Do you know the feeling you get when you’re feeling a bit off, a little burnt out and not entirely happy with the way you look? And then you try on a pair of jeans and all of a sudden they don’t fit properly? Jenn Pattee can relate. After taking what she thought was her dream job working as a graphic designer for Apple (and enduring a 200-kilometre daily commute), Pattee was putting her career first at the cost of her health. Lack of exercise, a heap of work-related stress and too many meals eaten in her car left her feeling unlike herself, both emotionally and physically. But it was this moment, at her lowest that Pattee, found a new direction, opening her up to experiences and and possibilities she never imagined.
Needing to change up the narrative of her life, and looking to lose the extra weight, Pattee hired a personal trainer and got to work, rediscovering the joy for exercise she had learned during childhood and university. A year later, she was herself again. While Pattee was enthralled with her workouts, being stuck inside of a gym wasn’t ideal. She wondered if she could transfer her workouts to the outdoors, and recruited a team of trainers to workout al fresco. The simple act of taking her workouts outdoors was transformative – she was having fun again – and training outdoors was the best part of her day. This realization altered the trajectory of her life.
Here, Pattee talks about leaving Apple and starting her business, Basic Training, in San Francisco – an outdoor training program that turns San Fran into a playground — but for grownups.
Kit and Ace: People often think fit people are “super heroes,” but everyone starts out somewhere. What put you on the path to fitness?
Jenn Pattee: Before all of this, nothing about my life was supporting a fun and active, adventurous lifestyle. I thought that was OK until it wasn't. I was under a lot of stress. I was eating a lot of meals in my car [laughs]. I started putting on a lot of weight. On the outside, I was living the dream. New house, dream job at Apple, engaged to get married – the whole shebang. But the reality was my commute was killing me, my job had started to lose its meaning, and my relationship wasn’t that great. Stress started taking its toll on all of those things, ultimately manifesting in a repetitive stress injury on my wrist.
After taking time off the injury still wasn’t getting better – I knew I had to make a change. I decided to try and really listen to my body, but you know how it goes – It's hard to know where to start. I tried all of the fitness options available to me... all the fads and trends and stuff happening in San Francisco at the time… and failed miserably at all of them. I thought the problem was me. Later I would come to realize it wasn’t me – there was an opportunity lurking behind my frustration – but it would take me a year to find that out.
KA: How did you decide to make the leap from your “dream” job and pursue your passion?
JP: If I was in love with UX design, my job would have been a dream job. But my love for design went beyond software. I didn’t know it then, but whoever’s in charge of our destinies had much bigger things in mind for me. I’d go on to design things the world had never seen before. I’d win awards, travel around the world, be invited to speak at conferences. I'd go on to build a social movement in San Francisco around urban fitness, and another around design for public spaces. But I didn’t know any of this at the time – that’s what made leaving so hard. It just felt like I was walking away from everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.
KA: What was dealing with that uncertainty like?
JP: All I knew for sure was that hour when I was running around Golden Gate Park with my friends – it was changing me. Watching the sun rise. Running trails. Running to the beach. Sprinting up hills. Climbing things I wasn't supposed to climb. Sweating. Laughing. Exploring. Inventing. Noticing. That feeling that rushes over you after a good workout – I couldn’t shake the idea that this is how we’re supposed to feel. How we’re designed to feel. This is what it means to be alive.
KA: You’ve designing spaces in the city designed for exercise. Where did that idea come from?
JP: I designed a simple and inspiring workout program people could do anywhere. Then I started running classes around that concept, and kept going for a decade before selling the business. Now I’m onto my next adventure: making it possible for anyone, anywhere who wants to get fit, explore their city, and connect with like-minded people to do just that. By designing products for cities to help people be healthy and fit by connecting them with the places where they're already at. There are so many fitness apps inspiring people to move throughout their day. But like all software, apps rely on hardware. So I’m developing the missing hardware: cleverly designed products for spaces where people and technology can seamlessly integrate. With a completely open interface people can plug into as they please.
When I started taking my classes outdoors, I had to hunt all over the place for things to climb and do pull ups on, like bus shelters and crosswalk signs. It’s awesome to hack your city – but wouldn’t it be better if our city was designed to promote well-being? So that’s what my new company is doing: building products for spaces so the opportunity to climb and pull and jump is part of the infrastructure itself -- you don't have to hack it.
KA: What do you think is the biggest barrier for getting people moving?
JP: We all know we're supposed to move more and sit less. But where and how are we supposed to move – if our cities, offices and culture aren’t designed for us to be moving throughout our day? My ideas seem radical in places like San Francisco today. But what’s funny is the closer you get to the mountains – like Boulder, Colorado for it instance – the less crazy people think I am suggesting our cities would be better if we could climb on them. I recently pitched my bus shelter idea to a developer in Boulder and he offered me a job on the spot. But I’m staying in San Francisco because we need this.
Training outdoors changed everything I thought was possible for my life. It completely changed the way that I looked at my city, my body, exercise – everything. When I started looking at the fitness industry through the lens of design, there were so many opportunities for improvement. The biggest thing missing was fun. Nobody – including me – was having fun with their workouts. We did them because we had to, not because we wanted to. So that was the first step – reverse-engineering for fun. The next thing was fixing the gym. I did that by removing the gym entirely. Gyms are expensive, most people stop going after they sign up, and they aren’t great for the environment. Going to a specific place at a specific time just didn’t make sense to me. One of our mantras at Basic Training was “go sightseeing every day.” When your city becomes your gym, a whole new world of possibilities open up.
KA: What advice would you give someone looking to jumpstart their health and fitness?
JP: It may sound cliché, but ultimately, the best thing to do is follow what makes you the happiest. Your north star really should be joy. Listen hard to the little voice inside you – and do what it says. My little voice suggested things that definitely did not sound like fun in the beginning. Like “learn how to swim.” Or “invest in a personal trainer.” Or “sign up for an ultra.” And it keeps going. Next summer, I’m embarking on a trail that’s 1,500 miles long – I have absolutely no idea where my little voice came up with that one.
But it’s vital to be honest with yourself about your secret wishes – don’t try and hide from them. Really go after things that make you feel alive. Our bodies can be the path to transformation, but only if you listen to what your body has to say.
Want more? Get to know Jennifer Pattee.