By Kevin Mullins

why fitness is NOT essential in America

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

Join FST NOw

The American Health Crisis (And NOT Talking Coronavirus)

The fitness industry has been deemed non-essential by most world governments, including America, during a time of pandemic and health crisis. COVID-19 is a serious threat and our response is a necessary step to bring the spread to a halt, save lives, and lead to an eventual restoration of normality.

But it took the precedent over other medical diagnosis’ that destroy someone’s quality of life and cause thousands of unnecessary deaths.

  1. Heart Disease / Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attack)
  2. Cancers, Immune Diseases
  3. Infections and Diseases of the Lungs
  4. Metabolic Syndrome (Obesity, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, etc)

In addition, there are other issues that are not seen as diagnosis’ but as natural progressions of aging:

  1. Increased body fat percentage
  2. Sarcopenia and loss of functional strength
  3. Decrease coordination and increased reliance on external assistance for balance
  4. Decreased cardiovascular capacity

Pandemic or not, these problems exist. People still have heart disease, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. And each day they will seek another pill to extend their lifespan and manage their symptoms rather than the sources.

All the while, fitness professionals stand at the ready with one of the most proven medical interventions known to humanity – EXERCISE. In conjunction with a micronutrient-rich diet of appropriate calories and quality sleep, exercise can quite literally save lives.

Exercise is ESSENTIAL To Health

An exercise routine is ESSENTIAL to our health, longevity and quality of life.

  • Exercise can improve our body composition, increase our metabolic rate, manage our blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides, increase oxygen transport to the body and brain, and keep our hormones in balance.
  • Strength training can strengthen our bones, develop our muscles, make us resilient to injury and pain, maintain our coordination and balance and equip us with the strength to overcome physical, emotional, and mental hurdles.
  • It can enhance our immune system, combat other bacterial and viral infections, and eliminate our need for prescription medicines. The regulatory effect of an exercise routine provides the body with a daily diagnostic to recognize abnormalities in the system.
  • Exercise can make us happier – with data showing that it is an effective anti-depressant and the perfect place to invest anxious energy. The confidence boost post-exercise can develop into a long-lasting sense of efficacy when habit is achieved.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, but it paints a picture that is crystal clear:

Exercise is essential for all. It is effective for the individual and the collective. Movement is the alpha and omega of our preventive plan against disease and disfunction.

Thus, when we consider those of us who have committed our lives to coaching exercise, preaching its benefits, and aiming to make our world a healthier place – clearly, our profession is ESSENTIAL.

Poor Public Perception of Fitness Is The Sad Reality

Enrolling those who can get in front of our disease, dysfunction, and pending diagnosis’ is imperative to the successful advancement of society and a procurement of a healthy and stable future. Just as traditional doctors stand at the ready to respond to crisis’, a fitness professional is prepared to avoid them altogether.

Yet, fitness was deemed non-essential early in the response. Gyms, training studios, boutique spaces, and private training halted. The fitness industry as we have come to know it ceased to exist. If you didn’t go online, then you didn’t have a business. *

*To be clear, it was critical to close facilities down during this outbreak to prevent unnecessary spreading of a virus that is novel to the human body, especially for big box locations. This article isn’t about the response per se’, and so we will not dive further into the specifics of this matter.

Being shut down wasn’t just a safety precaution.

It was proof that the fitness industry hasn’t done enough to define itself as essential the public’s eyes. It proves that the worst of us, and those misguided, have spoken loud enough, and often enough, to create a lasting impression in the non-exercising world.

To most common-people – training is a luxury for those with an access to a wealth of time and money. To the “working world” – fitness is just a means to looking better with your clothes off, or at the very least, not being an obese mess.

To many – fitness professionals are self-absorbed gym-rats who only see the world through the lens of Whole Foods and AMRAPs.

Proving To The Public That A Healthy Lifestyle is HEALTHY…

It’s critical in this moment, right now, to acknowledge that of course WE think WE are essential. Our bias runs deep and is no different than a pizza maker believing he has the best pie in town or a CEO believing that her business is that most important.

We aren’t wrong to think we are essential. Even the worst personal trainer is doing their best to combat disease and dysfunction. We are right that we have the solutions. But, the world doesn’t see it that way:

Between cognitive dissonance (our emotional connection to our beliefs) and confirmation bias (our ability to only see data that supports our current position) – our industry has fallen tone deaf. The world-at-large doesn’t acknowledge our power because our messaging is ass backwards.

