With the end goal of keeping military service members and their families active and healthy, the Joining Forces initiative, started by first lady Michelle Obama in April 2011, partnered with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) to create a Joining Forces network of health clubs who offer free memberships for six months. The initiative also partnered with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) to offer personal training services and fitness instruction to family members of actively deployed reservists and National Guard members.
So far, the initiatives have resulted in donations of more than 100,000 health club memberships and more than 110,000 hours of personal training, according to the groups. As of press time, Maryland-based Merritt Athletic Clubs is the leader in offering personal training hours pledged with 43,200 hours, which is almost half the hours pledged so far.
The initiatives support military families who do not live on military bases, so they have had no impact on usage at military base fitness centers, according to Lt. Comdr. Kate Meadows, Department of Defense spokesperson.
“Military families live in every zip code across the country,” Meadows says. “More than 70 percent of military families live off base. They live in communities which are supporting our military families every single day in real and meaningful ways. This community involvement and nationwide commitment has a positive impact on the citizens of our country who have shouldered the burden of a decade of war.”
Roberta Kruse-Fordham, general manager at Sports, Fitness & Fun, Florida, NY, was one of the first club operators to sign up to offer free memberships through the Joining Forces network when it started in June 2011. Kruse-Fordham has a 25-year-old son in the Navy who has been deployed five times in six years.
“Other club owners and general managers should know that these people out there are our family,” Kruse-Fordham says. “So I wanted to do whatever I could on a club level to help everybody else’s family, and they deserve it because they are putting their life on the line.”
About 20 people have signed up for free memberships at Sports, Fitness & Fun within the past year. Kruse-Fordham marketed the initiative by sending press releases to local newspapers, posting about it on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and educating her staff about the program so they could promote it.
“It’s really a matter of the club owners and general managers saying this is important and wanting to do something good in their community or the nation,” Kruse-Fordham says. “Even though we are local, what we are doing not only affects the people in our community, it affects their whole families, [some of whom] could be in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is more than just home based—it is an initiative that spreads worldwide.”
Lisa Marulanda took Sports, Fitness & Fun up on its offer after her daughter was deployed to Afghanistan a year and a half ago. Marulanda says the program has helped her family, which includes two other children, stay fit and grow closer.
“It is a stress release because dealing with my daughter being in Afghanistan is nerve-racking,” Marulanda says. “There’s a constant reminder that she is in danger, so being able to go to the gym was a nice little getaway that allowed me to be with my other children and keep the family together.”
Courtney Eberhardt, whose husband was deployed in November, also accepted the offer at Sports, Fitness & Fun. Kruse-Fordham recalls the day she gave Eberhardt, who has two young daughters, a six-month membership after her husband deployed for the third time.
“She put her head in her hands, and she was in tears,” Kruse-Fordham recalls. “She has two small kids and said she could never afford to be here on her own. I told her, ‘Today, the doors are wide open for you,’ and she has been there almost every day.”
Eberhardt enrolled her daughters in the gymnastics program at the facility. Sometimes, they go to the child care area while she works out.
“I can’t even tell you about the stress level of my husband being away and dealing with my two children,” Eberhardt says. “Working out has made me relieve the stress and deal with the everyday emotions of this deployment. Keeping busy is very important, and the gym has helped a tremendous amount to keep my daughters’ minds occupied and keeping them fit and healthy.”
Although she has access to military fitness centers, Eberhardt prefers to work out at Sports, Fitness & Fun because it is closer to her home and it has a family atmosphere, she says. She even purchased a membership after her free membership ran out.
“Financially, it helped tremendously to be able to have that relief for six months,” she says. “I pray that more people in the military know about it and contact their local gym to find out about it. It’s a stress reliever that really saved me mentally and physically.”
The other part of the Joining Forces initiative involves the offer of personal training. During the past year, Carol Togie has exceeded the 20 hours of free training that she pledged even though she has received just three inquiries about it. Togie, an ACE-certified personal trainer, also is a full-time nurse for TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the managed care support contractor that supplies administrative management of health care for the military.
Togie’s first client was Catherine Mayberry, a 27-year-old Air Force Reservist, who works full-time as a peer navigator and is working on her master’s degree. After returning from a deployment last year, Mayberry turned to Togie to help her pass her Air Force physical fitness test.
“If she didn’t pass that test, she would not be able to re-enlist in the Air Force Reserves,” Togie says. “I think having me train her provided her some focus and direction. Sometimes, you just need someone else to coach you along and keep you accountable. Having a commitment to meet with me one or two times a week allowed her to be committed to that time and date and get it done. That was a great thing to be able to help someone with.”
Mayberry says not only was it important to have someone hold her accountable, but Togie also offered creative and new ideas that made training more exciting and less routine. Togie helped her overcome hesitations while working out, and in return lifted a barrier that had always held Mayberry back.
“Being able to identify why I was holding back, overcome it and have somebody to celebrate the success with has been hugely important and has sent me on a different trajectory,” Mayberry says. “Now, I am training for a triathlon, which I never would have done before.”
Although clubs such as Sports, Fitness & Fun and trainers such as Togie are eager to donate their time and facilities to the Joining Forces program, the initiative has a long way to go before hitting the one million personal training hours goal set by ACE.