Military Veterans Find Success in Fitness Industry

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The boot camp workout trend is still going strong in the fitness industry, once again making the American Council on Exercise's list of fitness trends to watch in 2012. Also on the list is suspension training, the invention of a Navy SEAL in the '90s.

(Photo © Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/ © Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/

The boot camp workout trend is still going strong in the fitness industry, once again making the American Council on Exercise's list of fitness trends to watch in 2012. Also on the list is suspension training, the invention of a Navy SEAL in the '90s. The military connection that originally inspired these workouts may have faded, with most fitness boot camps designed and taught by instructors with no military background whatsoever, but the influx of military-inspired fitness programs persists.

"It's amazing the amount of equipment and programs that have military training affiliated with them," says Eric Kampas, a U.S. Navy veteran and founder of Operation V.I.S.T.A. (Veterans Introduction to Sports, Training & Athletics), a program that helps connect veterans with resources to start a career in health and fitness. "You're seeing ex-military people pop up all over the place and rolling out programs based around military-type training, but for fitness purposes as opposed to military-specific training."

"The military may just be the pinnacle of the image of fitness," agrees Chris Paschane, U.S. Air Force veteran and founder of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Veterans Fitness Career College, which helps transition and train veterans, as well as help place them in fitness careers. "Who would you want fighting to save your country? You want the fittest people to do that. When you think of the hardest training programs, you think of the SEAL programs, Green Berets and so forth. This is what is inspiring the fitness industry."

It isn't just that military-based workouts are popular among civilians. An increasing number of military veterans are turning to the fitness industry as personal trainers, club managers and entrepreneurs. named fitness training one of the 30 fastest-growing careers for veterans over the next 10 years, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed personal training as one of the 30 fastest-growing jobs markets "ideal for veterans and transitioning service members," expecting employment to increase by 29 percent between 2008 and 2018. "When I was serving, fitness was so huge, but from a career perspective, there weren't a whole lot of options," says Kampas. "The industry is constantly evolving and changing. All of these certifications and sports training didn't exist at the level they do today."

Along with the plethora of career options that appeal to veterans, they're also given the ability to apply the skills and interests they've cultivated. "There are some synergies between the military and fitness," says Kampas. "Physical training is an integral part of all military service. You'll also see some pretty decent facilities on bases. Even on ships and subs, you'll see pretty decent weight rooms."

Veterans are not only familiar with many of the tools and techniques of the fitness industry; their training and experiences from their time serving in the armed forces often leaves them with a refined set of traits that help them be successful in any market. "Veterans are career-oriented," says Paschane, stressing that military veterans aren't inexperienced young adults just out of school. "They've already been in a career and a lot of them have families. Veterans are flexible and adaptable. They spent four or more years in the military completing a mission, despite whatever challenges and whatever the situation may be. They've dealt with whiners and complainers. Most of them have already had experience leading teams; they've done performance appraisals, managed training programs, enforced goals and worked with individuals to improve. They've been involved in major decisions with reasonable risk. These experiences have helped them learn to trust their instincts and make big decisions."

Matt Hagan has all of these traits and more. Hagan had originally planned to become a music teacher, but discovered his passion for fitness while serving in the Army. "I became a boxing coach, and I went through a lot of different programs on base," he says. "From there, I pushed it even further and started training a lot of the units before they deployed." He earned the Army's U.S. Army Master Fitness Trainer title and the "Train the Trainer" Master Fitness Trainer Certificate, serving as a Physical Training Readiness NCO for deploying soldiers before training as a combat medic. All of his training brought him into real-world contact not only with various health and fitness programs, but other former soldiers, as well. "After they got out, a lot of them became SWAT members or miscellaneous law enforcement members. They tracked me down and asked me to come in and train their new teams."

Thus was born Veteran Training, initially a fitness program aimed at tactical training. "We grew into a booming business, and we started bringing in other veterans, and it went from there," Hagan says. Veteran Training opened its first gym in Pembroke, Mass., last May, and has plans to open a second location later this year. "We train everybody from kindergarten kids in after-school programs all the way to adults. Our oldest client is about to turn 80."

Veteran Training's staff is made up mostly of veterans, not an intentional decision by Hagan but the result of relationships built with like-minded people he encountered during his time in the military. Not surprisingly, Veteran Training's staff serves as a draw for other veterans. "We modified our gym to be veteran friendly," says Hagan. "We have two adaptive sports coaches on staff; they both were injured in combat and earned Purple Hearts. They had issues going back to a regular gym, so we found ways to adapt all the equipment so that anyone can use it."

The skills and knowledge of the veterans on staff have not been lost on the gym's other clients, either. "I was a medic; I went to school for medical sciences. The military put me through a number of great programs," says Hagan, adding that his personal experiences going through physical therapy after an injury have contributed to his knowledge base. "It really does help me a lot when answering questions, and we actually have a number of doctors and nurses who work out here. I think they appreciate that we know what we're talking about instead of promoting a popular exercise program.

