Growing up, Irma Ilao was sometimes picked on for being small, weak and non-athletic.
It wasn’t until college that she fell in love with fitness. And it happened again after the birth of her son while in her 30s. Today, at 46, she is in the best shape of her life, a successful certified personal trainer and “solo-preneur,” running her own health and fitness training business, “Be Your Own Fit.”
A far cry from the shy, “weak” young girl she once felt she was, Ilao now has a client list that stretches from northwest New Jersey to the Lehigh Valley and into New York City. Women (and men) looking to lose weight and get in shape seek Irma out for her distinctive brand of caring, supportive fitness coaching.
Ilao launched “Be Your Own Fit” a little over four years ago, at a time when she was pushing through a professional and personal rebirth. Newly divorced, she was searching for a meaningful way to support herself and her young son, Jaiden.
Leaning on her love of working out, she studied to become a certified personal trainer, hoping simply to pay the bills and have the flexibility to raise her son. Over time, she grew a thriving business, one that has made a positive impact on clients like Shelley DeMarco, who has been training with Ilao for three years.
DeMarco, who is 54, says she is the fittest she has ever been, physically and emotionally.
“Irma is really good at finding what your body needs,” she said. “She got me thinking about fitness in a different way. We do weights, pilates, HIIT(High Intensity Interval Training)… I can now beat my 18-year-old son in a push-up contest.
“But it is the emotional component that is the real value to me,” DeMarco said. “Irma helps you believe in yourself again. That is what is really transformative. She lays the foundation for you to change your life.”
With a track record of changing lives, including her own, we wanted to find out more about Ilao’s business and what is behind her unique style of training. LVB sat down with Ilao recently, where she opened up about her background, building a business as a single mom, and her plans for the future.
You immigrated to the United States from the Philippines with your family in the 1970’s. Tell me about that.
My Dad found a job as an engineer in the United States and came first. Then my mom came with all of us, all five kids. Five kids on a plane! From what I hear it was a long, stressful flight. I do remember meeting my Dad for the first time. I was only 2, but I remember because it was such an important moment.
My Dad wanted better opportunities for his family. He worked really hard to build a home for us. He was the main provider for five kids and my mom stayed home. We were her priority. I liked that she did that and it made me want to stay home with my son Jaiden.
That’s why I do what I do, because I want to be available for Jaiden. My career was essentially built around, “How can I still be there for my son?” And everything else that has happened around it has been a bonus.
You went through a divorce around the age of 40. That is a life-changing experience, and right in the middle of your life.
It was a turning point for me. It hit me like “What am I going to do with my life? I need to support myself and my son.”
I was the primary caretaker. His Dad was working a lot and didn’t have the time. It was just me. What was I going to do? I wanted to be the one to take Jaiden back and forth to school, to pick him up if he was sick.
I chose trainer because I naturally liked fitness and working out, so why not take that extra step to educate myself to help other people?
I took a chance. I thought, well, let me try this. It was a slow start.
When did things start to turn around?
Around year three it began to grow. Word of mouth. People began to follow me on Facebook. I realized they were paying attention to what I was saying. I wasn’t just talking to the air.
I’m trying to break the stereotype of the loud, obnoxious trainer. Some people fear trainers, and I want to remove that.
A good trainer to me, should be caring, patient and helpful. I’m not one who is going to be yelling at someone who is exercising. You want to be positive. You want to make it fun. But you also want to see changes. That comes with education.
A lot of people think hiring a trainer is a luxury for the wealthy.
Some people see it as a luxury, but I see it as self-care. If you aren’t taking care of yourself and your body, you are going to deteriorate and get sick. You will end up spending money on that. So you may as well take care of yourself now however you can.
What are your work hours like?
When you become a personal trainer, you are pretty much opening up your time to other people’s schedules. And when are people free? Early mornings, evenings and on the weekends.
I see people in my home and at the gym, 4Ever Fitness in Frenchtown, NJ. There is an advantage to having the home gym. There is no commute and my son is right there. If he needs anything, I am right downstairs.
