A staggering 2.5 million Americans are veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined, and the fitness industry has played a significant role in helping many return to healthy civilian lives. More than two-thirds of veterans say that finding a job is the greatest challenge in transitioning back home. For its part, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) created the Salute You Scholarship, which has granted more than 1,000 (and counting) personal training certification scholarships to U.S. veterans. Health club companies are getting involved as well. In spring 2015, Anytime Fitness, Woodbury, Minnesota, launched Operation Heartfirst, a program that offers a $125,000 grant and a $125,000 loan to honorably discharged veterans to provide start-up capital for developing an Anytime Fitness franchise. It's latest recipient is Sgt. Major Anthony "Shay" Thorn.
In this gallery, we share the stories of five veterans who came home from war to transform their lives by working in the fitness industry.
Location: Brentwood, Tennessee
Year business opened: 2006
Military branch served in: U.S. Marines Corp.
Years in military service: nine years
Tours of duty: Two in Iraq
Certifications: Certified Personal Trainer (AFAA), Nutrition Coach (NESTA)
Q: How did you get started in the fitness business?
A: Working out has always been in my blood, and I joined the Marines for that reason, too. I was certified before I enlisted, so my training career came after. While in the service getting in (small) amounts of trouble in boot camp allowed me to do more pushups. So much more fun than standing at attention.
Q: What motivated you to get into the fitness industry?
A: It was my passion, and I was trying to find a way to make what I loved into something I could live on.
Q: How did you get funding?
A: I travel from home to home, bringing everything I need for a great workout with me. That decreases the overhead considerably, but it makes you creative with your workouts. I have, as of yet, not taken out loans to back my businesses.
Q: Did you have a background in fitness prior to opening your own business? If so, what?
A: Playing soccer and being a Marine have always been in my past and have helped me considerably in my training career. One impresses and one keeps me active in a cross-training kind of way.
A: Most already know my background, but I don't advertise it so when they do eventually find out, it is quite a surprise to them. I am very proud of my time in the Marines and don't mind sharing it, but it is far from the first conversation I would choose to talk about. They are quite taken aback when I talk about how far on the front lines I actually worked.
Q: Do you work with other veterans?
A: I have just launched a business with Shawn Booth called CitySTRONG. We travel the country putting on events that showcase fun outdoor workouts. We have partnered with a great cause called CreatiVets that helps traumatized veterans. One of its founders, Richard Casper, is a veteran himself. I am proud to donate to them through our new organization.
Q: Do you specialize in a certain clientele?
A: I take on nearly every kind of clientele. I don't discriminate and have a passion for teaching all ages and backgrounds. This is what has driven the word-of-mouth success of my business.
Q: What struggles have you overcome to do what you do in the fitness industry?
A: My reluctance to do interviews and social media was a seriously hard wall to climb. It's not my favorite part still (I love to train), but it comes with the territory and I am grateful for the media's desire to spread my name.
Q: What advice would you give other veterans who want to get into this business?
A: Don't expect to make a ton of money. If you want to be a trainer, you have to love it. If all of my businesses fail, I will still train and bust my butt early every morning. Your clients will know if you're faking it.
Previous: Personal Training Manager, Anytime Fitness, Marietta, Georgia, from December 2014-August 2016
Military branch served in: U.S. Marine Corp
Years in military service: 2009-2014
Certifications: Certified Personal Trainer (ACE)
A: After I got ACE certified in 2014, I started training clients at an Anytime Fitness.
A: My parents got a home gym when I was in middle school, and I would watch them work out. Eventually I would come to use the same home gym for years. As time went on, my interest grew stronger, which led to research and experimentation with different training modes, techniques and principles. In the Marine Corps, my interest in fitness continued to grow. Toward the end of my enlistment, I was building programs for myself to target specific goals, which led a few of my fellow enlisted marines to seek me out for help on reaching their goals. When this happened, it solidified my desire to get certified when I separated from the military. Then I found out ACE had the Salute You Scholarship, and I applied immediately. (He received the scholarship.)
Q: Do your clients/members know your military background? If so, how do they respond to that?