"I think it's the same thing that happens when people e-mail us," he continues. "When they mention that they're an above-the-knee or below-the-knee amputee or have a certain injury, we know three or four other people who have had the same injury. We actually got an e-mail the other day; 'I've been a lifelong above-the-elbow amputee. Have you trained anyone like that?' And in fact we have, many times. We were able to put him through to another individual who was that type of amputee, and now they're training partners."

As appropriate as a fitness career might seem for military veterans, the transition isn't seamless or easy. According to a report by the Center for a New American Security tracking employment of veterans, translating military skills into civilian work is the greatest challenge discharged soldiers face. "We deal with a lot of veterans trying to translate their skills into a civilian setting," says Kampas. "We try to help them explain what their skills are, and also let them know that there's a multitude of careers out there."

"A lot of people really don't understand where you're coming from," agrees Hagan, who says it's often hard for veterans to explain their skills and experiences in a way that prospective civilian employers find relevant. The fitness industry is no exception. Although the army offers its own fitness certifications, many of which are easily applicable to civilian life, few clubs are willing to hire a trainer who doesn't hold a certification from a recognized fitness organization. "You may have worked out your whole life, but when you're working with somebody else, you have to make sure you know what you're doing," says Kampas.

Operation V.I.S.T.A. organizes speakers and workshops that showcase different workout programs, as well as other areas of fitness, such as nutrition or athletic training, with which veterans might not be familiar. "It's crucial to get affiliated with a legitimate organization - NASM, ACE, NSCA," says Kampas. Many of these certifying organizations already offer discounts and benefits to veterans seeking certification, and most are eligible for tuition reimbursement under the G.I. Bill. But, warns Kampas, along with all of the legitimate organizations seeking to help veterans are a number of others looking just to profit. "One of the big things that we see is that there are so many fly-by-night companies and organizations offering bogus personal training certifications that aren't worth the paper they're written on."

It isn't just certifications where veterans have to be wary. While most of the veterans who come through Operation V.I.S.T.A. workshops are interested in personal training and aren't considering opening their own facility, some are. Or, as Paschane can attest from his personal experiences, some may only be content to work in a gym for so long before they seek out new challenges. "One career doesn't fit all. At VFCC, we're focused on career success - entering as a fitness trainer, but also preparing them to be fitness managers and owners," he says, explaining the wider scope of VFCC's curriculum. "We're putting people in relationships with gym owners and helping them grow, while helping business owners evolve their businesses. There are a lot of different ways we're going about assisting veterans with the transition into the fitness industry."

VFCC is cautious about the companies with which it pairs veterans. It's not only about what companies are hiring veterans, Paschane says, but what they're doing to help them transition into civilian life and whether they're setting veterans up for success. "I think a lot of organizations are looking to talk about veterans and help veterans because it's trendy. They're looking to leverage that trend."

KINDRED SPIRITS Military veterans speak from experience that appeals to disabled veterans and civilians alike. (Photo © Nancee E. Lewis/U-T San Diego/ZUMA Press)KINDRED SPIRITS Military veterans speak from experience that appeals to disabled veterans and civilians alike. (Photo © Nancee E. Lewis/U-T San Diego/ZUMA Press)

As the fitness industry changes in respect to the influx of military-inspired programs and equipment, the military also stands to benefit and evolve. At least, Paschane hopes so. "They influence each other in a cyclical way," he says, noting that advances in health and fitness often spark changes in military training. "They're giving back to the military, you could say, by bringing the sciences of biomechanics and nutrition out of the civilian sector back into the military."

And much as the intensity and toughness of military workouts has made its impact on the fitness industry, Kampas expects an increased awareness of veterans with disabilities to spark additional change. "I think equipment manufacturers are starting to wake up and look at more options out there for different disabilities," he says. "I was talking to a blind gentleman who asked me if there were any treadmills that had audible response when you push buttons. I haven't a clue. There are things you don't think about, like a blind person on a treadmill. If he or she accidentally hit the wrong button, it could cause serious injury. Touchscreens can make things very difficult, whether it's a person with prosthetics not able to activate, or a person who's blind not having a tactile button to press."

Disability awareness is already driving change in other facets of life. "Adaptive recreation has received heavy focus from the military," Kampas says, noting the veterans' division of the Paralympics, as well as the push for adaptive recreation programs. Adaptive recreation and inclusive play areas have also become priorities in the civilian world.

"One of the most empowering things you can do is help disabled veterans get active again," adds Kampas. "A lot of members of this current generation of veterans coming back have seen some pretty bad stuff. I'm a firm believer that fitness, exercise and proper nutrition are absolutely crucial in helping battle PTSD. Keep them engaged. Fitness and sports are a great way to do that. It crosses all barriers."

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