In the Zone

F rom a small gym and studio in Science Park, Charlie O’Connell is changing lives. At least, that’s what people tell him online while they view his live fitness broadcasts. 

O’Connell is the founder and CEO of Fitscript and creator of the GlucoseZone platform, which spans a YouTube channel and a new mobile app that offers personally tailored fitness programs for people living with diabetes. Those people reportedly tune in from far and wide: Algeria, Nepal, Australia, Jamaica, Mauritius, London, China, India and, of course, the US.

On a recent afternoon, Fitscript staff prepared for the day’s second broadcast of O’Connell’s live, interactive exercise video. Content creator John Flasko donned a pair of headphones and readied the digital sound board, while digital coach Laura Joseph greeted the viewers logging in for the 6:30 session. Other staffers adjusted the camera and lights. O’Connell himself rolled out a yoga mat and counted down the time, glancing at a monitor where the names of viewers were popping up. The YouTube channel has over 7,000 subscribers, and some individual videos have enjoyed views in the tens and even hundreds of thousands.

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Producer and chief creative officer Keivon Jones counted O’Connell in, and O’Connell greeted his viewers. Then he started—not with a warmup, but with an on-camera blood glucose test. “Remember,” he told his viewers, “safe and effective exercise with diabetes starts with testing your blood sugar.”

This is more than a job for O’Connell. It’s a mission. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (sometimes called juvenile diabetes) just in time for his first college football practice at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was a disaster, and the bottom line was nobody had a clue how to help me,” he recalls.

His former football teammate, Kendall Hochman, was Fitscript’s first angel investor and now sits on the company’s board of directors. “He’s been on his own program and been fine-tuning this over the last 20 years that we’ve known each other,” Hochman says of O’Connell. “It’s compelling. I mean, look at the guy. He’s just in phenomenal shape and so healthy.”

O’Connell started out doing personal training for people with Type 1 diabetes. He launched Fitscript in 2012 with a $25,000 loan from Connecticut Innovations and a desire to meet what he saw as a desperate need in the field of diabetes treatment. Successful diabetes management, he explains, is a “treatment triangle” of medication, nutrition and exercise. Billions of dollars have been invested in the first two, O’Connell says, but “nothing has been invested in the exercise component.” So he set out to change that.

Exercise sounds like a good idea, but people with diabetes need to choose their exercise carefully based on their current blood sugar, their medications, their fitness level, what they’ve eaten, even the time of day. Exercising at the wrong time in the wrong way can be disastrous. That’s why, in the Science Park fitness lab, O’Connell and his staff have conducted “thousands of exercise sessions and meticulously documented the correlating variables that impact glucose levels during and after exercise,” he explains. They’ve turned that data into an algorithm with enough information to offer exercise guidance to people with diabetes based on their “real-time” glucose levels.

Once they’ve set up their basic profile, subscribers to the GlucoseZone app can enter their levels and receive a recommendation for the best exercise for them at that moment. “All of our guidance starts with the person testing their blood sugar,” O’Connell says. “If the person’s blood sugar is 200, they’re going to get a very different solution than if it’s 100.”

The GlucoseZone live videos are designed to create an interactive space—a community of sorts—where people with diabetes can ask questions and follow along with the routines, assuming their glucose tests warrant it. In addition, on-demand videos, all housed on YouTube, provide different fitness routines that viewers can follow based on their current needs.

Several people who work at Fitscript also live with diabetes. Trainer Justin Emmans was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of eight. When he first arrived, O’Connell ran him through an initial consultation. Emmans left “mind-blown,” he recalls. “I had no idea about half of the stuff we went over. It just totally changed my perspective.” Now, he finds that having diabetes himself drives him harder to help others. O’Connell agrees: “It gives us a perspective that you really can’t have any other way.”

In addition to fitness trainers like Emmans, the Fitscript staff includes certified diabetes educators. Everything is focused on education and fitness. “We don’t ever make medical advice,” O’Connell explains. “We just are purely focused on fitness solutions in the context of established and published medical guidelines.” The company also offers a GlucoseZone trainer certification program with follow-up digital support.

The live video on this particular afternoon ran for 45 minutes. O’Connell took viewers through a series of standing and floor exercises, encouraging them and often greeting them by screen name as they turned up on the monitor. He stopped halfway through to test his blood sugar and did so again at the end, setting a safe example for viewers to follow. Finally, he left them with a pitch for the new app and a few words of much-needed encouragement, the kind he himself once needed and couldn’t find. “I can’t wait to see you,” he told them, “and I can’t wait to hear how you are reducing, reversing and controlling your diabetes.”

Fitscript
5 Science Park, New Haven (map)
www.fitscript.com | www.glucosezone.com | YouTube Channel

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image #2 features Charlie O’Connell.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is The Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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