We met…where else? In the gym.
Ours was a chance meeting over a pec deck machine, the kind of thing that happens every day and that you think nothing about. We shared sets on the equipment, talked and parted, not expecting to see each other again. Yet within three months we ended up meeting once more. It changed our lives forever and it all happened in the blink of an eye. Of course neither of us knew that a casual conversation on a mid-February evening more than twenty-five years ago would turn into such an adventure. From that simple start, we have developed a successful business, formed a strong and fulfilling personal relationship and had the opportunity to help millions of Canadians discover a new way of incorporating fitness and healthy living into their daily lives. To be sure, fate had a hand in us getting together. But it was hard work, commitment and encouragement from friends and family that got us to where we are today. In sharing our story – the BodyBreak Story- we hope to inspire you to make changes in your own life. Many people have asked how we got our start and wonder how we built BodyBreak into a thriving business. We reply, there is more to tell than just a simple business tale. Very early we realized that believing in yourself, coupled with taking action is the only way to reach your goals. Although both of us have played a lot of team sports in our athletic careers (as well as just for fun), we know that in the end, it really is up to just one person to determine the final outcome and that is YOU.
You may have come to this site because your goal is to live a healthier lifestyle, to drop a few pounds, firm and tone, or to learn more about nutrition and add some of our favorite recipes to your repertoire. Just by setting a goal in your mind, you have taken an important step. Your next challenge is to commit to that goal completely, giving it 100 percent of your effort. We have found this to be a path to true success.
From the outset, we knew that we would have to work harder on BodyBreak than anything we have ever done in our lives. But believing in a dream makes you want to focus and give it the dedication it deserves and we think this applies to lifestyle changes as well. We hope by reading our story you’ll understand our passion for BodyBreak and see some new ways for you to look at your own life, discover what you are passionate about and go for it.
So here is our story, the story of Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod, two ordinary people with not-so-ordinary dreams.
First, Hal on Hal: I was born on June 14, 1956 and grew up in Toronto with my parents and sister. I was very fortunate that athletics came easily to me from a very early age. As the years went by I spent many hours playing ball in the school yard, suiting up for hockey and playing golf. I just could not get enough of being active. In high school, I was captain of the hockey, baseball, basketball and football teams and eventually was named athlete of the year. After graduation, I focused on baseball and with the encouragement of my parents, attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship. There I went on to earn a business degree and was an all-star first baseman. I also represented Canada at the World Baseball Championship.
Joanne on Joanne: I was born on September 18, 1958 and grew up in Scarborough, Ontario. I was adopted into a wonderful family when I was 8 months old. Being one of six children, there was always someone to play with. I enjoyed playing street hockey, tag, hide-and-seek and beating the boys at running. In high school, my physical education teacher, who had run hurdles at the 1968 Olympics, encouraged me to join a track club. I did and a whole new world opened up. I became a 4 time National and 7 time Provincial hurdle champion and represented Canada at many track meets around the world like the Pacific Conference Games, World Cup, Tri-Meet-Canada/PolandEngland, and the Commonwealth Games to name a few. To support my love of running, I worked in the insurance industry. After retiring from competition, I turned to the gym to keep fit. It was there where my life would take another dramatic turn when I met Hal.
Our connection was insistent and over the course of a month, we realized that our athletic experiences and recent exposure to television was leading us down a path towards putting together a fitness show. Hal had been in the process of pursuing a sports broadcasting career and had done some acting and commercials while I had just completed guest appears on a local cable television fitness show. What followed was trying to figure out a format for our show and how best to get our message across. We did a lot of channel surfing in those early days to get an idea of what was already out there in TV land. We didn’t want to imitate; we wanted to be fresh and unique. Ours wasn’t an aerobics show or half hour fitness or health program. It was not going to have models in skimpy leotards or have intimidating hosts lecturing the viewer. We knew that was not the way to motivate others to get fit and healthy. It was crucial that our style be user friendly and that males and females act as equals on our shows.
It was on June 8, 1988 that the first storyboard was outlined. It consisted of eight pictures each one representing what BodyBreak was about. The show was still in its infancy and wasn’t even called BodyBreak yet. It was simply “our show” but it was a beginning.
Joanne remembers: Also on June 8th, Hal was due to fly to San Diego, California but was not sure if he should go. We talked and talked about whether or not he should leave. We were both afraid that if he did, we might lose the momentum for BodyBreak. Should he stay or go? Hal must have asked that 100 times.
