In March 2014, Dennis Guerrero and his business partner opened a gym on Long Island. The pair shared a passion for fitness, a dream of creating a community of like-minded people and a willingness to take a risk. Over the next six years, hundreds of members experienced and embraced an environment that fostered a palpable energy, helping athletes of all ages and abilities reach their potential.
The gym became a place to share achievements, work through losses and overcome illness. But like so many other businesses, the gym seemingly had no way of overcoming the financial impact and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Guerrero shut his gym in March, with no idea when it would reopen. But he was far from done. He lent out every piece of equipment the company owned to gym members, continued to pay the staff and worked to set up outdoor classes in hopes of keeping the gym’s membership active and healthy. As the shutdown stretched on, it became clear the physical gym was closed for good.
In its place, something very different took hold. Guerrero, who saw his mission as changing lives through physical activity and proper nutrition, created something new. Life Outside the Box, or LifeOTB, as they call it, was born.
Members who used to commute to the gym now broke a sweat in the comfort of their home. Some put in their work in decked-out garage gyms or open yards. Others moved their furniture and shooed their pets so they could work out in the house. LifeOTB members are still coached in all aspects of fitness, but the coaching comes on a screen rather than in person.
And far from feeling limited by the situation, the owners of LifeOTB saw it as an opportunity to grow, with Guerrero adding clients from Africa, Europe, South America and other parts of the United States while still serving his passionate local clientele.
Some gym members offered an up-close look at what it now means to be a member of LifeOTB:
Loneil Jenkins, 41, has been with the gym for three years and adjusted to having Guerrero’s presence reduced to a small screen on an end table. The shift to virtual training allowed him to go from four days a week in the gym to seven full days of activity — while also spending more time with his family — and he says it has adjusted his mind-set.
Alfred Daos is an aspiring doctor from the Philippines. He was skeptical of LifeOTB’s virtual transition because he liked the physical interaction of a traditional gym, but he has grown accustomed to working out in his garage. He lost four members of his family, including his father, to the virus, and found the community was still behind him. Members reached out to help him after the deaths, and some of them, including Guerrero, attended a drive-by funeral.
Laila Oguz works out in her backyard in Oceanside, N.Y. She had been a member of the gym for only two weeks when the doors were closed by Covid-19. She stuck with her workouts through the transition to virtual training. She said Guerrero was as big of a presence on a screen as off it, correcting mistakes and encouraging her to push through tough workouts. She has also adopted his nutritional advice, and says she hears his voice in the back of her head when she is shopping for groceries.
John Puccio and Raheem Yusuff use a friend’s garage to get their workouts in with the on-screen version of Guerrero. Puccio feels like the change in circumstances has given him a blank slate for changing his entire way of life, and he has spent the pandemic training with Yusuff. Both are tested regularly for the coronavirus. Yusuff misses the camaraderie of the gym, and doesn’t have some of the equipment he likes, but he says Guerrero has worked around the limitations to make sure there is no physical drop-off.
Doug Brennan, 41, works in finance. He has been with the gym for four years, and after struggling with the concept of a virtual experience, he leaned in and built a gym in his garage. He has found he doesn’t miss the physical gym because he has fewer distractions and spends more time with his family, while also turning a corner in his training, thanks to committing to a program of exercise and nutrition.
Alexa Hoovis, 23, a student who hopes to work in physical therapy, is a part-time trainer for LifeOTB. She was concerned her workout intensity would drop off when things went virtual, but she said that seeing the gym members keep pushing hard on Zoom helped her stay motivated and focused.
Jamie and Chris Morgan have made their garage a training space. Jamie says that missing a day of training makes her miserable and that Guerrero’s instruction has actually improved based on what he’s able to see on Zoom versus what he saw in person. She said she wouldn’t consider going back to a physical gym with the current state of coronavirus cases.
Anu Mago, 54, shares her training space — which is also her living room — with her dog, Luna. In 1994, Mago was in a car accident that resulted in her husband being quadriplegic and her daughter having severe brain trauma. Mago sustained serious injuries and has worked hard in the years since to stay physical, training in yoga and kickboxing and playing competitive tennis. She likes LifeOTB’s virtual workouts because of the flexibility provided by not traveling to the gym. She says the workouts have helped improve her tennis game.
Mike Levitz, 55, is a black belt in karate and sells enterprise software. He was the manager of LifeOTB before the pandemic, but he said that didn’t necessarily lead to taking care of himself physically. The shift to training in his garage has helped him improve his intensity and resulted in his not missing a workout for three months. He has lost 25 pounds since the change in setting.
Korbin Cleveland is dog trainer who serves as a fitness trainer in addition to the personal work he does with Guerrero. Before joining LifeOTB, he said, he was overweight, smoked and drank too much. He has found that the lifestyle encouraged by Guerrero has led to serious improvements.
Debbie Krueger, 51, has been with the gym for four years. She never felt like an athlete growing up — largely because of her smaller size — but feels Guerrero has helped her become one. The ease of working out in her yard and garage, and the access to her own bathroom, has led her to prefer the virtual experience.
Nicole Guerrero, 30, was a dancer and teacher before shifting gears to stay home with her and Dennis’s two children. Two difficult childbirths, along with Dennis’s spending all day at the gym with his clients, resulted in a drop-off of physical activity. A trip to a 5K run organized by the gym two years ago left her determined to change that. Initially that meant working out in the gym — she simply took the children with her — and she found it was a great experience for the entire family, as they were spending so much time together. When the gym closed, she was worried about not seeing her friends, but she created a workout space for herself in the garage and has found the new experience to be far easier.
Dennis Guerrero, 30, has been training all his life. He has competed in CrossFit competitions, mixed martial arts fights and in New York Golden Gloves. He works out at least three times a day. He is proving that a physical gym isn’t necessary for people who want to commit to physical fitness and good nutrition. His methods have inspired his clients, and he practices what he preaches.
Al Bello is a special correspondent for Getty Images.