Big Ideas: “We can try to ‘solve’ the problem of mental health through exercise, fitness, and movement” with Catherine Chan

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Chan. Catherine is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario Master of Arts program, spent a few years in marketing before becoming a sales manager and training manager […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Chan. Catherine is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario Master of Arts program, spent a few years in marketing before becoming a sales manager and training manager in two very different but large corporations. 
Stemming from a desire to try a new yoga class, and frustrated by how long it took to find the right class in the right place at the right time, she was inspired to found FitIn — a platform designed to help the average person find and be inspired by the amazing number of fitness experiences available out there.
As a mental health advocate, Catherine works to educate, inspire and connect people by helping them improve their brain health through physical exercise, fitness, and movement.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A few years back I decided to reestablish my health and set myself the goal of running my first marathon for my 40th birthday. To prep for that, I took up Kung Fu and kettlebell and fell in love with moving. It helped my mental health in ways that no meds did, and I felt that exercise was the PERFECT complement to talk therapy; although my doctor had recommended fitness for my depression and anxiety, I hadn’t understood the value until that point.

A year after that, I tore my meniscus during a morning run, and everything changed. I couldn’t do my favorite things anymore and tried finding other fitness classes to replace running with. It took me SO LONG to find a yoga class in the right place at the right time that I almost threw my hands in the air in frustration…why was there no Trip Advisor for fitness!?

My daughter always wants to try new things, so I had to also go through the same process for her a couple of weeks later for Wushu, then gymnastics, then soccer… and I have to say; no working mom has time for that. I had to bounce from Google to Yelp to Facebook to dozen + websites, and I still wasn’t finding all the information I needed.

Shortly after that, I was laid off from my job, decided to take a cue from my curiosity, and I started researching the idea. A year after that, I decided it was time to commit, so I incorporated, found a developer, and started building my platform.

By June I had launched my beta, and by October of 2018, we had managed to rebuild the platform from scratch because the feedback was so positive. I’m excited to say that in the last two months I’ve onboarded 11 affiliates to the platform, and loaded in over 1,000 classes for people to search from.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It’s probably meeting my developer, whom I found on a freelancer marketplace and he’s turned into my partner in this amazing venture. I love how easily a well-thought-out web platform can connect people from different countries and unite them in a project that can help thousands of people.

He came up to Toronto last year so we could meet and strategize in person, and what came out of it is that we’re also going to now open a Mexican branch to the business this year, utilizing his connections and leveraging his understanding of the market there. I’m looking forward to my first business trip to visit him!

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

My BITMCTW is the concept of trying to ‘solve’ the problem of mental health through exercise, fitness, and movement.

The FitIn Blog helps educate folks on managing their mental health and encourages them to find some form of movement that appeals to them and works for them. Fitness doesn’t HAVE to be all about the grind, or about “no pain no gain” or about endless competition and one-upmanship. There are SO many movement options that are inclusive, encouraging and affirming.

Going back to my story above, one of the things that I found very difficult when I was at my lowest point was to find the right class that might help me by creating a platform to make fitness class searches easy and fast, I hope to support this cohort and make the challenge simple and manageable.

The mental health crisis — in not just Canada but many ‘Western’ nations — is at such a crisis point that many entrepreneurs are stepping into the space to try to make a difference, and FitIn is part of that community of helpers. To that end, not only do I have categories on the platform for all different kinds of fitness, but I also have a home for mental health and wellness classes, such as meditation.

I also hope in the future to add other features and programs that help support this community, whether it’s by adding supports in the gyms when folks are new and nervous, or by building out the FitIn Friends function so people can find a partner to go to a class with for support.

The last thing that I’m looking to do with FitIn is to work with our government to not just reinstate the fitness tax subsidy for children, but to extend it to adults, because exercise is an excellent preventative medicine that is far cheaper than treatments for illnesses, diseases, and conditions (not just cardiovascular disease or mental health issues).

How do you think this will change the world?

Exercise classes are a wonderful option for those with mental health challenges for a few reasons, first of which are the happy hormones that are generated when you move, sweat and raise your heart rate. Really, can you think of a single time that you haven’t left a workout feeling on top of the world? That is an amazing breakthrough for depressed folks who have a hard time feeling competent or successful. Mental wellness is becoming a crisis in our western society, and I believe that movement and fitness can be leveraged to help solve that problem.