I felt it wasn’t up to me to make the decision, so I sat and waited as he weighed his options. We kept coming back to the show and how important it was to both of us, and as crucial as this decision was, there wasn’t much time to make it. The clock ticked. We had to leave for the airport within an hour and the pressure was intense. I nervously jiggled the car keys in my hand as Hal struggled with the decision.
Suddenly, Hal broke the silence. “Do you have $2,000?” he asked. This wasn’t the sort of thing I expected to hear but I said yes, I had $2,000. That’s about all I had, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. Hal had $2,000, too. Between us, he figured we had the money to finance the pilot shows and put together sales material. As it turned out, that was the last $2,000 for both of us even though each thought the other had plenty of cash. With both of us ready to put our money where our mouths were, Hal came to the conclusion that he had to stay in Toronto and see this opportunity through to the end. The plane left without him and that day was truly a defining moment for BodyBreak. With that problem solved, we could turn our full attention to the show. I kept working at Canada Life (with visions of a dwindling bank balance my biggest motivator) while Hal spent his time plotting out the show.
We decided that finding ways to help people incorporate healthy eating and physical activity into their daily lives would be the primary goal for BodyBreak. We used Hal’s mother, Pat Johnson, as an example, a woman who loves to garden. As with most gardeners, she complained that she often felt stiff and sore after a day of working outside. To solve that, BodyBreak would target gardeners in a show featuring an exercise to stretch and reduce tension in the shoulders. That would be our theme for each two-minute segment: identify a fitness problem and solve it with an exercise, nutrition or a health tip. We had the philosophy, the drive and commitment and now we had a theme. Voila, BodyBreak was born.
However, Hal adds: It wasn’t until late in June that the show actually got its name thanks to my sister, Lynn Johnson-Keane. We tossed around names like Fitness Break, Fit Break and some real stinkers, too, that thankfully have been forgotten. As we brainstormed, Lynn asked the obvious: What is the show about? I replied, it was designed to get your body fit and healthy in a short break. That’s when she said, “Why not call it BodyBreak?” BodyBreak it was.
During this time, I remember mapping out a way to promote and sell BodyBreak and I thought that having our logo on T-shirts would help to introduce the name. What started out as a plain image on a few shirts ended up costing more than $400. When the T-shirts finally came, Joanne had one framed for me. After 25 years, it still hangs on my office wall. I think of it as $400 art and original art at that. After the first shows, we never used that logo again. We learned a valuable lesson that an idea grows and changes over time and investing in a lot in the bells and whistles at first is rarely wise. People have come to us asking for advice about their projects and we often tell the T-shirt story as a classic example of too much too soon.
Nobody said it would be smooth sailing. We had a few setbacks that even careful planning couldn’t prepare us for. Joanne was struck by a cyclist while out running one June day and resulted in her just not feeling her usual energetic self to having silly things happen like spraining her ankle just getting out of my car. But we persevered and Joanne was soon back on her feet. The challenges actually helped to solidify our relationship.
On July 13, 1988, we shot the first BodyBreak. The day was glorious. Blue skies and plenty of sunshine set the stage for taping at Sherwood Park in Toronto. We had previously scouted the location and found that we could do three shows (golfing, cycling and gardening) in the same park. This was a real time saver and more economical as well. We also got very lucky with our production team. Camera Operator Claude Gariepy with his years of experience and sound technician, Phil Kawasoe, were instrumental in making sure that we had covered all the bases. Their reassurance meant a lot at the time since we were both pretty insecure about our abilities in front of the camera and in production. This is another crucial lesson we’ve learned. Work with experts and people who share or at least understand your vision.
On that first day, Joanne and I started the day filming a golf show. We filmed the activity – golf – created a problem the golfer had – fatigue on the back nine – solved the problem with an exercise – the lunge. When it came to filming the ending of the show, the plan was for me to hit the ball and the two of us would walk off into the distance. Well, I hit the ball just fine but when I reached back to pull my golf cart behind me, it tipped over with a crash. I thought I had blown the take but Claude shouted from behind the camera to “keep going, keep going.” We later used that unexpected shot in the final edit of the show as a way to inject some humour into the show. It also seemed to reinforce the fact that Joanne and I weren’t taking ourselves too seriously and it reflected the message that fitness should be fun. In a way, it became a trademark of BodyBreak to give viewers a smile or a chuckle at the end of each show. Claude was always ready to capture our falls, mishaps and goof-ups. And he has plenty to choose from, believe us! We learned very quickly that the unexpected is to be expected when shooting a show. Some people have dismissed this element of BodyBreak as corny but for us it is a way to make light of a very serious topic and poke a bit of fun at ourselves. The reality is that if people do not eat well and stay active, the health risks are overwhelming. Joanne and I believe that we have found a way to deliver this serious health message in a friendly, fun and upbeat way that seems to work. To this day, we so much appreciate what Claude and Phil did to help us achieve our goal.