A: My clients and members are aware that I have a military background. For some of them, it provides a common ground. In some cases they served, a family member served or a close friend served, so it is easy to make that connection, which really helps when developing that initial rapport.
A: No, but I do train a large population of 55 or older. I seem to be training more clients who suffer from injuries, compensated movements, limited mobility or chronic conditions.
A: When I came into the industry, my mind-set was that I could push everyone as hard as I push myself. I learned this wasn't the case within my first day. Being able to read someone and adapt to their needs, wants and abilities is probably the most important thing in the one-on-one setting.
A: Know what you want to accomplish in the fitness industry. Be flexible about your goals because things can change in an instant. The fitness industry is a service industry, so you must have strong communication skills to build relationships with your clients and others in the industry. The more connections you make in this industry, the more successful you will be.
Q: If you were injured, please tell us about it.
A: I have a herniated disk at the L4/L5 joint. The symptoms culminated about six months after I got out. I found a way to get treatment and have been receiving the treatment for almost two years now. When I was first diagnosed with the hernia, I was ordered to stop all exercise. The entire experience turned my world around. At 25, I had trouble walking, standing or even sitting for extended periods. But it has made me into a stronger person and trainer. I continue to seek knowledge, improve my abilities and set goals for myself. As of now, the goal is to complete my B.S. in exercise science at Kennesaw State University.
Location: Washington, DC
Military branch served in: U.S. Army
Years in military service: 1979-1989 (active Army), 2001-Present (U.S. Army Reserve)
Tours of duty: Activated after Sept. 11, 2001 to serve at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center, assigned to the Joint Operations Center of Africa Command as an operations officer for Operation New Dawn and Operation Odyssey Dawn
Certifications and education: Certified Personal Trainer (ACE, NPTI, ISSA, AAAI/ISMA); Associate of Science Degree in Exercise Science with Honors; Certified Ultimate Raw Nutrition; Sports Nutrition Certification; Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist; Specialist in Exercise Therapy; Manufacturers’ Representative for Wellness, Fitness, and Nutritional Products
A: I began as a drill sergeant at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to help recruits meet the Army’s physical fitness standards, get them into shape. I had to be more fit than my soldiers, prove myself, run faster, work harder, to improve performance of my soldiers.
A: I went into nutrition because I realized everybody’s physical condition is broken in some way, and I wanted to help clients address poor eating habits, lack of sleep and lack of time that contribute to poor nutrition choices and health habits. I want to teach my clients how to eat well, to prepare healthy quick meals and to train them through exercise. My philosophy: choose, choice and change—make a choice, take a chance, make the change.
(SuRae at center in top row in photo above.)
Q: Did you have a background in fitness prior to becoming a trainer? If so, what?
A: I received a $700 scholarship from the [American Council on Exercise's] Salute You program for veterans and was certified as a trainer. I used the G.I. Bill benefits and studied at the National Personal Training Institute, was certified as a trainer and served an unpaid apprentice at Atlas Fitness in Southeast Washington, DC, to become certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Q: What type of business do you operate?
A: I work one-on-one with clients, small groups at their homes and sometimes in club facilities. My clients like me because I am well-rounded. I’m not only a personal trainer with more than 24 years of service with the U.S. Army, but I also am a vegan chef, nutritionist and believer in the mind/body connection.
A: I do work with military and police clients who have been injured.
A: I like willing participants who want to see the bigger picture of health and fitness. I market to people who want the whole mind-body training experience. I can teach them how to do visualization and work with their breathing. I don’t allow clients to use headphones when working out. I want them to focus on what their body is doing.
(Thompson pictured in blue shirt above.)
Location: Shawnee, Kansas
Year business opened: 2015
Military branch served in: U.S. Navy
Years in military service: 2006-2011
Tours of duty: One in Iraq
Certifications and education: CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, CrossFit Movement and Mobility, CrossFit Gymnastics Trainer, A Spartan Race Spartan SGX coach (in process of obtaining), Doctor of Chiropractic Degree
A: I fell in love with CrossFit and the ability it had to help people. As a student studying a health care profession, I saw the potential it had to change people’s lives and felt a calling to become more involved. After graduating and moving back home, I decided to open my own facility. I also was a wrestler growing up and played some college rugby in grad school.
