The next time you see a BASIS International & Bilingual Schools Chengdu teacher gingerly making their way down the stairs, you’ll know it’s not an English teacher who sat too many hours grading papers but more likely the newest member of the Fighting Pandas Fitness Club. This grassroots faculty fitness group is improving physical fitness, one sore muscle group at a time, and building meaningful connections and camaraderie among the teaching staff. 

The Seeds of a Fitness Community 

BASIS International & Bilingual Schools Chengdu

When founding faculty members Riaan and Jessica Loots first arrived at the newly opened BASIS International & Bilingual Schools Chengdu campus in 2022, they struggled to find the right fitness community. “The nearest CrossFit box was an hour away, and commercial gyms just weren’t cutting it,” Riaan explains. “We missed the convenience and support of our CrossFit family back in Shenzhen.”

So, Riaan took matters into his own hands. He began working out in a large open space adjacent to the faculty gym on the school campus, using just a few borrowed barbells, plates, and two Spartan boxes. What started as solo training sessions quickly gained momentum, and in just a few short months, the group grew to about 25 teachers of all ages and fitness levels. 

“I posted about my workouts on WeChat and the next thing I knew, two other teachers asked to join me. Then it just continued growing through word of mouth,” Riaan said. “So, we had this open space and interested people but barely any equipment.”  

Undeterred by their lack of gear, Riaan and Jessica took an entrepreneurial approach, launching a fitness challenge where teachers paid a small fee toward achieving personal fitness or weight goals. The money from the challenge went directly toward buying essential equipment, like plates, dumbells, storage racks, rubber bands, and medicine balls, that the whole community could use. The school also backed the club, not only letting them use the space but also helping to purchase additional gear, such as pull bars and rubber mats for the floors.  

Today, the self-built gym has genuinely become the Fighting Panda’s home, complete with the gear and grit of an established gym. “It looks and smells like a CrossFit box,” commented Riaan. “The rubber bands are hanging on the walls, the dumbells are in the corner, there’s a clock, and there is a screen to show the workouts.” 

Faculty CrossFit Gym

Four nights a week, Riaan, the Chair of Physical Education and a teacher with Spartan coaching and CrossFit Level 1 certifications, leads faculty through high-intensity workouts he meticulously designs. Each workout offers scaled versions so that everyone, from experienced athletes to newcomers, works at an appropriate yet challenging level that helps them progress toward their goals.  

“The Fighting Panda’s box is an amazing addition to our Chengdu community,” Sam Martin commented. “The support and encouragement for something outside our contract is extremely rewarding. It never matters about the weight you lift or the number you see on the scale—it’s about showing up and putting in the work.” 

Every session is an opportunity for participants to reach new heights and celebrate their achievements within an encouraging community. Riaan shared that the teachers may be walking a little funny the next day, but they’re happy because they’ve pushed through that tough workout and released all their stress and frustrations.  

Working out in the teachers’ gym has been wonderful,” said Karen Eisenberg. “Riaan and Jessica have set up a safe and supporting atmosphere where I feel I can push myself beyond my limits to reach my fitness goals.” 

Beyond the physical workouts, the group also enjoys healthier lifestyle habits. Riaan and Jessica offer guidance on nutrition, supplements, and recovery tools to support the teachers’ fitness journeys. They also post healthy recipes and ingredient lists, and teachers have begun sharing their meal-prepping, inspiring others to do the same.     

Workout Class Woment Faculty in Fitness Club

An Inclusive Fitness Family 

In building this fitness community from the ground up, Riaan and Jessica created something much greater than just a workout group—they fostered a tight-knit community built on support, camaraderie, and overall wellness.  

“Our aim is to build a strong teacher community where people from all walks of life can come together—working out and bonding over shared experiences,” Riaan said. “It’s about more than just the physical benefits. We’re creating a support network and offering people a place to call home, even if they’re miles away from their actual homes.” 

Margaret Siglock, a humanities teacher, was motivated to focus on her health after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  When she learned that Riaan and Jessica were beginning a fitness group, she knew this was exactly what she needed. Working out with co-workers makes each session not seem like “work” or a “chore,” she explained. “We encourage and push one another. Riaan and Jessica are so knowledgeable, and they make sure that everyone is doing each exercise so they do not get hurt. They also explain how to modify each exercise to our ability levels.” 

Teachers at Spartan DEKA Strong competition

“Recently, Riaan and Jessica encouraged us all to sign up for the Spartan DEKA Strong competition,” Margaret continued. “I never would have considered doing anything like that before I joined the cross-training group. The competition was so difficult, but I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I finished. I am so much stronger and healthier today, and I love the path we are all on together!”  

Teachers at Spartan DEKA Strong competition Teachers at Spartan DEKA Strong competition

“The school’s “box” workout area has given me a chance to work out and start to lose weight,” commented Josh Martin. “Having other teachers there to encourage and compete with each other is also great. It’s a wonderful place for all of us to come together and try to better our bodies and minds.” 

From enduring challenging workouts to providing much-needed stress relief and community connection, the Fighting Pandas have paved a path toward holistic well-being and belonging for teachers—a journey well worth the occasional sore muscles.

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