Today we welcome Mark J. Stables, the founder of Benchmark Group and Movement Haus, to the Buzz Talk hive.

Mark is a fitness and wellness expert with a vision. He founded Benchmark Group in 1999 with the goal of providing holistic fitness and lifestyle coaching to a growing number of clients.

More recently he’s created Movement Haus  a Toronto-based project that provides “functional design” solutions for today’s urban condominium fitness amenity.

We chat with Mark about the Movement Haus experience, where he plans on taking that experience, and that elusive healthy diet that so many of us are after.


BuzzBuzzHome: How did you choose a career in fitness and personal training?

Mark Stables: I was taking kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and I was working at a fitness and raquet club at the time. I had begun personal training at the club and started to develop a growing clientele. In September of ’99 I decided to start my own business, which at the time was called Benchmark Fitness Solutions. My clients were very loyal and they decided to make the shift from working out at the gym to having me work with them in their homes.

That started in Brantford and Waterloo and for about a year and a half I was back and forth between Brantford, Waterloo and Cambridge. I had a client that asked me to come to Toronto and I kind of knew this was where my demographic was, so I started coming here to train her 3 days a week at around 6:30 and 7 in the morning. I was living in Brantford so it was quite the drive.

Eventually she realized it was a long drive so she gave me an ultimatum — either move here to train and she’d give me some clients, or she wasn’t going to train. Encountering that ultimatum, I decided it was in my best interest to start here in Toronto.

BBH: What sparked your interest in designing fitness amenities?

MS: From 2000 onward, I was in Toronto and in and out of all kinds of fitness amenities downtown. In 2003 I decided it would be fun exploring equipping fitness amenities and then providing training as a way to capture my demographic. I approached two different companies. One of them took all my work and implemented it but didn’t pay me for it and the other company just had no use for it. I was pretty discouraged. I didn’t know too much about the market place and real estate, so I shelved the idea and just continued to train clients.

Having an opportunity to design my own custom unit with an architect and interior designer gave me the motivation to look at designing fitness amenities and taking a closer look at the physical space as opposed to just what equipment was in it and how it was laid out. A client of mine, Jeanhy Shim, handed me a list of half a dozen to a dozen different developers and said you should really think about contacting these people if you want to move forward.

BBH: How did you come up with the name Movement Haus?

MS: I thought was a great name to depict what people were doing in the gym. I thought it was a nice breath of fresh air, instead of calling it a fitness centre or a gym.

BBH: Alright, so you’ve got the name. Where did you go from there?

MS: It happened pretty quickly. I started working with Cityzen, Castlepoint and Fernbrook on L Tower. Then all of a sudden I had four Monarch buildings. It just kept going from there.

BBH: Who typically designs a condominium gym? It sounds like they might get some input from a personal trainer, but what you’re doing seems like another level of designer?

MS: Typically they have interior designers who will get out the rendering and the layouts that you’ll see in the sales and marketing material. The developer will then take the empty space and send it to four or five different companies who will suggest what equipment they’ll need. Sometimes there are little pieces of functionality that interior designers may not grasp. If you have a team working on a condo but no one from the team lives in a condo then there’s a lot of subtle nuances they may not be familiar with. Sometimes they’ll ask for a recreation manager if the fitness amenity is large enough. They’ll actually have someone there sitting at a desk.

But what we’ve come up with is a way to get people involved on a pay-per-use, a la carte basis. You have a purchaser who moves in and they want to have personal training or yoga or pilates, whatever it is, they actually can book things through the company. That person sitting at a desk doing recreation management, they’re billing the condo corporation $50,000 per year. Now that person is no longer necessary. You’re saving money.

We have people book classes via an online portal. They can pay online too. It’s turn-key for the resident because they can get whatever they want. The person using the service is happy because it’s easy and they’re getting a certain level of quality that Benchmark has provided since ’99. The other 70 or 80 per cent of the building that doesn’t use the fitness amenity doesn’t feel like they’re carrying dead weight, so they’re happy too.

BBH: What are some things that residents can expect from the Movement Haus experience?

MS: We offer health and fitness newsletters that include information on nutrition and recipes. We do an orientation for people when the gym opens so they know how to use stuff properly. And then we may offer classes or private, a la carte services depending on what the building comes equipped with.

BBH: What do you see on the horizon for Movement Haus? Is expansion beyond Toronto in the cards?

MS: We’re really looking to maximize our relationship with existing clients like Tridel, Minto, Monarch, Lifetime, and Cityzen. Often times these developers have numerous projects and more coming down the pipeline. I’ve already begun speaking with developers in Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa about providing our Movement Haus design and providing our services to them. If there’s enough interest in Vancouver then we’ll absolutely duplicate the services we offer in Toronto by partnering with an existing fitness firm out there.

We feel like we can do this anywhere. I recently contacted a firm in Berlin. They won a design for a big complex in Dusseldorf that will house a 48,000 square foot fitness and wellness amenity. If anyone needs a Movement Haus, it’s someone in Germany.

BBH: We want to pick the personal trainer part of your brain now. What’s one habit to avoid that almost everyone is guilt of when they first get into a fitness routine?

MS: The hardest part is creating momentum and having some kind of exercise adherence. I have clients who ask me all the time, “what should I buy, a treadmill or an elliptical?” I always say “Which one are you going to use?” What you’re trying to do is change an unhealthy habit to a healthy one. As a personal trainer, you could answer that from a nutritional standpoint, like stop having your triple whipped caramel macchiato from Starbucks everyday.

I’m constantly working with clients to improve their nutrition because often times people just feel like they need to go to the gym  and then they don’t need to make any other changes. But if they make changes to their nutrition and fitness, then they’ll reach their goal faster and feel a lot better.

BBH: What are some things you can do to stop your reliance on fast food?

MS: There’s no short cut to good nutrition at the end of the day. For people that are time pressed, which are 99 per cent of my clients, it’s about meal planning. You need to have a plan in place or you’re going to be constantly chasing your tail. Then you’re hungry and end up on a hunt and end up sating yourself with something that’s unhealthy.

You have to plan. You need to know when you’re going to be hungry and what you’re going to eat. This is where eating 5 or 6 smaller meals a day comes in handy. You don’t allow your blood sugar to drop too much and start looking at Pizza Pizza as being the mother of all places.

Thanks for buzzing with us Mark!

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