As a younger man, circa 1980, Bob Kirby followed the path a lot of people looking to make money in the finance world followed. He went to Wall Street and he made his money. Twenty-four years later, he was laid off.
In those intervening 24 years, Kirby worked mostly for IBM. An accountant by training (Kirby has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Drew and an MBA in business and finance from George Washington University), he got into IBM’s systems management in the late 1980s.
“I was a technical salesperson is what that means,” he says.
In 1989 he moved to Edison from Bergen County. About 12 years ago he moved to Ewing, where he now runs Bob’s Fun Fitness with his wife, Ginger. The couple met around the time he got to Ewing and married when Kirby was 49. They have a 10-year-old son, Sean.
Kirby and his wife met through an area ski club that Kirby joined way back in the late ’80s. A friend introduced him to Ginger and, if somewhat later than is typical, he married her and started a family, and he’s still over the moon about both of them.
But back to Bob’s Fun Fitness, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fitness and exercise business geared towards seniors that seems to work because classes are also geared towards fun and not towards getting building tons of muscles.
Kirby teaches several free senior fitness classes at the Ewing Branch of the Mercer County Library every month. He also teaches classes in the Hopewell and Lawrence libraries, in the Princeton area and at several area churches.
At 60, Kirby wishes he had started his present career a lot earlier than just a few years ago. Actually, he wishes he’d been a gym teacher. But there was that whole “well-paying corporate job” thing going on, at least until the recession and some changes in the way IBM did business occurred.
Losing his IBM job was not so bad, Kirby says, in that he was tired of the corporate world anyway. He kept thinking about doing something that involved people and helping them too.
He’s done a lot of volunteer work with organizations like the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity. He also did work for a couple of years as a project manager for Global Employment Solutions.
But by 2013, he was ready to do something he really wanted to do. Things on the fitness front got rolling for him when his parents moved into a senior community in Lakewood.
It was a fairly active community where the residents liked to use the onsite gym. This gave Kirby a thought: it might be fun to teach seniors physical fitness.
So far, he says, it has been. It’s certainly been more fun than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer all day.
Most of his classes are free for the people who attend. Some are outright free, and Kirby is paid by a nonprofit, such as the Hopewell Senior Center or the Silver Sneakers program.
For some classes he is paid directly by the sponsoring business, as is the case when he’s taught for a program called Ageless Exercise. Other times attendees are reimbursed through their insurance.
Building the programs and becoming a group-certified instructor, Kirby says, were workouts in their own right. He got his certification through the American Council on Exercise in 2013, which he said was “a tough one.” What didn’t make it any easier was that even though Kirby had always liked exercise and tried to stay active and healthy, he had zero experience teaching it. And he was in his 50s.
So Kirby shadowed some fitness instructors and classes to see how leading a fitness class goes. “It was a little scary,” he says, but the volunteer effort paid off and Kirby got comfortable in a hurry leading fitness classes.
But getting in shape and teaching fitness for a living when you’re staring in your 50s? That was kind of an obstacle.
“They basically told me, ‘Thanks for coming in, we’ll keep your résumé on file,” he says of his efforts to score a job with a gym. And if you’re wondering, yes, that means exactly the same thing for a newbie fitness instructor trying to launch a career in his 50s as it does for everybody else.
But Kirby’s age, he’s found, is actually quite an advantage. It’s not so much that he’d have minded teaching younger clients, but he had more of an interest in teaching people who need to exercise and who want to exercise for health, rather than to get hot.
And gyms, though valuable, are often pretty intimidating, he says. Older people, overweight people, people who aren’t naturally very strong—those people tend to stay away from gyms for fear of embarrassing themselves or being mocked or just feeling overwhelmed by machinery that just about requires an engineering degree to figure out how to use.
For the clients he wanted to reach, the senior citizen set, Kirby says his age is a real comfort. He remembers the same presidents and the same music. In his iPod are 1,000-plus songs broken into playlists that include music from the ’70s (many of his clients like that a lot) to Frank Sinatra.
“Comfortable” is a word Kirby uses a lot, and it is the life partner of his first principle, “safe.” Kirby’s students range from their mid-60s to their mid-90s. Safety for students, especially the most senior seniors, is paramount, he says. As you might expect, there’s no jumping.
There’s pretend jumping, but no actual jumping, even when it comes to jump rope. But that fits, because there’s no rope either. There are the mimicked motions of the exercise, involving gentle steps and swirling arms.
Occasionally, a client already in pretty decent shape will actually jump, but that’s not what Kirby’s classes are about.
Mainly, his classes are about movement, stretching (he teaches yoga too), and balance. As people age, he says, balance often goes by the wayside. He has several exercises involving stable chairs and the lifting of feet that help seniors regain and maintain more of their balance.
On top of the exercise, there’s a definitive social component to Kirby’s classes. He talks of more than one attendee of his group classes who used to be wallflowers but now come to class to hang out with friends and get a good sweat going.
What, you thought words like comfortable and safe meant there was no sweat? This is exercise we’re talking about, not high tea. Yes, there’s some exertion. Heart rates increase. Breathing gets heavier. Muscles go a-flexin’. And yes, attendees enjoy that kind of thing.
“My husband and I have been taking Bob Kirby’s exercise classes for over two years,” says student Joan Fredericks. “Bob keeps us laughing as we sweat. He creates a sense of community within the group, and a supportive culture where no one feels embarrassed by their limitations. We cheer each other on.”
Kirby says the Frederickses are an ideal example of his knowing that he’s doing the right thing with his life these days. At first, it was Joan’s idea to take the class, and her husband wasn’t especially interested.
But they recently returned from a vacation, on which Fredericks says she and her husband completed a “strenuous four and a half hour hike in a national park.” And that was something neither could do when Kirby first met them.
When the Frederickses got back, they emailed Kirby to say “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
That, Kirby says, is what it’s all about. Sure, people need to make money, but knowing you’re helping people, he says, is better than just cashing checks.
It’s not all roses teaching senior exercise classes, of course.
“Even if you have a loyal following, and I do, things happen,” Kirby says. “Seniors have life-happenings.”
What he means by that is, seniors may suddenly get sick. Or their spouses may need care. Clients can always come and go, but senior clients can drop out in a heartbeat.
It’s always a fight over losing people he’s gotten to know and the sheer business of trying to keep a self-run business running. And that, he says, is like any other engine—it has an appetite and it needs to be regularly fed.
Still, Kirby wouldn’t trade what he’s doing now for what he used to do, even if that used-to came with regular checks and predictable tax returns.
And if he were to give a piece of advice to anyone starting over to follow a dream, it would be this: “Persevere. I could have given up a long time ago,” he says. “Stick with it no matter what, if it’s something you want. Careers are not just based on income, they’re also based on self worth.”