Who's That Gal: Jennifer Phelan


Please tell us a little about your background and how you found yourself in the world of fitness today.

I grew up in upstate New York and was involved in dancing since age three. I went to Northeastern University for journalism which was totaly unrelated to fitness. When I had to get a work-study job, I saw a flyer in the gym with a photo of a girl that had a wireless mic on. It said ‘get certified to be a fitness teacher.’ This was the time around when Britney Spears was cool, so I was like perfect, dance around a room with a microphone on, this is totally up my alley. I auditioned, got the job and my certification to teach. I started freshman year and continued throughout college teaching everything from hip-hop to aerobics type stuff.

Teaching dance and fitness felt very natural to me. I grew up in the studio, so it felt great and I kept meeting wonderful people in my classes. After college I did what you were supposed to do, I got a 9-5 job, but kept teaching on the side. I ended up teaching so much that I was even teaching before and after work and I was working almost 80 hours a week. I spent 3 years in the marketing department of a law firm and then one day I decided it was time to make the leap. I quit my job, started teaching full time, and never looked back.

Starting your own business is the “American dream,” but takes a lot of work. Can you tell us about the process you went through to get your teacher’s license and how you built your client base / reputation to what it is now? 

Don’t get me wrong, quitting my job was scary. I’d never quit anything in my entire life and it was a secure job. I had benefits, a steady paycheck and I thought that was what you were supposed to do. But, I was lucky and I knew it was meant to be when the next day I had a meeting with Lululemon and they asked me to be an ambassador.

The key thing about starting a business is being dedicated and passionate about what you are doing. People don’t realize that how much work it is. I know there are folks who think I just wear spandex and sneakers everyday and bop around from class to class. But there is obviously a lot more to it.

The business of fitness has evolved over the past few years. When I started, people didn’t need to promote themselves the way they do now. Now, social media is a huge part of the job and everyone has a website, Facebook page and more. From the start, I was really set on creating a brand for myself and I was oversharing the details of my life because people seemed really interested in it. I created a Facebook page and just started posting all the time. Things progressed very naturally. Now everyone is doing that and you really have to stay on top of your game to reach your audience.

It took me a while to build my following but I have been doing it for 5 years and I’ve been putting in the effort. I don’t think all new instructors realize that it takes time, you don’t just start with 1,000 followers off the bat. Scheduling, emailing, marketing, updating your website, blogging and social media are all a huge part of your job as well.

To keep people interested, I try to go against the grain, and find new ways to market myself besides adding more noise on your mini-feeds. Free events used to be a rarity, but now they are the norm so I have to be constantly figuring out the next thing.

What has been the greatest business challenge you have encountered to date and who do you turn to for advice when challenges arise?

The hardest thing is that I’m doing this on my own. I’ve had assistants in the past that were really great. They were my right hand people, helping with events and such. But I don’t have my own studio or enough money to pay people to always help me. So I have to work hard to find the work-life balance that works for me.

Flexibility is a double edge sword. I have to plan around my own schedule and my clients’. Around the holidays and in the summer clients are on vacations and it’s great that I can take time off too, but I have to plan ahead because during that time off I’m not getting paid. And now I have a baby which is another story.

On that note, what’s the best career advice you’ve received? What advice would you give to a young woman looking to follow in your footsteps?

The best advice I’ve received was from my father who told me you have to love what you’re doing. I was really young and scared when I was thinking of quitting my office job and I was afraid to tell my parents. My parents have always been super supportive and that gave me the courage to give it a try and they totally supported me because they saw how happy I was when I was teaching.

If I had to give advice to someone else I’d say just go for it! Life is too short to spend it sitting behind a desk wishing you were doing something else. If it’s meant to be it will work out and if it doesn’t so what? You learned something and you can move on to something else. Take risks.

Over the past few months a lot has changed in your personal life- you just became a new mommy! How has parenthood changed your role as a pilates instructor and business woman?  

It puts things into perspective and you really have to prioritize when managing your time. I’m still trying to figure everything out and I don’t know that I will ever have everything figured out. It’s funny because before I thought I would just bounce back into shape - physically and emotionally, but right now I’m learning the challenge of juggling my son’s life, my life, my family life and my business.

Motherhood is crazy - I have so much more respect for moms now. The things you go through physically and emotionally, the way you feel about yourself and your body before and after childbirth is something you can’t prepare yourself for. I’m very lucky that I have met a group of mothers that have become a new support system for me.

This group of new friends  actually inspired me to create programs for moms where they can feel comfortable about getting back in shape. In my new mommy classes you can work out with your baby and no matter what your baby does during the class it’s ok because we are all in the same boat.

Aside from Pilates, what are some best practices you recommend to clients to live a better, more purposeful life 

I’m by no means a nutritionist but I’d say along with working out, the best thing you can do is being aware of what you are putting in your body. I am all for everything in moderation, I’m not into crazy diets or anything, but eating clean is important. Just make sure what you are eating is real. You can’t eat crap.

I grew up like everyone else, not totally aware that processed stuff was bad. But now that we are so much more aware of that as a society, it’s great that we know that a balanced diet can really change your day - change your focus, your energy and everything else. When you feel good about yourself you are more capable of good things. Make time for yourself, eat healthy.

How has the culture of Boston influenced your business and fitness choices? (We love your free workshops!)

I’m here because this where I went to school and I had a great community of friends that stayed here. My community has also continued to grow over the years and I’ve met so many wonderful people through my classes.

Even though Boston is a big city, everyone is so supportive. The Pilates community is so strong and all the fitness instructors are friends. It’s really evolved and I’ve loved watching it grow. We all have our own style but we’re all in it together.

What’s even cooler is that Boston has become such a fitness city, so as a fitness instructor that’s very exciting

What’s next for JP Pilates? 

I always have something up my sleeve! I always want to do more, I have big goals, big dreams and with time they will happen. Until then I want to keep you in suspense! What I can tell you is that I am definetly going to incorporate more classes for mothers.

JPPilates is always growing and evolving along with my life. For example when I was getting married I was doing a lot of workouts that focused on brides because I knew how stressful getting ready for the big day was. Now I am changing my focus a little bit to group in a lot more options for moms and moms to be.

BUT, don’t worry, this does not mean I am only doing mommy stuff.  I’m still cool, sort of! All I can say is I know I’m not teaching a lot right now as I am figuring out this new mom-life, but this fall I will be back and I will be offering a lot more for each and everyone of you.

I am here to stay, there’s no getting rid of me Boston!

F U N   Q U E S T I O N S:

The most fun pilates class that you offer: Pilates Fusion at North End Yoga. I love that class. The people that come to this class are hard core.

Nike or New Balance? Nike

Coffee or tea? Coffee, no question.

Must-have workout gear item: Lululemon Wunder Unders, that’s my staple. Everything goes around that and as a former ambassador I love to represent them!

Favorite meal in Boston: Sushi from a hidden sushi place called Ginza in Chinatown

Favorite summer weekend getaway: Hingham - I love walking in World’s End

Most inspiring female to you today: My mom

Last book you read: A bunch of mom books. The last one was Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth

To learn more about Jennifer Phelan follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photos via Jennifer Phelan & Lucie Wicker Photography