Interview with Dr. Ted Vickey
Dr. Ted Vickey has 25 years of experience in exercise science and business, with special expertise in fitness technology. From 1994-2005, Ted was the Executive Director of the White House Athletic Center, the fitness center serving the fitness, health, and wellness needs of the staff at the Executive Office of the President under the Clinton and Bush administrations. He has also consulted with companies and organizations such as the White House, Department of Commerce, Securities and Exchange Commission, Fruit of the Loom, TSA, Sylvania, and Allied Irish Bank. Ted also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in Exercise Science from Penn State and a master’s of business in International Business and Entrepreneurship from the University of Limerick. He frequently presents on fitness and technology to diverse audiences around the world and is the author of four books, numerous academic papers, and tens of thousands of tweets. Ted lives in Southern California, where he frequently plays golf, tinkers with fitness and health gadgets, and takes long walks along the beach for outdoor physical activity. He is the Media Center Chair for the Farmer's Insurance Open PGA golf tournament held every January in San Diego.
Matt: Thanks for joining me Ted. I’d like to start this off by asking what inspired you to study and pursue a career in the fitness industry?
Ted: I became interested in health and wellness due to an ankle injury I had during college. I was a member of the water polo team at Penn State as a Freshmen. After that first year I went home for the summer to visit my family and while playing football in the backyard stepped into a hole which unfortunately snapped my ankle. I had to spend a full week in the hospital to recover. Prior to this experience I was a political science major, but for the ankle injury I started going to physical therapy and thought it was great. The PTs listened to music all day, helped others, and they didn’t have to wear a tie. Against the wishes of my father when I went back to Penn State that Fall I transferred into the closest thing to physical therapy, exercise physiology (back then we called it exercise science). I started the coursework and absolutely loved it.
Matt: Prior to graduating, what did your career prospects look like? You mentioned that your father wasn’t thrilled about this career-choice, which makes sense because the fitness industry was a completely different landscape than it is today.
Ted: It really is. At the time I thought my career path would be as a director of a YMCA somewhere in Pennsylvania making $40,000 a year. The education I had at Penn State was, and still is, one of the top 5 exercise science programs in the country. My challenge with Penn State was that they were putting students to go directly into the Masters program right after undergrad and I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I decided to pursue this new career path called corporate wellness. This was brand new in the late 80s, early 90s. Very few companies were spending the time and money to study the importance of health in their workforce to decrease healthcare costs. When the White House Athletics center started in 1997 it was kind of kept a secret because they were afraid that the general public would look at the politicians taking an hour out of their day to exercise and get upset. It’s funny because at the time people were still taking ten minute smoke breaks every hour throughout the day. So, when I was graduating corporate wellness was really just starting but there were no metrics to track any of the programs. There were very few studies looking into corporate wellness from the research side. So, I was lucky to be right there on the forefront of these programs evaluating their effectiveness. That’s exactly what drew my attention to technology. In 1990, for my bachelors degree I wrote a paper on fitness applications using a computer within health clubs. This is so dated. These systems were DOS based, they weren’t even Windows based. We’ve come a long way since then.
Matt: To take a quick step back, your background was one of the main reasons that I first reached out to you. Your passions and experience mirror our team at StrengthPortal perfectly, which is combining fitness, technology, and business. I’d love to hear about what the early days were like working in corporate wellness out of college and the challenges and success you had.
Ted: So out of college I was responsible for managing the onsite fitness center for the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and then after that, the White House Athletic Center. At 24 years old I left my first job implementing and managing fitness centers and went to start a similar business of my own even though I’d never taken a business class. I was a scientist who was now running a small business. I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. To fix this I would go the the University of Maryland bookstore and read whatever they were teaching at the time. I consumed everything they had that was related to building a successful company. Looking back, I think that being naive at the time made it a lot easier. Now it’s so easy to get information on what to do or not do it’s easy to get information overload. I did this on my own. I had no debt in the company, I learned right away to pay my staff before I paid myself, and that you need to hire great employees around a system. I’m all about creating repeatable systems. If you create a repeatable system you can take your company anywhere. For the first five years, knowing that every one of my competitors wanted my contract with the White House, I did nothing but create a system to manage the White House fitness center. The second contract I had was for Sylvania, a light bulb company in New Hampshire. Now, the White House was white collar and we’re now going into a blue collar environment. We did golf tournaments at the White House, at Sylvania we would do bowling tournaments. At the White House we would do lunch and learn lectures, while at Sylvania we would have to do demos in the kitchens. From a management perspective, I was still in DC. They were hiring me and my systems in New Hampshire. I received my first AOL email address at the time (laughing) and had a dial-up modem. With the system I set up I was able to hire a staff, train them on what to do, create all the reports I needed to for the client while I was in DC, and then send them to the client in New Hampshire. If I needed to send a staff member up to New Hampshire to complete a task or project they knew exactly what to do because the system was the exact same at the White House. Looking back I know that the main reason for our success was because of the investments we made into those systems. It allowed us to scale and serve more customers.