Another huge benefit is the socialization. When we’re depressed, we tend to isolate ourselves. We cut ourselves off from people, we don’t talk to others, and yet we always wish we were included in the world around us. When a doctor or a therapist encourages us to get out and do a class, we are forced to interact with others, but in an environment where the main goal isn’t ‘networking’ or socializing per se. However, the interactions that you do have help you to re-integrate into the world, which is important for mental health.

Fitness is also a normalizing experience — when you’re depressed, we know that many people perpetually anxious and self-judgmental, and they will talk to themselves very harshly and negatively about their talents, skills, self-image, and accomplishments. When you get to the gym and workout with other people, however, you see that everyone struggles. Everyone sweats. Everyone grunts when lifting. Everyone is striving to be better. Everyone is judgmental about how they perform. This helps people to understand that they are JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, and that is a profoundly freeing experience.

It amazed me how competent I ended up feeling after a workout and after learning a new skill like Kung Fu. I built a new community of friends who helped me in my pursuits, and whom I love deeply. That’s MY story, but I’ve heard stories from many, MANY other people that are very similar. My goal is to help the world find the right form of exercise to help lift them from under the heavy blanket of mental illness and get them out in the world where they can recalibrate and feel better supported.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Wow, great question and I don’t know that I’ve ever considered this, so how to answer?

What I’m trying to do is work against the unintended consequences of social media — Facebook and Instagram have driven people to devices and away from actual physical interactions. As well, because these are heavily curated, we only see everyone else’s highlight reel and judge ourselves against that. So I’m HOPING that the unintended consequences of FitIn are that people start meeting up again (or more often) to do activities together, and they learn that face-to-face is better than screen-to-screen. Hopefully, new communities are created and a new habit of getting out and enjoying a dance class, a hike or perhaps sloth-yoga together! (jk, sloth yoga isn’t a thing…yet)

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

That’s a sad story, but I’m happy to share it. When I was at my most fit, it was when my father was dying from cancer, I was working in a toxic office environment, and my marriage was ending. I also realized I had turned to alcohol to cope with the constant stress, anxiety, and panic, and I was terrified of that emerging pattern of substance abuse.

The only thing that was positive was how I focused on staying active, and it became my go-to for coping. Instead of heading to the bar after a stressful morning, I walked through my lunch hour and took pictures of graffiti. When I wanted to lash out at my family, I went to a Kung Fu class and punched the air or the pads to my heart’s content. When I needed quiet but a distraction, I would swing the kettlebell for an hour, allowing my rhythmic breathing to soothe my soul and unwind my anxiously-tense muscles.

Those closest to me know that I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation on and off for a lot of my adult life, and exercise is one of the only things that quiet that voice in my mind — because the concept of leaving my life and loved ones is NOT an option for me. When that voice strikes, it’s usually when I’m at home, frozen to my couch in the grips of a panic attack. But if I can get myself off my couch and into my shoes and jacket for a walk around the block, then the voice will disappear. As someone who’s struggled so long, I long to bring that kind of solace and serenity to others with my fitness platform.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

I need to get the word out — I’ve been so encouraged by how many personal trainers and instructors understand this exact concept and also work towards helping people with it. If I can help personal trainers and instructors, boutique gyms and independent studios understand that people would come if they could find them, then we could all work together to provide the options and programming that people need.

On the other hand, I’m also looking for forums to help connect with the mental health community so that I can support them with FitIn’s easy search functionality, while also finding out what other services they need to get them into a class and out of their funk.

