Interview with Sarah Durnford

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Sarah Durnford has worked with Les Mills for over two decades. Her journey began as a Group Fitness Manager and she is currently a Training Manager, which involves the development of all instructor education across the company.

PTT: Please tell us a little more about yourself and how you got into training?

SD: My career actually started as a dancer. I trained as a professional and I was in that world for a short time but always through that training, fitness – quite unusually, actually, in the dance world when you’re talking a good twenty-five years ago, and it was not as prevalent as I would like.

PTT: Tell us more about your background in dance?

SD: My background was in dance, working as a professional dancer and fitness, training and health have always been a big part of it for me. I initially got into teaching dance and it really just evolved. I became very much interested in the health and fitness industry and then I permanently moved into the fitness industry which has been my career for twenty plus years now.
I’m responsible for and look after all of the instructor, training and education that sit alongside Les Mills. I look after a team of people that deliver that training to all of our customers and instructors.

So, health and exercise are still the fundamental part of what I do and obviously, this lockdown has limited that. For me, it’s about training and staying healthy at home and now we have so many digital and virtual choices but being out and working with clients is something we’ll go back to as soon as we’re able to.

PTT: What would you say some of the challenges have been since lockdown was enforced?

SD: I think it’s amazing how adaptable we are, so we are literally a year on now and if we rewind a year, it was hard-hitting for our industry and people who in that face-to-face – whether you’re a personal trainer or in a group exercise environment – and suddenly it was whipped away.

What we’ve seen online and in the streaming services and what I’ve seen personally with people that I work with, within the industry and certainly at Les Mills, is this opportunity to explore fitness online, via our on-demand platform and it was great that we had that platform for a fair amount of years but it’s just accelerated that and really brought that into the forefront. So, really what I see is going to be super exciting and interesting and we have dates to go back to live, so people will have that live experience which you just can’t get away from. Human-to-human contact is so important.

That Livestream option is actually making it much more accessible, so for me, that’s super exciting! It’s the healthy mind and body and how to get more and more people into that and I think the other great thing is over this past year, it’s really brought to the forefront our mental health as well as our physical.  Physical health is how we feel mentally, which we’ve known for so long and it’s absolutely brought to the forefront, so I feel that people are working out for different reasons now, now they have different purposes and reasons as to why it’s important for them to stay active and continue exercising.

PTT: It’s been a challenging year for people, myself included, who were accustomed to going to the gym or meeting up with a family or friend member and going for a run, walk, cycle etc. How do you feel we’ll transition out of that after a year-long ban on gyms and working out in groups? And how comfortable do you feel people will be with that post-lockdown?

SD: I think the appetite is there and at Les Mills, we consider the live experience there like a pinnacle experience and it is about community, social communities and human interaction as well. We’ve done a lot of research into how powerful it is in terms of motivation and adhering to exercise habits if you’re exercising in that group environment and how much that helps. If you look at how Les Mills on-demand or live streaming is, you can still create a great sense of community and that’s what has been really fantastic to see over the last year, which is how we continue to build these communities online, which is like you said, for some people, it has been really powerful in their mental health and helping them to adhere. So, I think what the challenge for people beings is, I might’ve normally gone to the gym or gone for a run with my friends four times a week and now that’s whipped away, how do I create my own routine to keep me healthy in my mind and my body as well.

For me, the most powerful thing is to set myself a routine every day so that I’m connecting with others who are doing the same thing.

PTT: What advice would you offer to those returning to gyms, group workouts post-lockdown? As we know it’s never going to be how it was pre-lockdown and there’s going to be a certain percentage of people who’ll be a little more fearful and mindful.

