One Change That Changed Everything

Alex Isaly left his corporate career and took a big chance on group exercise programming. He’s on a quest to redefine group fitness for instructors and personal trainers alike.

by April Durrett

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Alex Isaly believes in the power of one big change. A decade ago, he became a full-time fitness instructor, walking away from a career that had made him feel like a cog in a wheel.

That change transformed his life. Today, he’s a certified nutritionist, an AFAA-certified group exercise instructor, a personal trainer and an endurance athlete. His presentations and keynotes are staples of international fitness industry conferences. He writes for national magazines and makes guest appearances on network TV shows. He’s a lead trainer for online digital platforms and a consultant to top companies in the fitness industry.

“Making a change toward a healthy life isn’t easy, but it can make all the difference,” Isaly says. “The trick is letting nothing get in the way of that goal.”

What Drove His Big Change

Athletic pursuits have always been a part of Isaly’s life. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where he craved competitive sports—including baseball, swimming and football—all through high school. His love of exercise, competition and training continued through his college years.

In 1994, he graduated from Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and then went to work for a large environmental consulting firm in Orange County, California. He quickly adapted to Southern California’s healthy lifestyle.

Over the next decade and a half, however, his job in sales and project management pushed everything off track.

“I had become a corporate America slave,” he says. “I rarely spent time with my family or had time for myself. I was either living in an office, traveling the country or commuting 4 hours every day—and I was working 60–80 hours a week.

“I was burned out. I knew if I didn’t change everything, I would lose the person I was inside and was never going to live the dreams I had for my life and my family.”

The First Big Change

In 2009, Isaly quit his job to become a full-time fitness professional. A decade later, he could not be happier. But how nervous was he about switching careers back then? “On a scale of 1–10, it was an 11,” Isaly remembers. “Professionally and mentally, I wasn’t in a good place. I was so frustrated with my job that I was always in a bad mood, which impacted my family. It wasn’t fair to them.”

For all the demands of his work, he had found time to start competing in triathlons in the late 1990s. A few years later, he’d rekindled an old passion for bicycling. Then he started leading indoor cycling classes in his limited free time. “This gave me an inside look at the potential of what the fitness industry had to offer,” he recalls. The challenge: “I knew the only way I could help influence people was to give 100% of my time.”

A Guy in Group Ex

Isaly’s big change propelled him into teaching group fitness classes, where most clients and instructors tend to be women. That, too, was a significant shift. “I have to admit, as a male instructor it was intimidating in the beginning,” he says. “When I launched my first national group fitness program, seasoned colleagues actually told me that I should just give up and go back to my old job because I didn’t have what it takes to be a leader in the industry.”

Fortunately, some mentors encouraged him to nurture his teaching talent. One of them was award-winning fitness professional and author Jay Blahnik. “Alex was clearly meant to be an educator and motivator,” Blahnik says. “[Whether he’s working with] beginners who are just discovering the joy of movement [or] elite athletes who are trying to shave seconds off their personal records, he knows how to tailor his messaging and training principles to inspire success. When you watch him teaching a class, you can see he is truly following his life’s purpose.”

Isaly thinks more men should follow his example and become group exercise instructors. “If I can do it, anybody can,” he says. “It just takes having the confidence to get out of your comfort zone, be open to both positive and negative feedback, and be able to adapt and change.”

“I believe we all have this inner-athlete mentality that we so badly want to bring out. I also wanted classes to encompass a variety of athletic training regimens in one class, such as a combination of strength, cardio, plyometrics, agility and speed.”
—Alex Isaly

Redefining Group Ex

Why did Isaly prefer group fitness over personal training? “I thrived on the competitive spirit and sense of community within those classes,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of something that could foster that communal environment and challenge performance levels.”

When he started, most group programs were choreographed to the beat of music. Again, Isaly embraced a big change: He began developing programs that were not performed to the beat. “My goal back in 2009, like today, was to bring a sport-minded athletic experience to group fitness,” he says.

While rare at the time, that mindset made the most sense to him. “I believe we all have this inner-athlete mentality that we so badly want to bring out,” he says. “I also wanted classes to encompass a variety of athletic training regimens in one class, such as a combination of strength, cardio, plyometrics, agility and speed.”

Why would this type of program work? “I always consider two perspectives when creating programs—the fitness pro’s and the participant’s,” he explains. Choreographed classes require fitness pros to memorize a lot of content. “I want to offer programs that allow instructors to connect more with their participants and not to get so wrapped up in the choreography.”

As for participants, he’s trying to appeal to those who shy away from choreography.

“Participants can slow down, speed up, shorten or lengthen range of motion, or stop and take a break,” he says. He notes that athlete-centered classes can also help fitness facilities drive up membership by training people for sporting events like 5K runs, obstacle course races and triathlons.

