“Don’t put anything off. Do it today. Don’t wait.” This is the advice that Timothy Blanchfield, the Fitness Manager of The Rockefeller University, has for the Rockefeller community. If you have been to Rockefeller’s gym in Founders Hall, you have most likely run into Blanchfield. Since he was hired in the spring of 2014, it has been his main goal to keep Rockefeller fit—he manages the gym and its equipment, runs free fitness classes for the campus community, and is in charge of Rockefeller’s participation in the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge every summer. I sat down with him at Rockefeller’s Faculty and Student’s Club to discuss his job and the path that led him to fitness.
Blanchfield grew up in Beacon, New York, about an hour north of New York City. When Blanchfield was living in Beacon, the Breakneck Ridge trail was not well known, but now it is a popular hike due to a challenging rock scramble and nearly vertical climb in the first mile, as well as its stunning views of the Hudson River and neighboring mountains. However, in those days, the Mount Beacon Railway was a popular tourist destination. This trolley followed the steep mountain face, had sweeping views of the valley, and led to a casino at the top called the Beaconcrest Hotel. In 1978, after several fires and financial issues, the railway closed.
In college, Blanchfield began doing some fitness training with his friends. He was completely self-taught, but he realized that he could help people get into shape at the gym. A few years later, Blanchfield joined Teach for America in the Bronx, where he was teaching for five years. Although he was teaching history, he also helped with some of the physical education programs and found that many people would come to him for fitness advice. Blanchfield used his free time to begin personal training after school and when he left teaching, he was a full-time fitness trainer until Rockefeller hired him as part of Human Resources’ initiative to increase the wellness offerings at Rockefeller. Now he works part-time for Rockefeller and manages his own personal training business on the side.
When Blanchfield first started at Rockefeller, many people did not know about his free fitness class offerings. In fact, initially, only people from Human Resources attended his classes, but this worked to get the ball rolling. Through word-of-mouth and increased advertising of the fitness classes, a diverse array of Rockefeller community members of all ages and fitness levels now attend his classes. Classes are always being added and adapted. One of the most popular classes is Blanchfield’s strength and conditioning class on Mondays at 7:30 a.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at 12 and 1 p.m.
Blanchfield also organizes Rockefeller’s annual participation in The Virgin Pulse Global Challenge. There is space for 210 people (30 teams) to participate. Participants receive a fitness tracker at the beginning of the challenge to track their steps and other physical activity online for 100 days each summer. The program aims to improve physical activity, mental wellness, nutrition, and sleep; this contributes to improvement in all-around wellness of the participants. In addition, the Global Challenge provides both a sense of comradery and competitiveness to campus as participants work harder to get in steps and climb the leaderboard, visible on the Virgin Pulse app.
Blanchfield says that he loves every part of his job. He finds satisfaction in helping people improve themselves and enjoys working at an institution like Rockefeller where there is a constant flux of students, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and other employees—there are always new people with whom he gets to work. To make the most of the limited space for equipment, Tim is continually working on replacing old machines and putting in new and improved equipment. He is excited about adding an upright rower to the gym soon. A cardio intervals class will also be added with a focus on high-intensity interval training. Blanchfield’s biggest pet peeve is when people do not return their weights to the rack after they finish using them. No one wants to spend half of their workout looking all over the gym for the weights they need!
Blanchfield’s advice for anyone at Rockefeller who wants to get into fitness is to start slow and find something you can enjoy and can handle. It is okay to modify anything as needed. The biggest mistake people make when they decide to start working out is that they go too hard at first, especially if they are working out with a friend who has been working out for years. So ease into everything to avoid injury and fatigue. The goal is to find a way to include fitness in your lifestyle in a way that will be maintainable for you.
Motivation can be hard to find and to sustain. Even incredibly fit people like Blanchfield burn out sometimes. This past year, Blanchfield realized that this was happening to him. He had completed six full Ironman races in four years. (That’s six long-distance triathlons where he swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles!) Plus, he had done about ten half Ironman races in that same four-year period. So this past year he has been taking a bit of a break from intensive training and has allowed his proclivities for pizza to creep up on him. Everyone needs a break sometimes. However, Blanchfield is still very active—he discovered a love for mountain biking about three years ago, and now, he goes up to his condo on Hunter Mountain to ride his bike through the mountains almost every weekend. Not only is it fun and a beautiful place to bike, but this can also get him up to 90,000 steps for the Global Challenge.
Since Blanchfield’s advice to us is not to put anything off, I asked him what is one thing he would to do that he has not yet done. He has no plans to leave New York anytime soon, but eventually he does want to move somewhere more south or somewhere more west. Some options are North Carolina, Jackson Hole, or Park City—anywhere beautiful with plenty of places to go mountain biking. He says he’s been in the city too long, but we are thankful he has been here because he is doing a wonderful job of helping members of the Rockefeller community lead happy and healthy lives.