Lee Ann and Burke Jolly live in west Little Rock, in a beautiful home with a long staircase leading to the front door and an even longer (and steeper) driveway leading up to the back. After putting your four-wheel drive to the test, you’ll come upon their back door — and the entrance to the JB Lab.
The lab has six workout stations full of barbells, exercise balls and resistance equipment. In the front of the studio, a rainbow “JB,” with a smiley face over the hook of the “J,” greets you as you walk in.
“As adults, we go from being carefree to being told what’s acceptable or we start perceiving judgment,” Lee Ann says. “People forget their natural curiosity. With our space, we want to encourage people to keep being curious and to be playful strategically. With the smiley faces and rainbow glitter, we want you to embrace your most Lisa Frank self.”
The duo started Jolly Bodies as a fitness group on Facebook in 2016 before launching its as a business in May of 2020 with the mission to make connections and help people de-program their minds from unhealthy mentalities regarding fitness. The goal is to provide consistency, allowing people to trust them and, in turn, lean into trusting themselves.
“We want to be advocates for people and be someone who comes alongside you and listens, not gives you their opinion or forces a dogma," Burke says. “The beauty is that we get the opportunity to literally just be kind and empathetic and communicate that it doesn’t matter what you do, you have inherent value.”
At Jolly Bodies, you won’t hear any talk about burning calories, sculpting your body or losing weight. You will hear them talk about muscle strength, heart rate, goals, rest, endurance and internal health. For them, results mean increased strength, mobility and muscle. It means learning the skill of working out.
“Our message is one that takes a more ‘body neutral’ approach,” Lee Ann says. “You don’t have to feel any way about your body to know you are valued and loved.”
Lee Ann has a Ph.D. in physiology and has been participating in and leading group exercise programs since 2005. She brings real, research-based science to the table when developing the JB curriculum, which consists of several specific exercise formats that all complement each other: rise, cheeky, strong, rest, minis, JB University, on the go, 45-plus minute workouts, clocked and Jolly Bodies, their signature workout.
When they started out, they knew that despite the reopening of Arkansas after COVID-19 lockdowns, in-person classes simply would not be an option until much later.
So Jolly Bodies began online, filming on their iPhones. As the months of online courses passed, they began to learn more and more about the process of digital content creation.
At first, the Jollys realized they needed simple things like a microphone, then a better camera, then an even better microphone. They went as far as to install better lighting in the lab, including multicolored lights that change to reflect the intensity of the workout. They purchased better video editing software, as well as a more user-friendly platform for their viewers.
Jolly Bodies now has about 400 videos on its site. Viewers of their channel are based in 19 different states in the U.S. and three other countries: Israel, Kuwait and India.
In the summer of 2020, they began outdoor, socially distanced fitness classes, and in November, students were finally able to come into the garage studio. There is space for five people in a class (plus one coach), and they host three classes every day, five days a week, which means they get to connect with a minimum of 75 people every week.
That doesn’t even count how many people participate in their City Fit class on Saturdays. Anyone in the community is able to join them for this fun, free outdoor workout. According to the Jollys, it’s like “family dinner, without the drama.”
“We never imagined doing [City Fit] before the pandemic,” Lee Ann says. “It’s forced us to stretch ourselves creatively. We’ve had to focus on what we’re doing and look around and prep. Everything can change in a split second. Lean into your resiliency as a person. It’s fun to be where we’re at and be grateful for where we are at.”
The most important aspect of the business that has led to success for the Jollys has been the transparency and trust in their personal relationship.
Before they were married, Lee Ann was living in Little Rock in 2011 and Burke was living in Searcy. On the night they met, a friend of Lee Ann’s invited her to come up for a girl’s night in Searcy and Burke was on his way to a Chipotle in Little Rock with a group of volunteers. When the Chipotle turned out to be closed, Burke turned around and returned the van he had borrowed … from Lee Ann’s friend’s husband.
