On every U.S. Navy ship, there are thousands of sailors whose hard work helps ensure Americans’ welfare and quality of life. Those ships also are home to a few civilians whose job is to ensure the same for the sailors on board. Those civilians include a fitness director employed through the Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department Civilian Afloat Program.
An Afloat Program fitness director’s work isn’t easy, but it is valued, says Sharkie Stielper, the program’s manager, who says sailors recognize the role that the “fit boss” plays in improving their lives on board.
“They’re very highly sought after and utilized, and their programs are truly appreciated and wanted,” Stielper says. “Everybody knows who they are. They’re basically the rock stars.”
They are hard-working rock stars, says Lisa Sexauer, fitness, sports and deployed forces program manager for the Navy, and a Club Industry advisory board member.
Sexauer calls the role a one-stop shop because fit bosses are expected to perform such a wide range of duties. Although in some cases sailors are called upon to help out with various aspects of fitness programming, the fit boss—as the only full-time fitness position on board—is expected to schedule and lead group exercise classes, work one-on-one as a personal trainer, order and maintain the equipment and come up with creative fitness activities and events for the sailors.
Fit bosses do have a military supervisor, but Stielper says that most of their time is unsupervised, so they have to be self-starters. They are expected to be familiar with the requirements and procedures of the Navy’s bi-annual fitness tests so they can help sailors prepare for them or work on deficient areas. Otherwise, the programming is mostly left up to the fit boss. Like their counterparts on land, the group exercise classes they decide to offer are determined by customer service surveys and the fit boss’s certifications.
“We have some internal, local certification processes at some of the bases so if they need to become better trained in a certain area, like step or cardio kick-boxing or [group cycling] class, we can help,” Stielper says, adding that the program also has paid for some fit bosses to attend Aerobics and Fitness Association of America or World Instructor Training Schools classes for additional training.
The number of clients an Afloat fit boss has depends on the type of ship. Large-deck amphibious assault ships carry around 3,500 sailors and Marines, and that number can increase to around 5,600 on aircraft carriers. Whatever type of ship, there is still only one fit boss.
In addition to the demanding day-to-day schedule, being at sea for long periods of time could be difficult for some potential applicants. Fit bosses deploy for the same period that the sailors on the ship do, which is usually six to eight months. However, it can be more or less depending on the ship’s mission.
“The ‘haze gray and underway’ is definitely not the Love Boat,” Stielper says, using the Navy’s slang term for surface warships at sea.
Both Stielper and Sexauer say that these factors can make it a challenge to find the right applicants for the program, but recruiting has been less of an issue in the last few years. They have stepped up their efforts to fill positions through networking and by advertising open positions with relevant national bodies, such as the National Recreation and Park Association, in addition to the www.navyfitness.org website.
“The economy helps us to retain our positions, and a few years ago, we went back in and restructured the positions and raised the salaries to better compensate for the time spent at sea,” Stielper says. “Based on what you might make on land, they’re probably a little higher.”
The average starting annual salary ranges from $40,000 to $50,000—which goes further because accommodations in a shared stateroom and most meals are included with the job. Fit bosses also get a full benefits package including medical, dental, 401k and life insurance.
Even with the rock star status and the attractive salary and benefits package, the job isn’t for everyone. But for the right person, being a fit boss has a lot of great perks, Stielper says.
“It’s a very unique position, and you are serving a very unique market,” she says. “You get to see some really neat places during operational underway time. And you’re being afforded the opportunity to serve those people that afford you your way of life.”