Q&A: Modern Pilates’ Lisa Johnson

The Pilates and social media guru opened her first studio back in 1999 in a basement in the Back Bay. Now, she has a studio in Brookline, her own line of DVDs, and 24,000 Twitter followers.

Lisa Johnson photo provided.

Lisa Johnson photo provided.

Lisa Johnson is the owner of Modern Pilates in Brookline and when she first opened, there were only four other studios in all of Massachusetts. We caught up with Johnson to see how it all started.

How did you first get into Pilates?

The honest answer is I was looking for a vacation that I could write off. I had been a personal trainer for just over a year when I first heard about Pilates, so I researched a few programs and decided to do a week-long mat training in Toronto. I still refer to that first day in class as my “epiphany.” I walked out of the studio and said, “THIS!! This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

What made you decide to open your own studio? When did you do it? 

I was only the fifth Pilates studio in all of Massachusetts when I opened back in 1999. I knew that once people discovered this type of movement, they would be as addicted as I was. I begged my Mom for a $20,000 loan and found a tiny little spot in the basement of the Vendome Building in the Back Bay. I ran one ad in the local weekly and was fully booked in three weeks.

How has Pilates in Boston changed since you first opened your studio?

When I first started, clients were doing Pilates mostly for rehab purposes — bad backs, knees, shoulders — plus a few dancers who knew about Pilates and called it their secret weapon. As the years have progressed, Pilates is much more mainstream and people come because it is [a part of] their fitness routine. My clients now are a really fun mix. I work with a woman in her 80s and an Olympic hopeful in men’s figure skating. Pilates can be adapted to any body.

What’s your favorite part about teaching?

You know that little energy kick you get after a workout? I get to give it to people all day long and ride the buzz with them. They’re happy, and as a trainer, I just naturally absorb a little. I truly love working with them.

When did you get into social media?

It started six years ago when I first tried out Twitter. I just loved it… the quick bursts of conversations, plus meeting other Pilates instructors and fitness people on line. My follower count kept growing and growing because I’m so chatty, and type 100-plus words per minute, and then someone said, “Hey, you should start a blog!” So I threw a website together and started writing. I was a newspaper reporter way way back, so it’s a great way share my thoughts about fitness with the world.

How did you amass nearly 24,000 Twitter followers? 

Hard work and pleasant conversation. I never bought a list or anything like that. People come across me in the stream and I’ll get caught up in a dialogue with them. I also have, at times, actively engaged in adding followers. I just look for real people who are into fitness or live in the Boston area or share another of my interests. I love to have people to tweet to during Red Sox, Patriots, or Celtics games. To me, social media is a cocktail party.

You actively participate in fit chats and other social media chats. What do you like best about it? Why do you do it?

The energy of a group chat is a very cool thing. It’s a chance to really connect with people, have longer conversations (140 characters at a time), and share a little knowledge. You also get a great mix of “chat regulars” and new people chiming in. My favorite chats to host are “pop quizzes” where people test their fitness knowledge and I try to stump them. I really have to research those because my fitness peeps are smart.

Why should someone try Pilates if they never have before?

The trend in fitness these days seems to be “pound yourself into submission.” Not only is that approach not for everyone, it can easily lead to injury if not done properly. Our studio motto is “Tighter. Higher. Smaller.” And we get the same results as these other fitness routines, but in a happier and safer environment. Plus, we really focus on anatomy and are able to help people feel better each and every day. We do pretty sophisticated work; our repertoire is over 600 exercises, and that’s before we start playing with all the small props. Pilates can train you to sustain where you are or get you stronger, while keeping you injury free. Not a lot of movement disciplines can say that.

Pilates is pricey. Is there a way to make it less expensive?

Yes! The most budget-conscious way is to take a group class once a week. At my studio, these start at $34 a session. Then buy a Pilates DVD to do at home once or twice on your own. You’ll get regular instruction, so you’ll have proper form, and you can keep updating your DVDs now and then for about $20 to stay fresh.

What’s your favorite place (besides your studio) to work out at in Boston? 

My favorite thing to do is hooping (hula hooping) in a park, pretty much anywhere. I always bring extra hoops because people get so curious, especially kids, and they want to try it out themselves. Also, hooping burns about the same number of calories as a bootcamp class and, in my opinion, is way more fun. It’s also great for the abs, tush, and arms; truly a whole-body workout.

What’s your favorite healthy place to eat in Boston?

I recently went dairy-free and the hardest part was giving up ice cream. Thankfully, I can visit FoMu in Brighton, which serves coconut milk ice cream made with healthy ingredients and my taste buds can’t tell the difference.