Joanne remembers: After the filming and editing of the first three pilot shows and our original $4,000 budget depleted, Hal and I were excited to see if the idea would fly. We often joked that if it didn’t, at least we had a very high quality video of ourselves to show the grandchildren. Now, it was up to Hal to put on his sales hat and start knocking on doors. Hal’s previous job experience was in sales and to this day I still credit Hal’s sales experience as the key to BodyBreak’s longevity. He went to TV stations, advertising agencies and corporations. Even though we believed in BodyBreak, it was not an easy sell. BodyBreak was turned down by more than 40 organizations. Many said they liked the show, that it was different, but they didn’t know how to use it or they had no idea how to line up a sponsor for a show like ours.
Such a volume of rejections might strike you as negative if all you are focusing on is making the sale but not for Hal. He saw the silver lining. What he heard was that BodyBreak was different and from a sales perspective, different is good. Hal refused to be discouraged and in fact, every “no” made him more determined. The rejections that hurt Hal and I the most were those in which people expressed a concern about the image of a black-Irish man and Italian-German woman interacting as equal partners. They said Canadians would not accept interracial hosts. This was hard for us to understand even in 1988 because we believed from the beginning that race was not an issue nor should it be. So we took that negative and turned it into a positive. Hal started thinking about who would be interested in promoting equality for everyone and who would be interested in fitness and health programs designed for all Canadians regardless of physical abilities, sex or ethnicity? Who, a government funded agency would be. Hal called Participaction, a non-profit organization, co-funded by the government and corporate sector, designed to promote fitness to Canadians. All we knew about Participaction was what you probably remember too, the public service announcement which told us that a 65-year-old Swede was in better shape than a 30-year-old Canadian. But after one look at their brochures showing all types of people enjoying fitness and eating healthier, we knew we were at the right place.
We signed on to produce five new shows BodyBreak/Participaction shows. We cut the format from two minutes to 90 seconds. We thought the shorter format might be more attractive to TV stations since airtime is expensive and they would be providing it free of charge. We were still taking a chance since public service announcements usually run from 30 to 60 seconds. A decision was made to send the five new shows to the networks and cable TV stations across Canada to see whether they would play them.
Everything Hal said about BodyBreak requiring us to work harder than ever was certainly true. As much as I loved my job at Canada Life, I simply could not keep up the pace of working two jobs. I quit in October 1988, $6,000 in debt and with no other assets. Some people thought I was nuts but the way I looked at it, what did I have to lose? I was starting on a new adventure and no one could predict where it would take me. Now Hal and I were both able to focus all of our time on BodyBreak.
The best part of this whole process was learning all the jobs involved in TV production. It definitely has helped us understand the complete process and keep our vision, not someone else’s interpretation, alive.
When we didn’t know how, we made it our business to find out. Knowledge truly is power and we wanted to avoid as many situations as possible where our lack of experience and knowledge could make us vulnerable. This desire also helped us communicate better with people in the business and with potential sponsors.
Hal recalls: In January 1989, after receiving positive feedback from the TV stations, Participaction signed up for additional shows. This was the beginning of a successful two year relationship. BodyBreak first aired on CBC on April 28, 1989. Slowly other stations followed suit and started running the segments.
After completing sixty-five, 90-second programs with Participaction in 1991, we approached the president to get an update on our future with the agency. BodyBreak had become their most successful media campaign to date (the same is true 25 years later). Therefore, we were quite taken aback to hear that Participaction had no plans to pursue BodyBreak further. Joanne and I were very disappointed to see that relationship come to an end. However, even 25 years later people still connect us with Participaction.
BodyBreak was now on life support and we spent most of 1992 planning the best way to keep it alive. It took us several months to realize that maybe the TV stations would play BodyBreak even though Participaction wasn’t involved. Insecurity likely played a big part in us taking so long to reach that conclusion but once we did, we turned our efforts to making it happen. Joanne wrote and edited a winter series of shows and I was able to get funding, directed the spots and determined which TV stations to send them to. The tapes were duplicated and both of us stuffed the envelopes, signed the letters and mailed everything out to the stations. Our previous production experience and all those hours spent learning the various jobs had instantly paid off. To this day, Joanne and I are still very much hands.
As it turned out, we were right, the TV stations were very interested in BodyBreak. They played our shows with the same frequency and in some cases, even more often than when we were affiliated with Participaction. It gave us confidence in our product and a real emotional boost.