A: The ability to make a living helping people. “Do what you love” never hurts either.
A: I started it on a shoestring budget—with just a little equipment—and added more as I started to get more athletes coming through the doors.
A: Some do, some don’t. It is on my website bio, but I don’t talk about it much.
Q: What did you learn in the Navy that you’ve applied to the fitness business?
A: Discipline, sacrifice and hard work helped me to the fitness business. It is not as simple as build it and they will come. You have to work for it. You have to constantly adapt and overcome continuously. Much like the military, you have to genuinely want to help and serve others.
A: We have quite a few veterans here.
A: My athletes are from all walks of life and of all age levels. I require them to be older than 13; below that, I recommend a CrossFit Kids program.
A: There are a lot of misconceptions about CrossFit, mostly from people trying it in their garage or without proper instruction and training, especially when it comes to Olympic lifting as it is highly technical.
A: Start small, keep overhead low, and build as you grow.
A: In the military, I did fight some issues with back pain. At one point I needed help getting out of bed. However, with the help of CrossFit and chiropractic care I improved my core stability and overall strength, which helped to almost completely alleviate the pain. I do have some early osteoarthritis in my spine. For me, exercise has been the best way to battle that.
Location: Walkersville, Maryland
Year business opened: 2016
Military branch served in: U.S. Navy
A: Fitness has been my passion since as long as I can remember. Shortly after stepping off the bus for Navy boot camp as a seaman recruit, I was appointed as the athletic instructor for my unit. This role would stay with me throughout my Naval career and inspired me to pursue my dream of owning my own fitness company.
A: Changing lives by encouraging a healthy lifestyle through physical training. Leading physical training sessions for more than 200 officer and enlisted personnel of all ranks was very challenging and forced me to think outside the box. Entering into my second duty station as an experienced petty officer and combat sailor, I was more than ready to take on new challenges. I was assigned as the assistant command fitness leader and was responsible for helping sailors pass their physical readiness test so that they could remain in the Navy. This new role changed my entire outlook on training.
Q: Did you have a background in fitness prior to opening your club?
A: Yes. In addition to training in the military, I served as a one-on-one personal trainer for a commercial gym, training more than 100 clients with various goals. I also ran boot camp fitness programs in both Maryland and Georgia and provided volunteer training at my church before opening Maximum Fitness 24/7.
Q: What type of club do you operate?
A: Maximum Fitness 24/7 is a full-service training facility with equipment not normally found in a 4,300-square-foot space. We provide kettle bell and functional training, TRX, sport specific, and strength and conditioning training to name a few. We also provide weekly BANG Power Dance classes in the group exercise room, which includes a combination of urban and Latin dance.
A: Most members know it is a veteran owned and operated company—not to mention every flag of the U.S. Forces is represented in the windows of Maximum Fitness. The small town of Walkersville, Maryland, is very patriotic. My veteran status has been well received and appreciated within the community.
A: Active duty and veterans are both part of my personal training staff. As we continue to grow, there will be more opportunities for those who served or who are currently serving.
A: Not having the financial backing to start sooner was the primary struggle. However, this allowed for more research, growth and development over the years, which results in a more experienced leadership role for the company.
A: Don't downplay your military experience. At the end of the day, a push-up is a push-up no matter if you are wearing sweats and a T-shirt or a matching name-brand outfit. The matching outfit is what the industry will promote, but people always want to learn from someone with real life experiences. They want someone to run a boot camp who actually went through a military boot camp. Use discipline and research the industry. Identify what is lacking and incorporate that into your program to set your company apart from the rest.
Finally, don't skip the small steps. Like me, you may not have the required funding to start right away but that doesn't mean you should wait. My small steps were starting a boot camp training program, working for a commercial gym and volunteering my services. All these experiences helped me build relationships, network, learn the business and save money. Small steps are necessary even if you experience setbacks. It's better to learn during this stage then to launch your company, experience a setback and delay progress.
Learn more by reading our stories about these industry topics:
Read news about some of the biggest names in the industry.