ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — While in college, Jessica Campos spent an important summer active and lifeguarding at Myrtle Beach. But when she arrived in Greenville at East Carolina State University, she found herself feeling a bit lost, waiting for classes to start with no friends or family nearby and in a city she knew nothing about.
“Everywhere I go, I want to be a part of the community and feel some kind of fulfillment,” said Campos, 25, a native of Madison in the western part of Rockingham County.
Wanting to help and get involved on campus, she came across the job of athletic trainer not realizing it would be the key in bridging her experience as a lifeguard to a life as a fitness instructor.
Today, Campos teaches group exercise classes part-time at the William G. White Jr. YMCA in Winston-Salem, where like fitness instructors across the nation, she has watched the pandemic force closures, reduce classes and change settings.
When the pandemic first hit and gyms were first ordered closed, Campos remembers feeling comforted in knowing she could at least still exercise at home.
But weeks passed until the stay-at-home order was lifted.
Finally, the YMCA was finally able to bring Campos back to resume teaching her specialty — Les Mills Body Combat and Body Pump classes. And for safety’s sake, she would instruct outside.
Sarah Friesen, a mother of two who attended one of Campos’s recent classes, said, “As soon as the Y started offering classes again — even though it was in the parking lot — I was here and very thankful they’re out here doing this.”
Becoming a group exercise instructor
Her experience as an athletic trainer at ECU gave Campos the opportunity to stand outside of sports games and assist injured players. She was also able to get her Emergency Medical Technician-Basic certification during the time and apply extra skills to her trainer position, she said.
Working as an athletic trainer, Campos found herself around ECU’s recreational and fitness facilities all the time, a place where she would watch group exercise classes and meet fitness instructors.
Campos recalls immediately falling in love.
She had finally discovered how she wanted to engage with her campus life and community.
To get her start, Campos began working as a group exercise attendant.
Then, at the advice of a program director, she began teaching something for which she had passion.
A lover of dancing, Campos took it upon herself to get her first certification in Zumba. She taught the dance-intensive classes for four months until she was ready for another certification.
Campos next worked for certification as a Body Combat instructor, a regimen completely different from Zumba training, she explained.
“It was the craziest training experience.” The training was two full days from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., doing the same one-hour routine. She remembers hearing the trainers’ critiques and not feeling great about them, but she knew they meant well. She knew she needed to hear it to improve her skills, and she did.
Eventually, Campos flew to Michigan for an advanced Body Combat fitness program training. About a year later, Campos became certified in the Body Pump lifting class.
“Each program deserves its own attention and focus. Just to be good at it,” Campos said of the training sessions.
Finding a new gym post-grad
Graduating from ECU in 2018, Campos did not know where her life was heading.
She went back to lifeguarding at Myrtle Beach, meanwhile applying to jobs everywhere with her new biomedical engineering degree.
Within two months, she landed a full time job in Winston-Salem in her field of study.
With her newfound love of group exercise, Campos found herself rushing to contact gyms in Winston-Salem to see where she could start teaching classes as a sideline.
Finding a gym proved challenging because the area had an established and tight-knit fitness community. The gyms were staffed, but Campos was persistent.
“I emailed William G. White maybe four or five times. I called them, and I showed up,’’ Campos said. “Eventually, I started taking their classes. After every class I would be like, ‘I really want to work here. You don’t understand how bad I want to work here.’”
What attracted Campos to William G. White was the facility’s group exercise room. It was bigger than her college facility with windows everywhere. She could see downtown, and the room provided instructors their own small stage, too. It was a vast change from her earlier days of group exercise in college.
Dealing with the pandemic
As gyms across North Carolina began closing due to COVID-19 in early spring, Campos remembers the frustration of not being able to see her new-found community of friends and she had no idea when she would be able to return to her happy routine.
In the meantime, though, Campos conducted virtual classes. And while it was not the same as physically being together with her students, Campos said she was glad her virtual classes made it possible for folks with irregular schedules to work out whenever they had time.
Campos also got creative and started filming and editing her own fitness videos to share on social media. The videos are designed to show people how to workout at home without weights or equipment.
Once restrictions eased, Campos was invited back to the Y to teach a couple times per week.
But now, as William G. White offers group exercise classes outside to observe social distancing guidelines, Campos has had to adjust to intense heat.
“It is never easy. It’s super humid, and I immediately start sweating. … It’s crazy. It looks like I go swimming every time,” Campos said, laughing.
Besides dealing with the heat of the summer, outside classes can pose a risk to participants with their form. “I have to make sure people have their stance correctly and that they’re not going to hurt themselves when they take a lunge at a weird angle. We want to be safer outside,” Campos said.
Outdoor classes mean a lot of hauling, too. “We have to come early and set up the bench, weights, mats, and their risers. All for up to 24 people,” Campos said about her Body Pump class. The sound system, speakers, and mic also must be taken out so that Campos can pump up the volume with energizing music and her inspirational voice.
Once class is over, Campos must sanitize all equipment thoroughly.
She notes that every class participant is required to have their temperature taken prior to class and that workout spaces are marked six feet apart.
One of Campos’s popular classes is the one-hour Body Combat class, a mixed martial arts class that blends moves from karate, taekwondo, boxing, muay thai, capoeira, and kung fu. “This is for fun. You’re not required to have any experience. We teach you the moves,” Campos said.
“Body Combat makes me feel invincible, and like a warrior,” Campos said. So much so, Campos had her first tattoo designed with the combat symbol and placed on the back of her right shoulder with the words: ‘The fighter in me’.
“I felt so much stronger as a person, and I felt like I could get through anything like getting through ECU to get my bachelor’s,” Campos said.
Exercise helps during the pandemic
During the pandemic, people are stuck at home. For many people, work and school are headquartered at home. So there’s no doubt Body Combat participants appreciate the change of scenery and being able to leave the workday behind when they come to the Y, Campos said.
For Meghan De-Young, who has been taking the Body Combat class for three years, the fitness sessions help reduce her anxiety and help her feel empowered, she said. “It has been my sanity during COVID. It was the only thing that was stable and bringing me a sense of normalcy.”
Clarissa Tatum, who has been taking the class for one year, agreed and said such workouts help her disconnect and leave the workday behind.
Another participant, Araceli Rodriguez, said Campos’ class relaxes her and that Body Combat is her favorite. She has been taking the class for three years.
Campos likes to see that positive impact on her students.
“I feel like everything I’ve done has been done to improve the quality of life,” she said.
“It is a passion of mine to overall make a difference in people’s lives, and fitness just happens to come with that,” Campos said.
Group exercise has allowed Campos to make lifelong connections, such as meeting her best friend in college, and connecting with a person she considers an inspiration, Melanie Barnes-Hicks, a fellow Les Mills group exercise instructor at the Y.
“What I admire most about her is her relentless pursuit of her goals, and her generous nature,” Barnes-Hicks said of Campos.
With plans to continue being a group exercise instructor, Campos said she imagines the excitement of someday becoming a national trainer and traveling to teach techniques and share knowledge.
“I think group exercise will be something I do for the rest of my life.’’