In August of 1992 we decided to invest our money in a fitness video featuring the three keys to getting fit-aerobic activity, muscle strengthening and proper nutrition. While Joanne worked on the editing process, I investigated how to get a video cover produced and which options might be available to sell the product. When we had trouble getting the video in the stores, we decided to sell the tapes ourselves. Special offers through mailings, the Sears Fitness Department and other promotional ventures followed. We also arranged for Quality Special Products to distribute the video for a short period of time. To date, we have sold approximately 30,000 videos, all thanks to going the non-traditional route and doing it ourselves.
The following year (1993), we joined forces with Health Canada to promote healthy, active living to all Canadians with the Vitality project. Once again, we were producing a series of 90 second programs. We shot summer shows in 1993, 1994 and 1995 and a winter 1994 series. After completing each grouping of shows our public profile was increasing and Joanne and I were doing what we loved. In 1994, BodyBreak, in conjunction with Health Canada’s Vitality program, won an Award of Excellence. It was a wonderful feeling to be recognized for providing quality programming.
However, we were still searching for ways to expand and looking for new opportunities says Joanne. Hal and I were thrilled in the Spring of 1996 to endorse an abdominal exercise product. Of course, if our name was going on it, the product had to be safe, well-constructed and effective. We tested it and were delighted. Many people have difficulty doing sit-ups, risk straining their necks and fail to isolate the abdominal muscles. They become frustrated because they don’t get results. And even though Hal and I know how to perform a sit-up properly, we found that using the product, we could really target the abdominal muscles from different positions. We really liked the piece of fitness equipment and soon it became known as the BodyBreak Ab Master. This was our first big step into the retail market, where we would be seen in a TV commercial promoting a product. We were nervous about it. We wrestled with the pros and cons of endorsements. On one hand, we truly felt that the Ab Master was a quality product that did what it claimed and could help consumers. On the other hand, we were concerned about how Canadians would see us if we were trying to sell them something. We had always appeared on TV giving free information. Were we compromising ourselves?
We decided to pursue the BodyBreak Ab Master because we believed in the product. We also produced a workout and nutrition video to educate the purchaser about how to get results. We are proud to say our BodyBreak Ab Master was the number one selling abdominal product in Canada with more than 450,000 sold. We are often told by strangers that they trusted us from the many years of seeing us on TV and therefore felt good about buying the product. Hal and I have always felt a sense of responsibility towards our viewers, but hearing this strengthened our resolve to ensure that we keep the integrity of BodyBreak at the highest standard possible.
Hal remembers: Joanne and I were still keen to expand our company and become involved with other fitness products. TRC had approached us after seeing the success of the BodyBreak Ab Master and recognizing the BodyBreak brand offered value and was trusted by the Canadian public. The BodyBreak line of fitness equipment with TRC was successful. Unfortunately, TRC later went bankrupt (not due to our involvement!). Again, seeing an opportunity, Joanne and I in late 1999 picked up the business and started learning how to distribute our line of equipment to Wal-Mart, Sears and other retailers to preserve the integrity of the BodyBreak name, products and reputation.
Also early on Joanne and I had talked about creating BodyBreak for radio. It seemed like a natural fit for us, so I did some homework and spoke with Pelmorex Radio about distributing BodyBreak for broadcasting. In September of 1998, BodyBreak went on the air as a syndicated radio show. We can’t tell you how strange it was to be driving along in your car and suddenly hear your own voice pop out of the radio or to see your picture on fitness products. To this day, we still feel alittle embarrassed and we don’t know exactly why we have this reaction. Maybe it is because it has never been about fame or money. It’s been about believing in the benefits of exercise and eating well and getting that message out to Canadians. We have learned that when in pursuit of an idea, money cannot be the driving force or the only motivating factor. There’s too much time, energy and love to be given to your idea and so many things have absolutely nothing to do with money. You have to enjoy the ride and if you are fortunate, you will be rewarded.
Over the years, we have continued to take on a wide variety of projects, participate in charity events and speak to corporations and schools as well as produce short BodyBreak segments, workout videos and 39 – 30 minute shows and a book. We now look forward to taking our production skills and passion for healthy living to our website and youtube channel as well as on social media. How things have changed. Our first scripts in 1988 were outlined on a typewriter!
To most Canadians, we are Hal and Joanne, two energetic people who encourage them to “keep fit and have fun.” However, as you now know, much of our work is done behind the scenes. Actually, we split our business responsibilities up the middle. I take care of the sales and marketing of BodyBreak and Joanne looks after the editing, production and office. As equal partners in BodyBreak, we come together to discuss major decisions about the direction of the business based on a foundation of mutual respect for each other’s strengths and recognition of weaknesses. There have been and will continue to be growing pains and unexpected surprises but Joanne and I have always had each other to rely on, to lean on and support when necessary. Our confidence in each other and in ourselves has never wavered. We feel the key has been to stay as positive and proactive as possible, keeping our minds open to new experiences and nurturing our own and each other’s creativity.
