Grow & Thrive in the Fitness Industry at Age 50 and Beyond!

Ever questioned whether you can sustain a career in this industry after age 50? Here, five standouts prove it’s possible to inspire yourself and others for decades, through pure love of the game we call fitness.

by Lucia Viti

Many of the fitness industry's baby boomer superstars thrive on a passion for their chosen path, a thirst for knowledge, and the good sense to navigate ever-changing trends. Their fitness-business acumen drives them to learn - and do - even more.

American Fitness recently caught up with a handful of the industry's top 50-plus leaders. Common ingredients in the secret sauce of each pro include compassion, curiosity, a yearning to help others, patience, positive energy, good self-care practices, and lifelong learning.

What you won't see? Ego, hubris, selfishness or a habit of passing the buck. These pros are always the first to jump in and get their hands dirty.

Learn what's on their minds and what's in their robust plans for the future.

"I want to be a trusted resource who helps fitness pros and consumers sift through the fads and recognize the trends. Regardless of age, we can be trendsetters. We can create solutions that work."
-Carol Murphy, Fairport, New York

Be Open-Minded and Willing to Change

The 2010 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award recipient, NASM-certified personal trainer and group trainer Carol Murphy conducts continuing education programs and certification workshops globally. Murphy's client list is prestigious: Reebok, Drums Alive®, Flexi-Sports®, Qignition, Tabata Bootcamp™, Barre Above™ and TRX® are just a handful of brands for which she's developed programs. In addition to operating her own studio for 15 years, she has been featured in magazines and fitness DVDs, and she has created instructor training courses, online fitness and DVD courses, lectures and articles.

Murphy remains active as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor while working as the group fitness coordinator for the YMCA of the Greater Rochester Association in New York. She is determined to age strong within the fitness industry.

"I'm committed to the industry pulse," she says. "I remain connected to my peers by experiencing new programs, attending classes, traveling to conferences and reading. I reinvent myself by partnering and working with leading companies. As a member of a team of course instructors and master trainers, I have the opportunity to collaborate [with] and learn from the best in the industry."

Murphy noted the value of evidence-based research for developing training solutions. Challenged to test her ability and inspired to help others, Murphy strives for relevancy that translates into everything she does.

"Staying relevant requires us to become lifelong learners," she says. "We must be adaptable and remain open to new discoveries and methods. We must be willing to change." For that reason, Murphy encourages fitness professionals to embrace new avenues of all things fitness. "Fresh moves, music and motivational strategies will keep you and your participants excited and wanting more," she says.

Passionate to make fitness fun, Murphy intends to be a "catalyst in a movement that brings a higher level of respect, appreciation and compensation for our valuable work as fitness professionals."

Paying it forward by mentoring is part of her plan to remain timeless. "I want to share what I've learned and deliver inclusive experiences that foster positive and powerful experiences," she says. "I want to end obesity and inactivity. I want to be a/the game changer."

"It's life-changing to see clients do what they couldn't do before. Because Parkinson's affects everyone differently, the population is unique and interesting. These are committed, hardworking, goal-driven individuals looking to preserve their quality of life. They show up for every session. They fight-and fight hard. It's gratifying to work with them."
-Karl Sterling, Syracuse, New York

Find a Specialty-and Learn All You Can

Karl Sterling is an NASM Master Trainer and educator who specializes in working with clients with neurological disorders, particularly Parkinson's disease. An instructor for the Brookbush Institute of Human Movement Science, he also works as a master instructor for the Evidence Based Fitness Academy and owns PhysioChains Education - an education company that offers Parkinson's Regeneration Training courses worldwide.

Why is he so passionate about working with a special population?

"Training the healthy in need of losing weight simply isn't enough [for me]," Sterling says. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, he was initially hesitant when approached about training his first client with Parkinson's disease. "I was reluctant, but I plugged into a network of neurologists, armed myself with research, and together we trained," he says. "We made significant progress in my client's mobility, stability - he hasn't fallen in over 5 years -and his overall quality of life. I was hooked."

Sterling notes that, while Parkinson's can be debilitating, data shows that exercise helps manage symptoms by improving movement patterns like gait, grip, balance, stability and strength. Improvements in motor control and mobility help to reduce falls, injuries and various other complications of the disease, he says.

It's a bit surprising to learn Sterling has not been a fitness professional for his entire career. He got his start just a few years ago, when he was 48 and enjoying a successful career as a rhythm and blues jazz drummer. There was only one problem: He was 6-foot-2 and his weight had ballooned to 270 pounds. A visit to a doctor revealed serious health problems.

