Gym Hooky’s Ariel Belgrave Shares the Keys to Building a Wellness Brand While Working Full-Time
Ariel is making waves on the west coast as the first employee and Program Director of /dev/color, a startup that helps to maximize the impact of black software engineers. However, when she’s not pushing the needle on tech diversity in Silicon Valley, this twenty-something Boston College graduate is the warm and loving online personality behind the popular fitness and wellness brand Gym Hooky. Known for her creative dance videos and home workout hacks, Ariel has worked diligently to share her vivacious passion for fitness with women across the nation in hopes of inciting more happiness through health. In this interview with BAUCE, Ariel shares how she built her wellness brand while working on Wall Street. She also schools us on what health tips you should really stick to if you want to keep that tummy on flat-flat.
When did you start Gym Hooky and what inspired you to do so?
Ariel: I started Gym Hooky in January of 2015, so I’m coming up on two years and I’m excited [laughs]! I’ve always been an athlete and been active. I grew up from grade school to high school paying softball, basketball, track, and in college I played rugby. I was used to having someone hold me accountable (aka my coach) and being in the best shape to play the sport.
I think the reality came for me when I left college and entered the real world and started working in finance on Wall Street. It was a career that was very demanding of my time. Although I did have a gym membership, I never used it and I think there are many people who can relate to that. By the time I would get out of work, it was either too late or the gym wasn’t on my way home so I really had to motivate myself to go out of the way to get to the gym. I knew that working out was something that made me feel good and I felt like I wasn’t taking care of myself by avoiding it so I knew I needed to make an effort in some way.
I started experimenting with home workouts and built my own mini-home gym! Gym mat, dumb bells and yoga balls. [Laughs]. I worked out everyday and maintained that discipline because I wanted to make sure that I felt good. I looked fine externally — I never gained any crazy weight, but I felt drab from not working out consistently because of work.
Wow. That truly does take discipline to stay committed to working out on your own. You literally found a way to “hack” together your own fitness program while working full-time.
Ariel: When I worked on Wall Street, I worked with a lot of women and they’d ask me how I stayed in shape. I told them I don’t go to the gym,which they were all enthused by. I started giving women individual tips and sharing healthy routines on how they could reach their fitness goals without leaving their homes. When several women started asking me questions, I decided to create a collective place where people could read my tips. My first expression of Gym Hooky was through a Tumblr account I created.
I did my research prior to launching the Tumblr and I remember seeing tons of fitness accounts online. What I learned, especially from a woman I was helping though, is that there was a lot of physical glamorization over the “#WCW body” versus true educational sources. Women would see other women’s bodies and get stuck on looking like “her” instead of finding out what worked for themselves. I wanted to teach them healthy options outside of just hitting weights at the gym. That’s how Gym Hooky was truly born! I created this platform mainly through Tumblr and Instagram; that’s where I shared workouts, healthy tips, recipes — and it sort of took off from there.
Let’s talk a little bit more about these Instagram fitness accounts. There’s a lot of them out there as you mentioned, but some simply promote “tummy teas” or “waist trainers”. What are your thoughts on these products as aides in a woman’s fitness journey?
Ariel: I get that question a lot. I’ll be honest — I personally don’t use these products. I’ve never tried tummy teas and I don’t own waist trainers. My biggest push is always towards natural fitness. I’ve heard some cases where these things work but they are few and far in between. Detox tea and tummy tea is effective for people curbing their appetite or trying to lose water weight. I’m not anti “detox tea”, however what I do encourage in people is to not solely depend on [these products] for weight loss.
People will come to me asking if they can use it as a quick fix. And they aren’t understanding their body. They should use it in addition to improve healthy lifestyle — so being active and maintaining healthy eating. By using it as a quick fix you are not learning about your body and that’s not a good thing. That’s how you can start gaining weight again once your done with the product! Eating healthy and being active have longer term effects than tummy tea – hands down. Cutting out processed foods, fried foods and increasing your intake of fruits and whole grains will really do the trick – not just drinking tea and going to the bathroom a lot. Those teas contain herbal ingredients that are very similar in formula to a laxative! They will dehydrate your body, casing you to start eating things that have a lot of water and in return stunting your weight loss process.
You recently moved to the west coast to spearhead the diversity tech movement as the first employee of /dev/color. How are you balancing building your wellness brand with your job?
Ariel: It’s been tough. I jumped from Wall Street to tech and when I first moved here, my focus was to build a presence in the tech space. I’m the first employee for my startup and like a true startup, there are long, late night hours. I reduced my digital posts for Gym Hooky, but also had to stop taking on clients and doing group training for a bit while I get settled. But what I have found is that there are people in California that knew me. I’d meet people and they would ask, “Are you Gym Hooky?” And I’d say,”Yeah!” My desire for Gym Hooky was re-sparked when I met people here who wanted me to take them on as clients. I haven’t had time, but I have created a space to do group workouts. I’ve partnered with other businesses and organizations that have similar goals as myself. Now I dedicate time in the mornings for Gym Hooky. I carve out time to answer questions and I commit to producing and editing videos on the weekends.
So, how does Gym Hooky make money? How did you turn your online brand into a business?
Ariel: I’m a certified health coach as well as a group fitness instructor. When I did have a heavy hand in that, it was before I started working at my startup and that was crazy revenue. As a health coach, my job is to help people create plans and set actionable goals. It’s truly about me holding them accountable and helping them understand their options — and that’s not easy. I found myself getting into public speaking as well and doing speaking engagements. I’ve recognized there is a lot of opportunity in that for Gym Hooky as well. I’ve been asked to do personal training, but I plan to re-launch that service in some time. Right now, I’m working on an e-book for my followers that I am looking forward to releasing soon!
You have more than 25K followers on Instagram. How were you able to build that consumer base and when did you realize you were starting to get a lot of traction?
Ariel: My base is built off of other people’s support of Gym Hooky. I’ve had some blessed moments to say the least. I’ve been featured often on Blavity and did an Instagram takeover for them. I was also featured in a Buzzfeed post. I had no idea…I just came home one day and my phone was blowing up with new followers! People started tagging me in things. I’ve been re-posted quite a bit, including the videos that I do, which I think has truly helped with the growth.
A lot of my followers are women, brides-to-be and moms – people who truly value taking care of their body. My goal is to encourage those people that are super busy to do workouts at home. I don’t believe fitness should be boring. I am a Caribbean girl who loves to dance and I like to introduce dance into my workouts in a way that has never been experienced (but can still burn significant calories). So I’ve taken tons of popular songs and included “whipping and nae-nae-ing” in my videos, which I think truly resonates with my audience. I’ve seen these videos featured on accounts that already have hundreds of thousands of followers.
What is one fitness myth that a lot of people believe that you’d like to bust, Ariel?
Ariel: The scale. Do not be a slave to the scale. I know a lot of people like to use the scale manage their progress on their fitness journeys. People will step on the scale often to see if their weight has decreased. However, what I have seen happen is that a lot of people freak out when that number barely decreases or that number even increases. That can happen for a number of reasons. If you’re doing a lot of strength training you may be gaining muscle and the scale doesn’t differentiate the weight of fat and muscle. For the clients I work with, I challenge them to get rid of their scales when they are starting out on their fitness journey.
The best way to monitor progress is to take pictures. Gauge your changes over time and gauge how you feel. When you can point to your back and say, “See! That side roll is gone!” then you’ll truly know that you’re hitting your goals. That visual difference is way more powerful than a number on the scale.