How Val Desjardins Reinvented Digital Fitness Amid A Pandemic

Marie Labrosse, a master’s student in English at McGill University contributed to this story.

Val Desjardins, celebrity trainer, LGBTQ advocate, and entrepreneur was one of the first fitness providers in Montreal to close her studio on March 13, 2020. With 250 customers circulating daily through 20,000 square feet, the studio owner did not feel that she could guarantee the safety of her clients and staff. 

“People come to me because they trust me to take care of their health and wellness,” Desjardins remarked. “The irony of the threat of a viral pandemic was too much.”

Initially, she did not see the closure as a long-term decision, expecting it to only last a few weeks. As it became clear that those weeks would stretch into multiple months, she started sharing free live fitness content on Instagram to tide over antsy customers in isolation. She immediately noticed the benefit of the offering for both herself and her followers. By consistently posting twice a week, Desjardins saw the online following for her live videos grow from 100 to 400 people. 

“By showing up every week, we made it possible for people who for geographic or socioeconomic reasons couldn’t train with me or the team at our studio,” she explained. “Suddenly we were there for them, we were connecting with them.”

From there, her digital offering continued to grow organically. In time, viewers started offering Desjardins money to thank her for her investment in their well-being. She appreciated the show of support, but she wanted to know with certainty how many users would transition to a monetized experience. She created a mailing list to gauge interest and received over 300 answers expressing support for the project.

“I needed an action to prove that this was really a need and then I would be happy to invest the money and create it,” she said. “And that’s what happened.”

Within 24 hours of launching her Pump Digital Studio, 100 people had subscribed. Today, she has twice the number of customers tuning into her fitness classes live and asynchronously throughout the week. The offering, which costs C$100 per month, provides users access to a standalone digital platform onto which Desjardins uploads nearly 25 hours of content per month. Three other trainers with whom she collaborates offer different styles of classes, including strength training and barre. On top of the physical conditioning that Desjardins provides, her programming also emphasises the importance of emotional well-being. Remote classes with her and her team offer a personal connection that helps to motivate attendees to work out even while at home.

Desjardins and her team give a fixed number of live classes that are filed into the content library alongside other pre-recorded videos. Her goal is to accumulate hundreds of hours of videos so diverse that they can become her clients’ go-to for all of their fitness needs from 10-minute stretching session to 45-minute high-intensity interval workouts. Putting her background in videography and event planning to use, Desjardins has created a product that stands apart from the typical Zoom fitness classes in both quality and sustainability.

“In the past I wasn’t interested in going digital,” she said. “Now, I see the power and the convenience of it, especially during this time. It creates flexibility.” 

Desjardins’ personal commitment to her clientele has also fueled the success of her digital studio. She strives to be authentic and trustworthy in every client interaction—even if that interaction might be happening asynchronously on someone’s mobile in their living room. 

“I show that I’m walking the walk and that we’re all in this together,” she said. “People need that collective experience and trust. And as with the physical studios before, as long as you’re consistently delivering a good and honest product, there’s room for everyone.”

To be able to provide that consistency, Desjardins has had to readjust her perspective on work and life. Digitization and teaching in a new format require an increased level of attention, language precision, and overall fitness expertise. To deliver high calibre training, she has learnt to put her personal needs first. 

“It’s important for me to take care of myself and prioritize my well-being so that I can lead and serve properly during the pandemic because people need support more than ever before,” Desjardins reflected. “That old way of hustling and forgetting about yourself to put financial gain and client and team needs above your own doesn’t work anymore.”

Even though her classes and training are constantly available through the Pump Digital Studio, she still insists on the importance of recovery. By focussing on building an original platform that is sustainable for her business and for herself, Desjardins practices the holistic well-being that she preaches in business and in fitness.

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