He left his doctor's office and literally the next day began working with a trainer and a dietitian, he recalls. "I lost weight and quickly got healthy. Honestly, I just got scared straight and got smart quick."

Sterling credits NASM's Optimum Performance Training™ model for getting him physically fit. "I lost 70 pounds in months," he says. "Inspired, I decided to become a trainer and did so through NASM. Yes, it's an odd career switch, but the more specialized I become, the more I work with anomalies that force me to be creative, the more jazz musician I see. Music and training are both creative arenas. I creatively work with clients who differ in what they can and can't do. It's a different kind of jazz music that stimulates my brain and my spirit."

Today, Sterling is deeply involved in the learning side of the fitness business - taking classes, workshops and certification courses. He shadows doctors, hosts podcasts and conducts YouTube "Ask The Expert!" interviews. Sterling also attends California University of Pennsylvania as a full-time undergraduate student in sport management studies.

"I'm working to bridge the gap between neurology and physical therapy to initiate a functional life that improves the quality of life," he says. "My motto - 'It ain't about me, it's about everyone.'"

Sterling advises newcomers to get a reputable certification such as those offered by NASM. "There are a handful of good certifications and 60-plus questionable ones. Keep learning. A certification doesn't mean you're there. Find your favorite clientele, dive in and learn everything you can about their needs. Find the experts, find informative courses and get results."

"Education will always be a huge part of what I do, and movement drives me. I never miss an opportunity to educate fitness professionals and consumers to the benefits and power of moving, even just 10 minutes a day. Performed functionally, movement allows everyone to move for the rest of their lives."
-June Kahn, Boulder, Colorado

Create Functional Programs That Make Sense

Thirty-five years into her fitness career, June Kahn, founder of June Kahn's Bodyworks, is still launching new businesses. Most recently, she opened Center Your Body Pilates, a boutique Pilates and movement studio in Boulder, Colorado, her hometown. Certified through the PhysicalMind Institute, she is a Pilates rehab practitioner at Masso Whole Body Health Therapeutics and an Elite Master Trainer for Savvier™ Fitness, A Barre Above™ and Tabata Boot Camp™. Kahn's accolades include the 2009 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award, and her programming accomplishments for well-known industry brands could fill a conference brochure.

The former jazz dancer fell in love with "aerobics" in the early 1980s. Sporting a college degree in physical education and a minor in dance, Kahn attended an AFAA 3-day certification, "before the industry had truly come to play." Kahn's ability to move impressed everyone, especially AFAA pros. "Before I even knew if I passed the exam, I was approached by the AFAA team to work as an industry consultant," she says. "Mentored by industry icons Linda Shelton and Joy Prouty, my career as an educator catapulted."

Kahn opened her first fitness studio in 1989 in St. Louis, Missouri. She worked with step creator Gin Miller until a series of injuries steered Kahn to Pilates. Despite Pilates' grueling certification process - a 3-day workshop followed by 800 hours of shadowing a master teacher, tailed by an additional 800 hours of teacher training - this exercise system had yet to find solid ground within fitness.

"Between the '80s and '90s, yoga and Pilates didn't mix with the fitness industry," she explains. "Sara Kooperman, founder of SCW Fitness and Mania®, asked me to create a Pilates program to bridge the gap between fitness professionals and Pilates. So, I did. I took what was current and blended it with my knowledge, experience and expertise to create the first Pilates mat certification for fitness professionals."

Today, Kahn champions the Movement Heals campaign for cancer patients and survivors. The two-time cancer survivor attributes her recovery to an active lifestyle and clean eating. "I attribute my ability to move with my ability to heal. I can't say that movement cured me [from two bouts with cancer], but I can say that movement allowed me to keep my body healthy to withstand the treatments while keeping my mind positive."

Kahn's words of wisdom for all fitness professionals: "Find a mentor, learn the secrets of practical application, and create programming that makes the body function better. Avoid gimmicks but become familiar with new products. Never limit yourself to what you already know. Think out of the box to apply a well-rounded, safe, and functional program."

"How can you not be passionate about helping others? I give people the gift of health. We all do. I tell my fitness pros, 'You're going to save someone's life one day in one way or another.' Fitness is a vital industry."
-Charlie Hoolihan, Mandeville, Louisiana

Keep Learning: Research Leads the Industry

Charlie Hoolihan has an extensive and impressive resumé. The former Louisiana State University champion swimmer began his coaching career in 1971 as a high-school swim coach. He segued into the health club industry in 1984, collecting accolades every step of the way. Having earned the NASM Personal Training Certification, Corrective Exercise and Performance Enhancement Specializations, today Hoolihan is personal training director of Mandeville, Louisiana's premier Pelican Athletic Club. He works extensively with corrective exercise and stroke postrehabilitation clients. In addition to delivering presentations for IDEA, NSCA and the American Swimming Coaches Association, Hoolihan writes regularly for trade journals, industry textbooks, magazines and newspapers.