We are vindicated by our results, motivated to outshine our peers, and educated just enough to sound smart. We highlight sex appeal and performance while completing ignoring the fact that most people just want to be 5% better.

We are blinded by our own beliefs and cursed to push them on everyone else who has a social media feed, or else fall into the abyss of unknown fitness professionals.

Our messaging has never been about ESSENTIAL.

It’s been about all the things that are “add-ons” to the vehicle. Most people on Earth need to master the gas and brake pedals for a long time before worrying about adding a supercharger and becoming Dominic Toretto.

But maybe it is time we change that?

Maybe there is a blueprint that can change the public perspective of fitness professionals. It is possible that this blueprint has existed all-along, but the timing wasn’t right. It’s possible that we needed crisis to show us that old way wasn’t working well, and that a new, more-inspired direction was necessary.

Things need to change. And this action list highlights the 5 essential acts that make fitness, the professionals within its industry, necessary for the rest of time. It’s time to rise up and prove that fitness is indeed essential:

#6 FIVE Star Standards on Cleanliness, Security, and Care

It is obvious why people would choose to stay at a Ritz Carlton vs. Motel 6 (assuming no financial considerations are necessary).

You would choose the Ritz Carlton because of an expected standard of cleanliness, security, and care associated. You’d believe that the sheets would be clean, the facility secure, and that all staff would greet you with a smile.

It is exactly why the big-box brands such as Equinox and Life Time do so well – they have clearly defined standards on cleanliness, security, and customer-care. While the fitness product runs the risk of being watered down in favor of scaling – the customer’s experience is usually above expectations because they have no concerns about the operation.

So why do so many gym owners overlook these three crucial elements of their operation? Many have the right equipment, staff, and culture, but lack the essential foundation of cleanliness, security, and customer care*. Unfortunately, this disregard of the foundational elements of human needs (as illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) doesn’t allow customers to notice what isexceptional.

*This clearly does not mean everyone!

For private personal trainers and small business owners – it is a critical step to begin emphasizing these 3 standards of excellence immediately. Your clients and members should know that you value their safety inside and out, the appearance of your facility, and the totality of the experience.

Here is an action plan for upgrading the professionalism of your operation and moving towards making yourself, and your business, ESSENTIAL!

The Essentials:

  • Go the extra mile in cleaning your floors, walls, ceilings, and visible piping
  • Sanitize mats, benches, and “soft” equipment
  • Use rust cleaner and fresh paint on older equipment
  • Clean your bathrooms like the Queen of England goes there
  • Invest in keeping your HVAC systems running clean and clear

The Next Level:

  • Use capital or a business loan to upgrade the front-facing entrance to your facility
  • Create a welcoming entrance space that “feels” less like your facility
  • Invest in higher quality lockers/kit boxes for safely stowing belongings
  • Train yourself, and staff, the art of customer service, problem resolution, and stewardship
  • Adopt formal uniforms for all trainers, instructors, and staff

5-Star Standards:

  • Ensure all staff are trained in the variety of essential functions of the business (never above mopping mentality)
  • Demonstrate care for safety with visible security systems
  • Formalize your facility tour, orientation, and 90-day onboarding flow for new members/clients
  • Maintain the back of the house with same care as the front
  • Organize the space to highlight clear points of ingress and egress

Not all these action items can be accomplished by every coach and small business, but at least emphasizing the essential steps and a few from “the next level” will enhance your chances of being essential.

#5 Passion-Based Service Profession

This bullet point is quite simple: Run your business like you give a damn!

When a client, member, or prospect engages you – treat it like you will never meet anyone else. Be absurdly excited that someone is choosing you over the countless other options for their training needs. Remember, you are not just competing with “other trainers”. You are competing with streaming services, social media freebies, big box brands, and dopamine-saturated environments such as Netflix and nightclubs.

If you want to be ESSENTIAL, then you must conduct every interaction as though the person you are with is essential. This doesn’t mean you roll over either, because the customer is NOT always right. Some members, prospects and clients are assholes and would not be a fit for you no matter how passionate you are.

What this means is that you treat every interaction, good or bad, with passion and care to ensure that your name, brand, and business are never associated with anything less than effort and excellence.

#4 An Emphasis on “Brick by Brick” Success Stories

Most marketing is bullshit.

Much of it is built on the tactics that worked tremendously when we were new to television, radio, the internet, and fast-moving advertisements. In the early days, the right commercial truly moved the needle.

