By Sine Robertson

AN ABERDEENSHIRE fitness trainer working out of her garden gym, has created a hub of virtual fitness during lockdown and been awarded by her local community council for her effort.

Farmer’s daughter, Rhona Blackhall, runs her business from her home at Durris. Over the past six years, her Deeside Fitness has attracted an enthusiastic following in the Banchory area since Rhona created an impact with open air ‘Boot camp’ and ‘Mum and baby’ classes in a local park. . Brought up on a farm on Deeside, Rhona is well used to working outside, whatever the weather.

Following the adage ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes’ the outdoor classes continue throughout the year, with babies in buggies protected with waterproof covers when the weather demands.

Rhona has been running ‘Mum and baby’ classes for four years. Qualified as a pre- and post-natal exercise coach, when she was pregnant she advanced her study into an in-depth pre and post-natal exercise prescription course to be able to specialise in this area.

“I was just going to start up my outdoor classes again in March last year, four months after having my baby, Frankie, when we went in to lockdown, so I started the Zoom classes then, with Frankie alongside me.

“Doing online classes was completely out of my comfort zone and a bit daunting. I found Zoom has worked really well – I can see each participant in the class, so I can ensure they have the correct technique, give advice and answer any questions.

“When restrictions eased, we had socially distanced classes outdoors, which was great fun and felt like ‘normality’, but now we are back on Zoom again,” said Rhona, explaining the course of the past year.

Her clients take in a wide spectrum of the community. A Saturday morning ‘High intensity interval training’ class (HIIT) is for those looking for serious fitness regimes, but she has adapted exercises to suit the abilities of participants.

With a degree in sports and exercise science, which covered anatomy, psychology, coaching, and exercise physiology, (EP being a single subject), Rhona is well equipped to formulate specific exercise regimes to suit her individual clients.

“I do personal training with people who have MS, osteoporosis and cerebral palsy, as well as young athletes, people training for marathons and other fitness goals – not just people wanting to lose weight!”

“My ‘Mum and baby’ fitness class helps overcome many of the barriers to fitness that new mums often face. Encouraging mums to bring their babies to class, not only means they don’t need childcare, but they can also use their baby as a weight and have a close bond with their baby.

“It’s also great for babies and children to see their parents exercising and setting a good example that exercise is a fun part of a healthy lifestyle. I think having Frankie at the classes helped mums see that it is possible to workout with their child, and the majority of the time the babies and toddlers enjoy being part of it.”

The Zoom format revealed another advantage over TV programmes, or exercise videos, beyond letting Rhona see her pupils, she pointed out.

“At the end of the classes, people tend to stay and chat for a while. Some people are feeling quite isolated just now and I think we all enjoy meeting up after a class. Frankie’s giggles gave everyone a boost, too. I think some people joined the class just to see him!”

News of Rhona’s classes has spread afar. One of her most distant students has been a boxercise trainee attending from London.

Deeside Fitness was recently presented with a Community Recognition Award by Crathes, Dumoak and Durris Community Council for running free classes during lockdown.

“I offer my classes as ‘payment optional’, because I know some people are having financial difficulties now, and I don’t want them to miss out,” Rhona explained.

Rhona’s CPD has included a mental health awareness in sports and physical activity course run by the mental health charity MIND and she is eager to spread the message that physical fitness can help mental health.

“Exercise releases endorphins ‘the happy’ hormone, which can help you take your mind off things that are troubling you and give you another focus.”

In November, 2020, aware that people were facing the long dark nights with more worries and less prospect than usual of social gatherings ahead, Rhona set up a winter wellness and fitness challenge.

She asked participants to complete as many miles as possible in the run up to Christmas, by their means of choice – cycling, running, or walking – and to keep her updated on their progress. Rhona collated a weekly table of the totals and supported the group with healthy recipes and other tips for wellbeing.

“By Christmas, the group as a whole had covered 4213 miles, which was above our goal of the distance from Banchory to Bethlehem. Participants could make a donation to join the challenge and we were able to hand over £800 to One to One Counselling, part of Aboyne branch of Mental Health Aberdeenshire. It was such a success that we have continued the challenge, giving people a focus during the latest lockdown.”

Rhona is conscious that many farmers and rural dwellers may not want to talk about their worries with friends and family, who are often connected, and sees the value of counselling for its confidentiality.

Online classes proved an advantage again, when Rhona was snowed in at home in February. Pupils from London to Lumphanan linked up across the snowy wastes of blocked roads and rail lines ‘to bend and stretch and lift your baby in the air’.

Now Rhona and her clients are looking forward to the loosening of lockdown and are ready to start classes with limited numbers in the park.