This is an idea that is supported by science and medical professionals, so connecting with them would be huge for me. They preach this message as well, but because we haven’t connected yet, I can’t provide the tool that they could use to assist their patients in their wellness management and recovery.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I wish someone had told me that not all developers are created equal! My first developer recommended my site be built using a WordPress platform — I’m not technical enough to know what a challenge this would turn into. In the end, he ghosted me when he realized he couldn’t pull it off, and I had to rebuild from scratch. It was worth it in one way — it allowed me to connect with the amazing developer I currently have, but I would have rather NOT wasted six months discovering that fact!
  2. I wish someone had told me that the proforma is wishful thinking. My business advisor helped me put it together, and I assumed that if I pulled off my end of the bargain — working hard, closing deals — that the money would come. It doesn’t; I was naïve. It would have been good to have been primed from the outset to be a miser with the money so that it could last longer without.
  3. I wish someone had told me how much I would love this life. And I wish they had told me this a decade or two ago! There’s such an amazing startup ecosystem and community (at least, in Toronto, where I’m located), full of people who love to help others, who believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, who support each other in the hard times especially, but who come together and celebrate in the good times. I feel like I’ve found my tribe, but I wish I’d found them earlier!
  4. I wish someone had told me about the realities of fundraising. I assumed that if I built it, they would come….hahahahaha. I was lucky to connect with York Investor Angels, who facilitated the Valhalla Investor Basecamp where I learned pretty much everything I know. But that would have been SO much better to know at the outset so I could have used that knowledge in my business planning and strategy. The reality that I’m still coming to terms with: you need to have good traction before you can get looked at seriously, and at THAT point it takes almost nine months! Also, what’s the typical profile of the company that gets investment? Well, it turns out it’s not me, so I have to work with that, but there again, it would have been helpful to know earlier so I could plan around that challenge.
  5. I wish I’d known how little harm is done by JUST. ASKING. By this point, I’ve asked for sales, I’ve asked people to be advisors, I’ve asked for funding, and I’ve asked to be included in events, incubators, and accelerators. Each “no” can be a little discouraging, but I know it’s just a numbers game, and if I’d been fully present to that earlier, I’d be further ahead now. A lot of people are very generous with their time; with the application-type-asks, you never know if you’re going to fit their profile until you’ve filled out the application and gotten your answer. Honestly, just do it.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Can anyone future-proof their career? If so, I think it can only be done by staying educated and agile. It’s on you to make sure you’re continually responding to the needs of the workplace/economy, and staying abreast of changes, trends, and developments.

FitIn is a response to this question, though — many personal trainers and instructors have discovered that they can make a better living by being fitness entrepreneurs and selling their services directly to the customer instead of having to pay endless fees and royalties to gym chains. I want to help them in that venture by providing them a landing page to call their home and the simple tools they need to stay focused on the core of their business — training people, not doing accounting, sales or admin.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

With a million dollars, I would build local gym facilities that independent personal trainers could use to train their clients. With a million dollars, I would start an outreach program for Canada’s Indigenous communities, who suffer terrible mental health issues. With a million dollars, I would fund programs to help connect mental health patients with programs designed specifically for them.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I love the Mr. Rogers story that ends with “Look for the helpers” — because I consider myself one of those people. I am motivated to help people heal and thrive because I see the value in all of us, no matter creed, country, color, gender, orientation, shape or size. Bring on the diversity!…it’s part of what creates amazing fitness classes because there are so many that are influenced or inspired by cultural dance or martial arts. To deny that goes back to the days of boring and homogenous calisthenics videos.

My career in both sales and training has always been about helping my reports in their personal and professional development because the only way forward for the world is to lift people and help them to reach their potential.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

My success habit is to listen to my body and to pace my work accordingly. As an entrepreneur, the expectation is that you work around the clock with a few breaks, you sacrifice a lot, and your relationships fail as your business gets all the attention. Instead, I see this lifestyle as an opportunity to create my schedule that works for me, because I’m not beholden to the artificially-created 9–5 schedule. I know that my brain works better when I write or strategize in the evening, and I know that I complete simple tasks best in the morning. I also know that I am mentally, emotionally and professionally more capable if I have a nap after lunch! So make it happen, and that makes you far more likely to succeed, in my humble opinion.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

I’d start by pointing out that there are SEVERAL well-known multi-billion dollar fitness companies out there, but none of them fill the gap that FitIn does. The global fitness industry sits around $105 billion and is growing between 5–10% every year.

There are also quite a few fitness startups that are all launching right around now, but none of them have the vision that FitIn does, so the industry is ready and primed for a little disruption. I’ve closed over $200k in contracts in 6 weeks. All I need is the funding to bring it home.

As well, there will continue to be critical challenges around managing and treating mental health and wellness, and this is costing companies billions every year in lost earnings — FitIn aims to help solve THIS problem as we solve the overarching issue of mental health and physical wellness. By encouraging people and by one day leveraging our name, brand, voice, and community, we are aiming big and hoping to work with government agencies to subsidize fitness costs for the average citizen, rather than funneling that money into healthcare; exercise is an accepted and excellent preventative medicine for many conditions and illnesses.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @fitinfounder
LinkedIn: @fitin-ltd

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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