Remaining enthusiastic can be hard when even those closest to you are negative and doubt your ability to succeed. Sometimes their words are cloaked in well-intended advice. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, get into shape, start a business or embark on anything else that is important to you, don’t let naysayers affect you.
People often ask Joanne and I for advice on getting fit, losing weight, breaking into television or starting a business. As simple as it sounds, one of the first things we tell them is to surround themselves with positive people. They will help to produce positive results. For example, if you want to lose weight, find people who truly want you to achieve that, who will help you by saying, “Let’s go for a walk after dinner.” And don’t sabotage your own plans with negative thoughts or let excuses and fear stop you from reaching your goals. We can all be winners. But first, we have to think like winners.
In the early stages of BodyBreak, I would talk with friends about my plans and I quickly realized which friends were positive and had faith in me and which ones doubted my abilities. It was those who doubted me or were negative that I choose not to speak to a second time about BodyBreak. Instead I sought out friends who saw the potential in the idea and who had the faith in me and in us that would make the project successful. I particularly credit my parents, especially my dad for providing so much support to me. He always told me I could succeed at anything so when I told him about BodyBreak he said, “Great idea. I know you can do it.” Even today, when I tell my dad we have an idea for BodyBreak, he says, “Great idea, it’s a winner. I know you can do it.” That kind of encouragement makes you try again and again whether or not you succeed or not.
When you are after a dream, you should throw as much at the wall as you can and maybe something will stick. Not everything has worked for us but we have learned from each and every attempt and moved on.
Joanne adds: Hal and I have been together for twenty-five years and from the beginning when BodyBreak first aired on TV, people have been interested in our personal relationship. It turns out that Canadians have been far more accepting when it comes to matters of race than those early doubters gave them credit for. The number one question we get asked is whether or not we’re married. We are married and have a daughter who loves hockey, basketball and Irish dancing. Over the years, Reggie and Cooper, Nova Scotia Duck Toller Retrievers, have been a part of our lives and sadly have passed on. Both of them have appeared in our BodyBreak shows, were always patient and would “ham” it up for the camera. They taught us about unconditional love and when we think of them, we are filled with joy which brings huge smiles on our faces. Max is now carrying on where Reggie and Cooper left off. He is just a funny guy with an attitude. If he had his way, he would swim after the ducks for hours, bark at the squirrels and enjoy peanut butter in his kong. Mr Max as he is known in our home has been a wonderful addition to our family.
Hal and I have always considered ourselves independent people and if you had suggested to either of us that a chance meeting in a gym would lead to a partnership lasting twenty-five years, well, we both may have skipped our workouts that day. However, during that time, we have been able to share wonderful business and personal.
What is the philosophy of BodyBreak? To us, BodyBreak means being active, eating well and feeling good about yourself. When your body and mind feel great, everything else falls into place. Our goal for BodyBreak remains the same as it was back in 1988 – to encourage Canadians to live healthy, active lifestyles.
We’ve also used our show in a more subtle way, to help convey the message that no matter what your race, gender or physical limitation, we can all live, work and play together. This is very important to us and we do not do it because it may be considered politically correct. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. That point was driven home when a young Edmonton girl, who is physically challenged, thanked us for having people in wheelchairs in our shows. She finally could see someone like herself on TV and found it inspiring.
The BodyBreak adventure is far from over but we have to end our story somewhere and it seems fitting to give the last word to Hal’s grandmother. Years ago, she gave Hal’s mom an anonymous poem on a simple sheet of paper intended as an inspirational gift for the eight year old boy. Perhaps it didn’t change his life but it certainly helped to shape it. He has read it many, many times over the years and it still hangs on the wall in front of his desk so that he can read it every day for inspiration. Hal and I hope it will be your inspiration, too.
The Man Who Thinks He Can
by Walter D. Wintle
If you think you are beaten, you are,
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,
It’s almost a “cinch” you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost,
For out in the world you find
Success begins with a fellow’s will;
It’s all in the state of mind.
Full many a race is lost
Ere ever a step is run;
And many a coward fails
Ere ever his work’s begun.
Think big and your deeds will grow,
Think small and you’ll fall behind,
Think that you can and you will;
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you’re outclassed, you are,
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later, the man who wins,
Is the fellow who thinks he can.