After running 13 gym locations across the state and launching his own fitness boutique, which has grown to 92% clientele capacity over the past three years, Ashley Reese wasn’t sure what his next career move would be. He sought mentorship but was told he was too qualified. They told him they didn’t know how to help because he was too advanced.
Frustrated at a lack of guidance and resources that could meet him at where he was, the idea for a statewide association began forming in Reese’s mind.
The state’s health and fitness community needed support, he thought. It needed a way to connect professionals, to regulate industry standards and to provide a voice to lawmakers on the state and national level.
Thus, the S.C. Health and Fitness Association came to fruition and officially launched at the end of April, with around 30 memberships within its first five days.
“It was just filling a void that I had found over the last three years of being a studio owner,” Reese said. “We need to change the standard, and I knew the only way to do that was us as trainers and professionals coming together and learning from one another, supporting one another, advancing in our education together.”
The organization brings together professionals from all backgrounds of health and fitness, including gym owners and personal trainers, dieticians and physical therapists. The goal is to connect and equip members and provide representation for the industry.
Because South Carolina does not legally require personal trainers to be certified, Reese hopes the association will also help regulate health and fitness standards across the board.
“If trainers or clubs are part of S.C. Health and Fitness Association, there’s a certain standard that comes along with being a part of that,” Reese said. “Me and my fellow six studio owners all require that our people are certified or have a degree in exercise science, so having a member of the association will give you a higher quality of service because they have a different level of education and resources that someone else may not have.”
Part of that goal includes an emphasis on education, carried out through weekly, quarterly and annual meetings of association members.
At weekly meetings, board members, each with a different professional background, will lead sessions on topics such as personal development, business consulting, clinical strategy and nutritional advice. These meetings will mostly be virtual, Reese said, so that members can access the content whenever they want.
Ideally, quarterly and annual events will be in-person and will last a full day or weekend, Reese said.
“I believe education is a weekly thing, not an every two-year thing,” Reese said. “Education needs to be on the forefront of our mind and an ever-growing process because the business is always developing, clientele is always developing, how you market and how you sell your services — they’re always changing.”
With an organized association, Reese also hopes to represent small business owners on the lawmaking level. When the pandemic started, Reese saw a lack of support and funding for fitness facilities across the nation.
“We were one of the first things to shut down and one of the last things that opened up,” Reese said. “Bars and restaurants are opening up before some fitness places, and for something that can benefit communities, we were held back because we didn’t have the support in lawmaking that other industries might have had.”
According to the Global Health and Fitness Association, the U.S. fitness industry dropped 58% in revenue, losing $20.4 billion in 2020. More than one million employees lost their jobs, and 17% of fitness facilities permanently closed.
“There wasn’t any support, any backing to make us a priority,” Reese said. “If we had that voice on a state level or even national level, that could have made a huge difference in saving a lot of our businesses.”
As we come out of the pandemic, patrons will return to a fitness industry that has taken a toll in the number of brick-and-mortar facilities still open with qualified personnel, Reese said. The association will help ensure a community of trained professionals who have the knowledge and resources to run a successful business without giving a worse perspective in the eyes of the customer.
“We don’t want to have Mr. Joe, who’s not certified and just wants to work out, open up a gym facility and take on 200 clients, and actually hurt people because he doesn’t know how to train properly and give proper direction,” Reese said. “Those people will leave with a worst taste in their mouth than when they came because we had the wrong person open up a facility.”
Association membership fees start at $25 a month for individuals. Club fees are also available at $250 a month, where studios can pay one rate for everyone under their brand to be qualified as a member and to be eligible for resources and discounts. 02 Fitness, a chain across the Carolinas, have committed to being a partner.
Future plans include working with a nationally accredited company to provide educational resources, such as videos, content, quizzes and tests for certification at a free or discounted rate.
“You’re going to see a rise of standard across the industry and more qualified professionals hitting the market,” Reese said. “There’s going to be a rise in community trust in the fitness world and people going into gyms and actually getting the services that they want and not just being sold on the membership.”