"Working as a coach, a trainer and a teacher is natural for me," he says. "I'm an athlete. I understand establishing goals and the drive to succeed. Every coaching and training session helps people improve. And watching people improve is my favorite aspect of working in the fitness industry."

Hoolihan compares personal training to solving a puzzle that gives perspective on helping people not only to move, but to move better. "Whether you're helping high jumpers jump higher or rehab patients walk 10 feet, you're helping others," he continues. "Trainers change what happens to the human body."

Fitness professionals must apply changing trends, literature and science to their practice, an approach that drives Hoolihan to stay deeply committed to his own learning process. "With today's emerging science on bioindividuality, we witness individual variances and responses to training techniques and nutritional patterns," he says. "This effective process requires trainers to carefully discern a client/athlete's ability to improve and perform well. And that improvement is a life enhancement."

Hoolihan acknowledges NASM for exposing fitness professionals to a variety of "exciting, entertaining and intriguing" ideas. He says science can help trainers distinguish between current fads and methods that will become industry standards. "Some fads become standards while others become temporal," he says. "Following science and research is key to understanding the difference between the two. Research leads the industry."

Although Hoolihan's professional tenure spans decades, he considers himself young by industry standards. "If you count coaching, I've worked as a fitness professional for over 46 years," he says. "But fitness is still new and exciting for me. My work is my passion.

"Age? Fitness isn't just a young person's trade. There's plenty of room for experience. Reinvention? We don't necessarily reinvent ourselves. We simply stay current with industry knowledge that grows daily. Longevity? Industry longevity is based on client progress. People become healthier and naturally increase their longevity."

Hoolihan's advice to newcomers: "Pace yourself. Maintain a perspective of caring for yourself the way you care for your clients."

"Like-minded thinkers pay attention to changing trends and lifestyles. Like-minded professionals ask, 'Who are we? What do we stand for? How can we help others think differently in ways that affect their lives? How do we effect change in fitness levels, nutrition, stress and happiness? How can we be the difference in the lives of others?' "
-Celeste Reeves, Dacula, Georgia

Allow Your Interests to Evolve

Celeste Reeves, a life coach (in her most recent industry foray) is a well-rounded fitness veteran whose career has covered the gamut: group fitness instructor, sports director, coach, personal trainer, facility consultant, and leader of fitness and nutrition workshops. She also was a personal trainer on the Discovery Channel's The Body Challenge and has owned Georgia's Functional Fitness Personal Training for 20 years.

An avid athlete, Reeves began her fitness career in the early 1980s to subsidize the cost of a gym membership in Atlanta's "top-of-the-line, throbbing point of all things new in aerobics." Reeves joyously discovered that teaching provided a free membership and a paycheck. Thus began a 25-year stint that included leading classes in step, high-low impact, kickboxing and stability and BOSU. Reeves recently transitioned into personal training full-time, including working with middle-aged and older populations.

"I've always carefully monitored personal training trends within my business," she says. "I understand the importance of small-group - no more than four - and one-on-one training, regardless of one's fitness and wellness level. The niche of working with a middle-aged and older clientele evolved as I did. Recently becoming a wellness coach opened my eyes to address and progress within these special populations."

Attending to those who "fall between medical care and physical therapy," Reeves stressed the importance of identifying medical requirements and limitations caused by health issues and diseases - multiple sclerosis, ataxia (lack of muscle coordination) or Parkinson's disease. "My success is based on understanding and addressing client needs," she continues. "Whether it's postrehab for elite athletes, the middle-aged, seniors or the simply fit, we work with clients who can't train by themselves. We're the sweet spot, the missing link between the doctor, the physical therapist and clients living their lives."

Reeves also noted the merit of establishing relationships. "We ask questions about careers and hobbies: 'Who are you in the real world?'" she says. "Relationships, camaraderie and friendships are just as important as one's health. You can't fine-tune someone's life without making a connection."

Meet our experts

AFM-Author-Viti Lucia Viti, is an AFAA certified, 34-year fitness veteran and freelance journalist. Ms. Viti presently teaches at the Bay Club Carmel Valley located in San Diego.

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more