Now, these tactics are still utilized to some degree of success. You must be seen to be known and you must be known to be trusted. However, as our society has smartened up to traditional advertising methods, installed ad-blockers, and updated our privacy settings – the best two forms of marketing are also the oldest:

  • Word of mouth referral
  • Result based referrals

Long ago, if you wanted to sell horses from your farm in the hills of Europe, then you needed to ensure that two things occurred:

  • People who bought horses from you were amazed by the quality of the product
  • People told others that you had the best horses for “insert medieval task” and were socially validated by being “of the few”

You would never want to sell a subpar horse, especially to a trusted dignitary and wealthy city dweller. The effect on your business would be damaging and permanent.

The same with our fitness industry. If you’d like to declare your business is essential and secure your own future, then you need to:

  • Deliver results for a variety of clients, goals, and needs
  • Give those clients a platform that elevates their social standing and highlights your business

These success stories must go further than the standard before and after photos that every trainer has used to sell the finished product. These stories must highlight the physical, emotional, mental and social growth that your work has provided them.

These testimonials must stand to define you as the most ESSENTIAL part of their lives because you’ve invested the time in them that no one else would.

Will Smith was asked about success in an interview once. He lamented that all too many are focused on the final product – the wall. Instead, he states, we should invest our efforts into laying brick by perfect brick until the wall itself is perfect.

Only once we emphasize the victory in each small, but accurate, step can we begin to realize a greater accomplishment.

#3 Unified Communities Built on MORE THAN Just Fitness

We are the product of our village. Our village is the collective of family, friends, associates, and passing influences that shape our character, commitment, goals and needs. These communities become an integral part of our identity, almost to the point of overriding our internal view of self.

It is why political parties are so charged and why CrossFit jokes are a thing…

Brands that develop communities do infinitely better than those who do not. The ability to appeal to an identity makes the brand ESSENTIAL in the hearts and minds of those who have bought in.

Build an unbreakable community amongst your clients, members, and even the prospects that said no. Integrate yourself with other local businesses and be willing to donate your time, and even your capital, to helping other small businesses succeed. Go out of your way to make personal introductions with everyone you can manage, no matter how big you get.

It is said that Bill Clinton kept a notebook with names and information about everyone he interacted with during his campaign in 1991. He’d study this notebook to ensure he memorized names and details for their next meeting.

Everyone is free to feel a certain way about his politics, his failings, etc. However, being a Presidential candidate and remembering the “little old lady’s” name and hobby goes a long way to securing votes.

You can secure your vote as an ESSENTIAL by integrating with your local community, developing a culture and following all your own, and by never being “too big” for personal interaction.

#2 Licensing Fitness Professionals

Using local or federal licensing practices for personal trainers, strength coaches, and the like has been a talking point in our industry for quite some time. With little oversight over the certifying bodies, minimally defined entry requirements, and thousands of undocumented “fitness professionals” – having an overwatch committee doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

For one, it would immediately increase the credibility of anyone holding said license. Like it or not, the human brain is easily fooled when a piece of “official paper” is placed in front of them. Whether it is the badge and ID of a police officer, the medical degree on your doctor’s wall, or the state license at your favorite hair stylist, these pieces hold value infinitely greater than their physical state. They immediately invoke respect, an assumption of proficiency, and believe or not, the belief of good intent.

By adding a licensing component to our field, we would risk losing our independence and increase our risk of politically corrupt oversight. Lobbyists would work to push specific agendas on behalf of the equipment manufacturers, big-box brands, and education authorities with the deepest pockets. This sort of foul play is undesired, but likely, if licensing becomes the norm.

Still though, being a licensed personal trainer would immediately elevate your standing in prospective client and member’s eyes, especially today where anyone with a visible ab and an Instagram is now a fitness influencer. It is far easier to declare yourself ESSENTIAL when there is a license hanging on your wall. Less so when your total number of followers is your only commendation…

#1 Inclusion of Fitness into the Formal Health Care System

A long-discussed idea of our industry has once again risen to the topic of conversation as we search for ways to become essential health and wellness services. Many trainers, especially in the last decade, have rightfully declared that we should be assimilated into the fabric of the traditional health care model. Doing so would immediately elevate our standing in the eyes of the general public, better integrate our practices with conventional medicine, and provide us an opportunity to reach more people without compromising our rates.

Being accepted into the system would allow us to bill insurances for preventative care services such as training, fitness screens and assessments, and nutritional recommendations. By shifting the cost to the insurance companies – more individuals would be able to experience the benefits of professional health, wellness, and fitness coaching.

