DC-Area Fitness Instructors Are Leaving Big-Name Groups to Launch Their Own Businesses During Covid

Amidst studio layoffs and closures, local fitness instructors have adapted.

Tiffany Forte' trains a client at Kinesis in Georgetown. Photo courtesy of Terrance Forte’ of Forte Fitography.

Sunny Miller was one of the last people SoulCycle furloughed in July. After working for the company for five years and getting promoted to master instructor in 2019, the 36-year-old Shaw resident suddenly found herself without a job. However, Miller quickly pivoted, and decided to leave SoulCycle and start her own fitness business, Hustle, in early fall of 2020.

“Once the [furlough] happened, I was just like, ‘OK, I don’t know what they’re thinking or what’s going to happen, and I just can’t rest my life and whatnot in someone else’s hands and wait and wonder,’” Miller says. “So I basically just decided that I was going to branch off and do what I love and do what I know.”

Miller was hardly the only local fitness instructor or trainer to lose a job and subsequently forge their own path due to Covid. In July, Equinox, which owns SoulCycle, furloughed thousands of employees. In September, Flywheel Sports filed for bankruptcy, closing 42 barre-and-cycling studios across the country. Amidst layoffs and closures, the District’s fitness instructors have adapted—teaching classes on Zoom, hosting socially-distanced outdoor training sessions, and even launching their own fitness ventures.

Miller’s business, Hustle, started offering outdoor, in-person cycling classes at The Wharf this fall. When the weather became too cold to cycle outdoors, she partnered with Union Stage and started streaming virtual classes from the empty concert hall. Miller plans to return to teaching outdoors in April.

Before Covid-19, Amelia McNamara worked as a personal trainer and boxing instructor at Equinox—starting her work days at 5:30 a.m. to train clients and teach classes. When everything originally shut down in March, she started offering virtual training sessions through Equinox. But Covid-19 ultimately allowed McNamara the chance to reevaluate her career—and gave her the push to leave Equinox and go out on her own. Earlier this month, she launched her own personal training and nutrition coaching business, A-List Fit.  “It was tough because emotionally you feel like you’re not going to have the backing of a big brand and company like Equinox,” she says. “But I’ll be honest, I’m so glad I did it.”

Lilly Scott. Photo courtesy of Electric Collective Fitness.

Lilly Scott had a packed schedule prior to Covid-19. The 29-year-old Shaw resident worked full-time as a lawyer, but also had a side-hustle as a fitness instructor at CorePower Yoga and Equinox. When Covid-19 shut down in-person classes, Scott jumped at the chance to instruct virtually. Her online class grew from 40 to over 300 students. “I started to realize that maybe something was going on here,” Scott says. Her success teaching virtually ultimately propelled her to quit her day job and start her own virtual group—Electric Collective Fitness.

Scott says she’s surprised she was able to build her venture without a business degree. “I think a lot of times people, especially women, feel like we need to have a degree, we need to be specialized, we need to have all of this permission from society that we can do something well,” she says.

As for Tiffany Forte’, she left her job teaching group fitness for a big-box gym in April 2020 and started offering a free virtual bodyweight class—Tuesdays with Tiff. Almost a year later, Forte’ now runs her own fitness community, Fit and Female—and sells her own workout line, Fit & Female Active.

The 32-year-old Silver Spring resident had no prior experience with fashion merchandising—but that didn’t deter her. She’d been sitting on this idea for years, and she knew now was the time to take the plunge. “A lot of people were successful during the pandemic because it gave us a lot of time just to chill,” says Forte’. “People were forced to occupy their time in other ways…I know for me especially, I used this time to do all the things that I really wanted to do.”