Because I’m in my own home, that helps me schedule people closer in time, because I’m not travelling. And as far as the public gym, I can have a variety of equipment to work with there so there are advantages to both. Also I’m not spending the money on renting a facility, so there is no overhead.
What is most challenging about this job? Most rewarding?
The most challenging part is encouraging my clients to be patient with their bodies. Change is not overnight. I don’t believe in quick fixes. I do know how to change a person fairly quickly, but it’s not always a permanent change. That’s why I stay away from that. I would rather see my clients change their lifestyle and learn patience.
When my clients realize it is a lifestyle change, that’s the reward; when they realize it is not just about losing weight, but about health and feeling better.
Do you have a favorite client story?
Laura was my first client. She has quit many times. But when she quit, she would come back, and we would do it all again. Laura is a great example of someone who has a normal life, who has the normal struggles of putting on weight and lacking the motivation to exercise. But this last time she came back, she stuck to it. It’s been a year now, and she has lost 70 pounds and put on 15 pounds of muscle.
I don’t want to be known as a weight loss trainer, but a get fit, get strong, trainer.
You are what they call a “solopreneur.” What’s that like, running a business all on your own?
It’s very challenging. I miss having co-workers, having someone there that can help. It’s easy to feel alone in it. There’s no accountant, no IT guy, except for my now fiance Jay who helps me with the techie stuff.
I also have to juggle my client base myself. I haven’t hired other trainers to help because my client base comes to see me specifically. They want to be trained by me. Maybe in the future, I will hire other trainers, but for now, no.
There are a lot of women out there who need to start over with their career. What advice would you give them regarding choosing a new career path?
Find something you like and are natural at, and you’ll have a greater chance of success. But also be sure it is something that has a future, and that you’ll be able to support yourself, and your family if you need to.
There is a “follow your dreams” thing, but you have to support yourself financially, too.
Be realistic. Have a plan. For me, there have been ups and downs and times where I wanted to quit, where I didn’t have enough clients. And not all businesses last. But for me, I gave it a little time and patience, and around the third year it hit. I haven’t had to advertise since.
Twenty percent of businesses fail within the first year, and 50 percent within five years. Why do you think you have succeeded?
For a personal trainer, documenting the physical transformations of clients is important. If you don’t have those to share you aren’t going to make the impact. When people come to me they are motivated to change, because they know it is possible, because they have seen my client’s transformations. Visual is everything.
How important has social media been to your business?
I built my business on Facebook; after that word of mouth takes over. So many people see my posts that I am not even aware of, the likes, the shares…social media really works.
How do you help someone who does not like to exercise?
I’ve accepted that not everyone likes exercise. That’s where I can come in. They don’t have to love it. Just do it. Let me do the thinking for you. Then you can just accomplish your work outs and go home and feel better.
A lot more women are weight training now, what are the benefits?
So many women want to just run on the treadmill, or they just want to do cardio. You aren’t building muscle that way. Muscle is what we lose when we get older. The best way to gain back a bit of that youth is to get that muscle back.
Your resting metabolism will go up when you have more muscle in your body. You will burn calories at rest. Combine that with better eating and you become overall, just fitter.
What is the five-year plan for “Be Your Own Fit?”
I’m building an online group for training online. It will be like a gym membership with a monthly fee. I will send them weekly videos. They can ask questions of me and each other. It’s a support group. I’m also going to offer one-on-one virtual training in 45-minute sessions.
I recently had my first online client. Like with my training, it’s not something that I want to build quickly. If it starts off small, fine. My first client was very successful. She lost about 20 pounds.
I would like to get more of my own apparel out there; get my logos on tee shirts, etc. I’m also looking to train more young athletes and youths. And of course, I’m always working on ways to work more efficiently so that I can spend more time with my family.
In the end, I want to continue helping others to fully realize all the amazing things that their body can do. I don’t want to be known as a weight loss trainer, but a get fit, get strong trainer.