Kennedy: Turn off Netflix, turn on to exercise

Nicholas Boer, who teaches exercise physiology at UTC, (right), is an advisor to the Onsight Fitness center in the Dome Building on Georgia Avenue. Josh Johann, left, is one of the founders of the business. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga photo by Angela Foster.

This is the story of how the ivory tower met the golden dome.

Nicholas Boer, 49, teaches exercise physiology. His full title is a mouthful: U.C. Foundation associate professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Boer, who has been at UTC for about 20 years, is determined to avoid the disconnect that happens when college professors have too little contact with the business world, the so-called "ivory tower" effect.

For the past few years, Boer has been an advisor to a handful of his former UTC students who represent a new wave of personal trainers with deep grounding in exercise science. A few of them are building a new kind of business inside the Dome Building on Georgia Avenue in downtown Chattanooga.

"I love it. I really do," Boer said of assisting his former students. "I feel more in touch."

The business, called Onsight Fitness, slots between physical therapy and a traditional exercise gym. It's a hybrid designed to launch clients into the personal fitness world after a few months of one-on-one or small-group instruction. They call it building "exercise confidence."

While much of the glitzy modern fitness business is built around promoting weight loss and body image, Boer and his students treat exercise as a building block for a lifetime of good health.

" ... Selling people on improved health is not as effective as selling people on dramatic weight loss or the vanity that you're going to look like a fitness model," Boer said. " We have to provide a premiere product and follow the science."

Started by some of Boer's former students, Onsight Fitness has been described as a triage unit for the physically inactive, a place where people can be taught (or re-learn) how to exercise in a non-threatening environment.

For Boer, it's a place where the best practices of exercise science that he teaches at UTC can be applied to real people. And it's meant to be temporary, with a typical client staying with the program for only about four months.

A typical customer for the business might be a middle-age person with some underlying health issues who has lost confidence in his or her ability to stay fit.

"I'm 49," Boer says. "Your body falls apart. You are not able to do the things you could do (before) and you are scared."

Boer says many personal trainers without academic training have built a clientele on the strength of their own personalities alone.

"What I would find sometimes is that it was the people who had the most charisma who knew the least," Boer said. "They didn't know what they didn't know.

"Our students [on the other hand] have a good idea of what our scope of practice is," he said.

Although the COVID-19 has slowed the fitness business, Onsight is actually well positioned to benefit as the pandemic begins to lift, Boer said. Its low trainer-to-client ratio results in a relatively safe environment, he said. A full house is five clients in a 2,000-square-foot space.

"Watching Netflix for hours and hours - how much enjoyment and connection with other people do you get from that?" Boer said.

Meanwhile, Boer said that advising working trainers has moved him closer to the real-world applications of exercise physiology.

"Right now the biggest goal for me is to prove a concept that selling exercise to improve health is a viable business," he said.

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