Personal Trainers in Group Ex

Isaly wants personal trainers to see the value of group exercise. “The skill sets and education of a personal trainer are no different from those of a group fitness instructor. The bigger challenge for personal trainers is having to work with more people at the same time. Trainers have a great eye for proper form, based on their experience working one-on-one, and they can bring that to a group training workout.”

Isaly would like to see more melding of individual and group training.

“I think group fitness needs more trainer engagement and support, and personal training needs more from group fitness. Typically, you see two departments cohabiting under one roof, but they are disconnected.” Gyms and clubs should bridge the gap to help each department benefit from the other, he says.

Disrupting the Industry

Isaly’s big-change approach to group exercise reflects his drive to disrupt the fitness industry. That means radically changing programs, products or strategies by introducing new ones that create new markets. Disrupters don’t settle for adjusting to change. They want to be the change.

“I’m always looking for vehicles that disrupt,” he says. “Programs that disrupt what’s already out there can change what’s stale and stagnant.”

One of Isaly’s frequent collaborators is international fitness expert and innovator Linda Shelton, author, video producer and director, and a 2007 inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame. In the past 8 years, she and Isaly have worked together to create presentations and write educational materials, voice-overs and scripts. “We are like-minded in that we both thrive on exploring uncharted territory, creating new dimensions of training to bring to the fitness market,” she says.

Cycling: His Happy Place

One thing about Isaly hasn’t changed: his affection for cycling. “My Zen is when I’m on my bike, riding outside in the open air,” he says. “I used to cruise around my neighborhood on a bike when I was a kid. I didn’t know much about the sport of road racing until I started competing in triathlons in 1998. The physical training kicks my butt, and I experience a wonderful peace of mind.”

His love for riding evolved into a passion for endurance events. He has competed in races like HooDoo 500, a 534-mile nonstop solo bike race in Southern Utah. More recently, he finished the Race Across America (RAAM), racing his bike 3,080 miles—from coast to coast—on a four-man team, finishing in just 6 days.

“The competitive component of racing gives me a sense of purpose for my training,” he says. “I like to see how far I can push myself mentally and physically. Plus, I’m part of a community in racing, which I enjoy.”

Isaly merges a passion for team competition with his group exercise experience to help fellow athletes. “I set up training classes for bigger events like competitive races,” he says. “I knew others were looking for programs that would help them prepare for a marathon or triathlon. People want to be a part of something special with others who have common interests. Group fitness provides that platform.”

Building Professional Relationships

Throughout his career, Isaly has been a resource for fitness companies, associations and publications. How did that happen?

“I found that this industry is very relationship-driven,” he says. “A mentor told me that opportunities will come through referrals and genuine relationships. He also told me to work with integrity, be respectful, stay humble, show gratitude in everything I do and always be learning. I’ve followed these suggestions.”

It all comes down to teamwork. “I believe in the power and strength of a team,” he says. “The team is where you will get the strength and knowledge to go beyond what was previously thought [possible].

“I’m just excited to be an influencer and on the forefront of creating fitness platforms that will bring fitness professionals and enthusiasts together, provide that groundwork for training for the next big thing, and [let people] push each other to the finish line.”

What’s the key for other fitness pros looking to follow a similar path? “Begin by building genuine relationships with other leaders and companies in different areas of fitness and wellness,” Isaly advises. “Establish yourself as someone who is ‘multidimensional’ and can bring value from personal experience.”

An Attitude of Gratitude

“When I first met Alex, I was struck by his sincerity and honesty,” says Michael Kane, senior director of original programming and development for NBC Sports Group. “He is dedicated, hardworking and passionate about his family, his faith and the fitness space,” Kane says. “He has all this knowledge and is eager to share it. Alex is the type of person you root for to succeed.”

Isaly feels blessed to be helping others. “My philosophy is that everyone is capable of overcoming life’s obstacles and reaching personal greatness,” he says. “This applies to both fitness and life. Nothing is going to be perfect. You’ll always be faced with challenges. What is important is having a mindset that you can go through these obstacles and succeed.”

Blahnik admires how Isaly approaches situations from the perspective of a teacher, a coach and a student.

“He knows that in every situation there is always something to learn that will make him better at his work, and he carefully looks for opportunities for personal growth, even when he is leading the effort or the team,” Blahnik says. “He has an extraordinary ability to lift up everyone around him.”

And it all started when he made up his mind to pursue that one big change.

Meet our experts

Author_APRIL-DURRETT_bw APRIL DURRETT , is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who has covered the health and fitness industry for 30 years. She is based in Sunnyvale, California.

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