Burke knocked on the door, noticed Lee Ann sitting on the couch and managed to talk his way into being included into the conversation. Eventually, their hosts went to bed and Lee Ann and Burke spent the whole night talking on their couch. Soon after, Burke drove down to Little Rock for their first date and they've been together ever since.
Burke had no background in fitness, but Lee Ann was already instructing by the time they met. It wasn’t until several years later that they started doing it together.
Lee Ann is naturally empathic and introverted, whereas Burke is more of an extrovert. Lee Ann does more of the research, development and “imagineering” side of the business, and Burke's strengths lie in fostering the relationships with people who come in.
“It would be impossible to do it all between how to manage Jolly Bodies and make it people-centric,” Burke says.
When it comes to navigating not only marriage and work, but working where they live, the Jollys always try to remember what they started out to do.
“Our first priority is us," Burke says. “It’s about having the trust and respect for your partner. I could go on and on about what she’s phenomenal at, but I try to live it. It takes allowing for a lot of grace. I know she wants what’s best for me. It’s the constant team approach. We communicate boundaries and apologize. When the hard times come, we have reinforced that trust. We have a very hands-open approach to working together.”
It’s through this mutual trust that the Jollys have been able to succeed and are able to make plans for their future as Jolly Bodies grows. They're able to respectfully address each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as business partners. This allows them to have a solid understanding of their values and support when they process feedback from their customers.
“We are following the green arrows and they say, ‘keep going,’’’ Lee Ann says. “These green arrows are our people and their feedback. Looking back, you can see how we’ve progressed, and I want to be doing something with my life that continues to allow me to grow and lean into interests and skills. That’s the dream, whether it’s in a parking lot or the Taj Mahal.”
Eventually, the Jollys would like to move into a studio that is separate from their home. It’s not that they don’t love their lab, (and they love their lab), but they want to provide more space for more clients, as well as a space for those clients to loiter. Loitering allows for conversation, and conversation leads to stronger connections and relationships. At the end of the day, that is the purpose behind everything the Jollys do.
“Fitness is only about 5% of what we do in a day,” Burke says. “We want it to be enjoyable, immersive and creative. We want it to be a life-giving 5%. We want to provide people a 30-minute vacation every day. We want to be a place where you can be mindful, present, and at the end, you haven’t thought about anything else.”
Because the Jollys' job is providing those mental vacations, they have to find other outlets to be mindful and relax. For Burke, he finds rest in yard work and raking leaves into a pile. For Lee Ann, she paints, reads and watches shows.
“When your job is to connect, I have got to find time to be with myself, too,” Lee Ann says. “There are a lot of negative connotations with being alone, but it’s really about being with yourself. Connect with yourself. Do things that don’t have a ROI. Do things that are fulfilling. It’s about being comfortable with being yourself.”
The Jollys believe it takes courage to be comfortable with yourself. So much of the marketing for the fitness industry is dedicated to convincing people there is something wrong with their body that needs to be fixed. It’s hard to escape an industry like that, which is designed to follow you wherever you go. To dedicate yourself to combatting the notion that you need to “fit in” takes vulnerability, courage and joy.
Burke and Lee Ann try to do everything they can to make that journey easier by juxtaposing the intense with the ridiculous, using everything from smiley faces to colorful lights to comedy bits on social media. They're grateful to have so many avenues to connect with people and to empower them on their journeys. Feedback from people who have grown with them since the beginning of the business is especially treasured because it helps them know they are doing it right, even if the Jolly Bodies style isn't for everyone.
Lee Ann has collected every letter and art project she's been given from people who have enjoyed their programming. She plans to turn it into a huge display as a constant reminder for why they continue to do what they do.
“Don’t put burdens on experiencing joy,” she says. “Sometimes they’re into it on the first day, sometimes it takes months. We get to lean into who we are. Getting to be who you are is a good gig. Belonging requires you to be who you are.”