most proud of the community of virtual strangers who work out alone but together, and communicate online. 

"It's a small community with large power," said Whelan.

"It's so wholesome, it's so motivating, it's so empowering, it's so positive. As a community we come together and we work hard to do the hard things here in the gym, but we do other hard things as well."

Success online has given Whelan the opportunity for big-time advertising. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

One of those things is raising money for charitable organizations, including the Nain Safe House, Iris Kirby House and the Community Food Sharing Association. 

Whelan says hearing feedback from new clients assures her that's she's realizing a goal that was just an idea a few years ago.

"The most common thing I get after orientation is, 'Gill, this is like a breath of fresh air. This is such a different approach from the things that I'm used to. I'm used to things that are so inhibiting and restrictive and make me feel like I'm just not worth it,'" she said.

"That is my goal. To smash all of that out of this industry."

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Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.