As more and more individuals come to rely on our services it becomes easier to make a case that we are essential components of a healthy society (and economy). As the traditional model of health care begins to acknowledge the importance (and profits) that can arise from preventative care our position becomes entrenched in the minds of the consumer, the big businesses, and yes, the government.

Obviously, such a step doesn’t lack its downsides. Integrating into the health care system is knowingly stepping into a business masqueraded as a service of the people. Joining ranks immediately inserts us deeper into political, economic, and epidemiological conversations that have the potential to corrupt our industry, or at the very least, shift our ethics.

BONUS: A Willing Evisceration of Ego

A final thought emphasizes eliminating the one detail about the fitness industry in particular that holds us back in the minds of many. This final point is not for the faint of heart.

Most trainers won’t be able to do this because most humans can’t do it.

We must destroy our ego and remember that we are in a business FOR others.

Our field is crowded with ripped bodies, smart minds, and incredible creators. This industry naturally attracts Type A personalities who respond well to stress and refuse to accept situations as nothing more than opportunities for growth.

And yet, it is this same bullishness that can destroy the best of the bunch and make it harder for them to coach effectively, grow their business, and accomplish the mission of helping others.

To become ESSENTIAL is to eviscerate your own ego and realize that you in are in this for others.

Doctors don’t get on Instagram and brag about the heart surgery that they performed that day, and our brave firefighters don’t post pictures of themselves running out of burning buildings holding a baby because they crave the dopamine from a “like”.

These individuals are ESSENTIAL because they realize they’ve chosen a path that is bigger than them. They realize they may never make the money, become famous, or even be thanked for their work – but they do it anyway.

If fitness professionals would like to be ESSENTIAL in the eyes of the general public, then it is time for us to take our ego to the graveyard and bury it.

We do this by simply changing all of our messaging, our marketing, and our interactions to reflect the benefits to others. We wear some clothes in our social media pictures, share actionable content that changes lives immediately, and stop saying yes to every company that wants to push CBD products through trainers.

It is important to remember it how Ryan Holiday titled his book, “Ego is The Enemy”. We can have pride, resolve and intent – but we can do without the ego.

Time To SHOW That Fitness Is ESSENTIAL to Health

In an ever-changing environment and global landscape recovering from a pandemic it is imperative to alter the course of our industry and change the public perception of our craft to ensure we are always essential to the fight against the preventable epidemics.

The list of disease, disability and dysfunction that is preventable is uncomfortably long and yet our field isn’t seen as essential.

Sure, we can complain on the sidelines and scream about our importance like an emotional teenager who wants their cell phone back. Or, we could stand up and look in the mirror at ourselves and realize that we’ve got work to do before we’ve earned the right to become ESSENTIAL.

If we clean up our act, gain respect and authority in the eyes of the public and with our fellow medical peers, and emphasize the life-changing aspects of our work instead of the vanity, then we are destined to earn what we’ve known all along.

We are essential.

Now we must prove it to the rest of the world.

About The Author

kevin mullins

Kevin Mullins is veteran personal trainer and fitness educator located just outside of Washington, DC. Kevin is the current the Director of Product Development for The St. James after spending nearly a decade as a trainer, group fitness instructor and educator at Equinox. Kevin is also a Lead Instructor for the Pain-Free Performance Certification (PPSC) and best selling author of the book “Day by Day: The Personal Trainer’s Blueprint” that you can learn more about on his website: KevinMullinsFitness.com

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  3. Allan Misner December 29, 2020 at 3:37 am - Reply

    I agree that gyms and fitness studios will benefit from all of the things you mentioned above, it isn’t our image with the public that is the problem. It’s the government. Unfortunately, they really only listen when the voice is unified (associations/lobbyists). That’s why most casinos were open before they even considered gyms.

    We do need to improve our image with the public (primarily because the government, and to some extent the media, has scared them into believing we’re unsafe places). Partnering with the medical establishment would help (#1), but that ground has to be tread carefully as the whole “licensing” issue could be more devastating to the industry than Covid ever was. But the only thing that’s going to move the needle in the short run is organization.

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  5. Patterson Anna January 12, 2021 at 10:08 am - Reply

    That was an incredible and accurate account of where we stand as essential professionals.
    I am a retired PE teacher and certified fitness professional who coaches athletics at my local University. The number one issue I have always delt with was the lack of importance (all the health benefits) personal fitness habits have to ones overall long term health.
    Totally agree that we have a great opportunity to recreate our importance to society and yes it starts with the ego.
    Bravo, what’s our next step?

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