How Hally Bayer Opened Her Fitness Studio While Living with a Chronic Medical Condition
Hally Bayer shares how she opened Thrive Pilates while managing flare-ups from acute ulcerative colitis.
Welcome to How I Got Here, Be Well Philly’s look inside the entrepreneurial journey of fitness and wellness business owners in the Philadelphia area. In their own words, they share their stories — including the triumphs and obstacles — of starting and running a business.
I call myself an accidental entrepreneur. I followed my heart, pursued what I felt passionate about and ended up here, 10 years into a business that has impacted scores of people to live healthier, happier lives. I never grew up thinking I’d run my own business or be an entrepreneur, but I do feel like everything I did and experienced [prior to owning Thrive] was, in a way, preparing me to be a business owner in the wellness space.
Physical activity has always been a natural part of my identity. When I was a kid, my dad — a former football coach and lacrosse referee — would ask me every single day if I had completed my daily pushups and situps. If it sounds like a chore, it really wasn’t. I actually enjoyed doing them. He did try to put me on softball and soccer teams, which didn’t turn out so well because I ended up dancing around in the outfield. Without a fly ball caught or a homer hit, my parents decided I was better off spending my time in a dance studio. I danced throughout elementary school, middle school and high school.
I began having digestive issues during my sophomore year of high school. At first, I thought it was just a stomach bug, but it kept getting worse. I was losing weight, missing school, and unable to do much besides make the journey from my bed to the bathroom. My concerned parents had me seeing top doctors in the area in order to figure out what was going on. By the age of 15, I had undergone more X-rays, sonograms, colonoscopies, blood draws, and doctor visits than any teenager should. And yet, I was getting progressively worse. One day, while in the hospital for further testing, my doctor told me I’d have to stay overnight for observation. My body was so weak and depleted that I needed an IV and blood transfusions. Ever optimistic, I thought that after this treatment, I could go back home, sleep in my own bed, return to school and “normal” life.
That one night turned into three straight weeks in the hospital. I had IVs in each arm and after my veins couldn’t take it anymore, they moved them to my neck and hand. I couldn’t eat, so I had to take all my nutrition through the IVs. Despite not eating, I was still frequenting the bathroom, often losing blood. I’ll never forget losing so much blood that I passed out on the bathroom floor, finally waking up to doctors and nurses in my face asking my name and where I was to see if I was conscious. At that moment, I hesitated to answer — optimistic Hally felt defeated and simply tired of fighting.
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My diagnosis was acute ulcerative colitis. My colon was so inflamed, that the medications and mega-doses of steroids that they were giving me just weren’t cutting it. They were causing all sorts of fun side-effects for a teenager like stretch marks, losing hair from my head, and growing hair on my face. The one thing they weren’t doing was healing me.
I would have to have my colon removed to save my life. The surgery was complicated and would be done in multiple phases. The recovery would be long, but I would survive and the pain would stop. I could go back to my normal life, but it wouldn’t be so normal. They told me I’d have to wear a temporary ostomy bag that would get in the way of my physical activities and my social life. Though inconvenient, I knew it was a small price to pay for a life out of the hospital. After my surgery, my entire perspective changed. I had gained a sense of gratitude for things I used to take for granted and also a belief in myself that I could handle anything. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself and use my new lifestyle as a crutch. Instead, I decided to thrive. I ended up going to Cornell, pursuing a Master’s degree in counseling psychology, and getting certified in Pilates through a 700-hour comprehensive training.
Despite being “cured” of colitis, I did have flare-ups for many years following my surgery. These had me constantly in the doctor’s office and the lab for blood draws because I was not only living on antibiotics, but also on immunosuppressants. One day in 2005 — 10 years after I first got sick — the doctor’s office called and told me my liver was so compromised from the medications that I had to stop taking them. At that point I felt hopeless. The medications that were supposed to help me were hurting me so much. I decided to connect with a woman named Catherine whom I had met during my Pilates training. She completely overhauled my diet, put me on a ton of supplements, introduced me to meditation and reiki, and encouraged me to rethink my outlook on success. I had this idea in my head that I had to work myself to the bone to be successful. This stress was not only making me suffer physically and mentally, but holding me back from success.
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In 2007, when my husband Nick and I moved to Philadelphia to grow his new business (Saxbys), I channeled Catherine’s advice to “make money doing what I love.” I didn’t have a business plan or big dreams of having a studio of my own, but I did want to make my own choices and follow my heart. I started seeing a few clients in my apartment and then got an opportunity to partner with Philly Power Yoga in 2009. Owner Steve Gold was looking to expand his space and bring on someone to run a Pilates program. I took a leap of faith and just went with it.
Thrive had very humble beginnings. I was the only teacher, leading a small number of classes and private lessons. All our classes were promoted by fliers because we didn’t even have a website at the time, and we collected payments in a physical cash box. With time, Thrive evolved. Once our budget allowed, I recruited certified teachers to build and grow with me (and Thrive would not be what it is today without their dedication and passion). We eventually built a website, launched our schedule on MindBody, and said goodbye to our cash box!
During the coronavirus pandemic, my Thrive team has come through. After closing the physical studio on March 16th, we took 48 hours to pivot and then began live-streaming our classes. For three months now, we have been streaming classes morning, noon, and night, staying connected with our amazing community and building on it with students who live near and far. We’ve reconnected with students who were previous members, but moved away, “seeing” folks from France, England, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. We may not be in the same room, but we move in harmony from our living rooms: taking collective breaths, and giving our bodies the love and care they deserve.
Overall, I feel proud to say that I’m living my purpose. Every day, I am excited to wake up in the morning and go to work, whether that looks like walking into the physical studio or teaching from my computer. While I still experience flare-ups in my body and speed bumps in the business, I absolutely love being able to change people’s lives and impact their health and wellbeing. 10 years later, I still choose to Thrive, no matter what.