SD: We’re closely involved with many clubs and facilities that will be opening and health and safety is paramount. I think if going back is one of your concerns, it should be relatively easy to find out what guidelines are being put into place and I’m pretty certain that group exercises will have a limit on numbers and lots of safety measures in place. So, I think it’s really important that people find what they’re comfortable with and speak with the fitness professionals that you’re working with as well so you can get guidance if you’re going back into the group environment or you’re getting back into the one-on-one training. It’s just that two-way communication so that you feel comfortable with the workout or training that you’re going to be doing. I think it’s also about being open to trying something different and maybe through Covid times we have tried something different in our physical routine and exercise routine and keeping hold of that and being open-minded to trying a different experience because it will look and feel different, but it’s about being open to exploring and it should be quite an exciting opportunity – the body does need change as well, which is really important in that physical to do muscle memory and shift it around and change it up physically, it’s really great.

PTT: How has this past year impacted you personally and workwise too?

SD: I guess workwise the biggest shift and adjustment I’ve had to make is being in a role and a job where I love to be physical and even in my role I’m with people a lot, whether it’s coaching or motivation, so for me, I’ve had a big shift to permanently working from home and at a computer and for me it’s been super important to find a way for my physical, but also for my state of mind, how am I going to break my day up?
I’m an early morning workout person so my routine is up early and always working out before I can sit down at a computer and then getting some outdoor time as well. I also make sure I get out and I have Lola, my little dog. I’m a really passionate advocate of yoga and where our bodies need balance, so meditation has been powerful and helpful for me as well and how do I fit that in amongst the physical stuff. It’s about finding those things that work for you and being patient and I always say to people that we’ll always have those times that feel super tough for anybody because there’s been a big shift but it’s almost being a bit patient with yourself and that’s okay.
For me, it’s about finding the stuff that you enjoy when you exercise, and it shouldn’t feel too gruelling.

PTT: I think we’re quite fortunate to live in a digital age, whereby we can source workouts via online platforms such as YouTube. I’ve been doing workout sessions with a friend via Zoom as she’s currently in New York because living alone during these times has had a serious knock-on effect on people mentally who are living alone, in isolation and finding the motivation to get up and go.

SD: Definitely. So, trying to source that community is key. That motivation, in a live environment and in a gym, there are others to support that motivation as you said. So those online communities, like you said a zoom session with your friend is great, but there are so many online communities that you can work out with or even if you talk about on MLAD you’ve even got this opportunity where you can pick a workout plan and a six-week period. So, I’m not quite sure, I’m not feeling motivated, let me sign up for this six-week challenge that’s going to hold me accountable, and you can check-in and also if I don’t do it I’ve got other people to help motivate me. I think what’s key if you’re struggling with motivation is finding that online community and classes that you can connect in with others that can help and support you.

PTT: Training and coaching – was that something you were always interested in?

For me, exercise, fitness and moving have always been within me. So, if you asked me, it was going to be something in my life then yes, I guess, absolutely! It’s what I love to do. I guess if I started out wanting to be a dancer then would I’ve thought, ‘a fitness professional, coaching and leading.’, I don’t know – but I certainly love what I do and for me it’s being with others, guiding others and really positive change, whether it’s for your mental health or physical health as well.

PTT: And finally…Do you think the government are implementing enough support as we transition out of lockdown for companies and organisations such as Les Mills?

SD: I think we’re very conscious of following those government guidelines. We’re relying on that they have all the science and data. I think what’s proven and the key is that this idea, regardless of where we are, the importance of physical activity and how that can help and impact, whether it’s mental or physical health. So, for us, it’s great to see that the gyms are opening at the same time as other things are opening up. And I think that all the support we would need is to ensure that gyms are sitting and leading at the forefront of that opportunity for people to re-engage and stay fit and healthy at the soonest possible time that it’s safe.
So, I think that whether it’s UK Active, who has been working closely with the government and we feed into that, it’s really a two-way relationship and conversation that have been going on, but for us, it’s about how do we get people back and Active is going to help the recovery and recovery of the nation and the mental health and physical health as soon as it’s safe and possible. You spoke of people feeling concerned about back (into the gyms) but that health and safety and confidence has got to be there too.



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