The past 12 months have been difficult for all of us. One group that hasn’t been given much thought are those who take their fitness seriously.
For many of us, an important part of our routine in pre-covid days was hitting the gym a few times a week. Gym going is an important and healthy habit for thousands of people, and those who work in the leisure industry such as personal trainers have had their livelihoods removed from them.
Dundee-based Emma Storey-Gordon hasn’t let gym closures get her down. The personal trainer has kept in tremendous shape with no more equipment than a chin-up bar and some resistance bands.
The 29 year-old is an online personal trainer who has seen her already flourishing business, ESG Fitness, soar in popularity over the past year.
“For me the best way to get through covid has been to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do,” she says. “I might not be able to go to the gym but I can still do a good workout from home.”
Born in Oxford, Emma went to school at Madras College in St Andrews then studied sports science at Edinburgh University.
She worked as a gym instructor throughout her university career, graduating 10 years ago, after which she spent a year working as a cardiovascular disease and diabetes researcher at Ninewells Hospital.
“I didn’t want to just be a personal trainer, but the research work was a bit too lab based for my liking,” she continues. “I wanted something where I get to be a geek, because there’s a huge side of me that loves that, but I like explaining research to people more than doing the research. Doing what I do now is the perfect balance for me.”
Emma set up ESG Fitness four years ago. She works with Chloe Madelely – daughter of broadcasters Richard and Judy – to deliver fitness coaching to around 500 women, and runs coaching courses for smaller groups called Commit to Six.
Along with Fife-born personal trainer Emilia Thompson she also runs EIQ nutrition, which delivers science-focused diet education and is aimed at personal trainers.
Emma is happiest when she’s getting ordinary people fitter. “To me, getting an elite athlete’s personal best down by 0.1 seconds is not as interesting or satisfying as seeing what a huge impact going from being sedentary to getting out for a walk every day can have on someone’s health,” she says.
Her daily videos and her podcasts attract a huge audience, and she has more than 42,000 followers on Instagram – though she jokes that being famous on social media is like being rich in Monopoly.
Emma puts some of her own personality into her social media accounts. As well as talking about diet and exercise, she talks a bit about her own life, posts pictures from her past, is open about her sexuality (she came out as gay in her early 20s) and showcases her daily walks around Dundee and the surrounding area.
One of her mantras is ‘imperfect action’ – the idea that life isn’t perfect, and neither is diet or exercise.
“This is a huge thing for me,” she explains. “Life isn’t perfect so you don’t need to be perfect with your training, you don’t need to be perfect with your diet.
“So many people don’t exercise because conditions aren’t perfect. But you do need to start and if you’re consistent you will get results.
“If you don’t have an hour to do a workout then work out for half an hour. If you don’t have half an hour, do 15 minutes. It’s amazing how just a small amount of exercise makes a difference. If you look at high intensity training (HIT) the minimum amount that causes a positive response in the body is two ten-second bursts.
“There’s really interesting research around hypertrophy (muscle building) and the benefit you get from just one set to failure, as opposed to all this volume most people do.
“It’s easy to forget there’s a law of diminishing returns when it comes to exercise. You’re going to get a huge, huge, huge benefit from doing just some exercise. Thirty minutes three times a week will do you the world of good.”
She is an astute businessperson and regularly points out that female personal trainers on average charge much less than their male counterparts. Being money-smart is part of what led to her becoming an online personal trainer.
“If you’re a face-to-face personal trainer you’re trading your time for money and you’re never going to get rich trading your time for money,” she says. “I made absolutely no money doing this when I started but now I make good money at it so it’s financially a good thing for me.
I love personal training and I get paid to do that. I love podcasts and now I get to pay myself to do a podcast. I’ve managed to create a career where I get paid to do my favourite things. What I also find really rewarding is I can work with so many more people online than I could in person.
Emma’s Commit to Six programme is designed to make a difference to people’s fitness and also give them good habits to continue with. She explains: “I don’t do fitness classes. Instead I give clients workouts, fitness goals, tailored nutrition and meal plans, weekly one to one sessions and check-ins, and all the support they need to meet their goals.
“One of the reasons there are statistics like ‘95% of diets fail’ is we have this short term mindset.
“People ask ‘how long is your diet for?’ Your diet is for the rest of your life. The numbers might change but the set of behaviours that you need to continue to maintain weight loss stay the same.”
Emma is a big believer in having a coach – and indeed she has a coach herself. She says there are many reasons why having a coach helps you meet your goals: “One, it gives you the perspective of someone from outside looking in. Two, you’ll be amazed at how much you get out of having someone in your corner who believes in you. Three, a coach can show you where to put in effort that will get the best results, instead of putting in effort to areas you don’t need to and it all becoming too difficult to sustain.”
Emma’s clients are overwhelmingly female. “On the programme I run with Chloe we have around 500 women and two men, but on Commit to Six it’s around 80% women so we have a higher proportion of men there. With my one-to-one clients it’s around 70-30 women to men. I think women do prefer a woman because they do feel like they can open up to them.”
Emma set up ESG Fitness long before coronavirus came into play, but with gyms having been closed for much of the past year there has been a surge of interest in online coaching.
“Not much changed in terms of what I do because I was already online but my business has definitely grown over the past year,” she says. “In the first lockdown we did an online conference which raised close to £30,000 for UNICEF.
“More people are now open to being able to do fitness online. I really feel for the industry and I feel for new coaches because it’s very hard at the moment.”
Research has shown being fit dramatically reduces your chances of dying from covid. Does Emma think people will improve their levels of fitness in light of the pandemic? “I would hope it will be a wake up call, because it’s not just covid. Being fit improves your outcome with almost any illness, even cancer. If you break your leg you’re likely to heal faster if you were fit and active than if you were sedentary.”
Emma also feels most people need to a do a lot more resistance training – weightlifting.
“There’s a misconception that fitness is cardiovascular fitness; that the best thing you can do is go for a run. We know that as you age muscle loss happens. Through resistance training you can not only reduce age related muscle loss, you can even add muscle as you age, up to a point.
“It’s a shame the people who would benefit most from resistance training are the least likely to do it. “I was injured quite badly last year and training is not really fun for me at the moment. I’m sure it will be again at some point but at the moment I’m training because I know it’s good for me.
“When I’m in my 60s I might not be working out as hard as I am now but I hope I’ll still be getting to the gym a few times a week. “Even just three times a week doing four or five resistance training exercises on machines will make a huge difference. It doesn’t need to be anything really technical or advanced.”
Follow Emma on Instagram: @esgfitness