Matt: To recap that a bit, you entered an uncertain job market for fitness professionals in the early 90s and were able to build a speciality by building up a knowledge base combining fitness with tech. That’s fascinating to me because 20-25 years later we’re still seeing personal trainers entering the marketplace with huge knowledge/experience gaps in how to build soft skills, how to run and manage a business, and how to utilize technology to scale their business. This is something that both of us believe should be standard education for personal trainers and, if included in the curriculum, would result in longer careers for PTs than we see today.
Ted: Well, if you think about it, historically universities have been coming at this all from a research perspective. I get this because I’m working at a University right now. However, I am seeing slow changes where exercise physiology classes here and there are being swapped out for a business classes. It’s a slow process, similar to an aircraft carrier trying to turn. It’s going to take a while. One of the things that I’m extremely passionate about is trying to give back to this industry is a way for new trainers to have sustainable careers that they have control over. We’ve talked about this before and we both know that the existing personal training model is broken. You’re lucky as a personal trainer, if you’re on your own, to make a sustainable liveable salary. It’s no fault of the trainers. Historically trainers are great at the exercise side of this, but as you said for the most part they don’t have experience with business or technology. Personal trainer certification companies historically have focused on continual education on the exercise side just like the universities and are only just starting to add content on managing your business or utilizing technology. This is something I’m actively working on at the moment, creating an online academy for trainers with the intent of helping them learn and progress their career in an industry that’s changing rapidly. I call it the spotify model of fitness, where a trainer is going to be able to train clients 24 hours a day 7 days a week virtually using technology and then meet with their clients maybe 1-2 times a month. In today’s model you’re lucky to meet with a client once a week, so what are you supposed to do with all the other hours in the week? Using technology, whatever tool that may be, trainers will be able to better connect with their clients and have more success.
Matt: We couldn’t agree more. Just to give some additional insight for our readers on your background, we kind of skipped over 20 years of your career. You’ve worked in corporate wellness, run multiple businesses, and went back to school to continue your study on the intersection of fitness and technology. Now you’re a Professor at the Point Loma Nazarene University here in San Diego focusing on teaching topics such as Fitness Leadership, Fitness Entrepreneurship, Ethics and Disruptive Health Technologies. You also continue to run FitWell, which is a fitness management technology consulting company. Can you tell us a bit more about the various projects you’re working on these days?
Ted: So I started FitWell in 1994 to manage my corporate wellness clients (the White House, Sylvania, Fruit of the loom, and others) and then in 2001 we were acquired by an occupational medicine company called Comprehensive Health Services. CHS was going into corporations and government agencies and running the medical side of it. We were one of the first groups to see the value in having corporate doctors prescribe exercise on-site for their employees. That was the year that 9/11 happened and we were asked to do something like we 60,000 fitness evaluations for every TSA employee that was going through the application process in a matter of a few months. During that time I was still working on the fitness side of the house, but now I was being pulled into health risk assessments and corporate evaluations. It was a crazy, busy time for us.
Later on, in January 2006, my mother was passing away from cancer and she told me that she was extremely proud of what I’d done with my life except that I worked too hard. So here I was with clients all over the country, including the White House, but I wasn’t taking care of myself. I decided to quit my job and cross of a few items on my bucket list. So, I moved to Ireland without knowing anyone there to pursue a Masters degree in international business with an emphasis in entrepreneurship. I didn’t need the Masters degree, but I wanted it which made it a lot more enjoyable. I was able to travel Europe and play golf all over the continent. After I earned the Master's degree the Irish government approached me and asked if I was interested in earning a PhD. I was, of course, so I became one of the first people in the world to have a degree in engineering informatics specific to physical activity. My PhD research involved looking at a collection of 2 million fitness tweets and from that we were able to predict an individual's fitness level better than the federal government was able to. Through this process we did a lot of data mining and research on how fitness technologies can be utilized. I had been working on the science side of the industry for 20 years and learned how to talk to the engineering side (software and hardware) of the industry. My goal from there become the bridge between the two. These days with FitWell I work with a lot of wearable and tech companies looking for me to consult them on how to effectively enter the fitness space. Many of these new companies are started by individuals with more of an engineering background, so they have a lot of learning to do about the current disruption in fitness and health industry. Gym members are coming up to trainers and asking for them to train them through their FitBit these days. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. Health Clubs are now Health Hubs. The four physical walls are going away and gyms are expected to connect with their gym members 24/7. Imagine a physician writing a prescription for a personal trainer to go see a health coach or personal trainer and then get reimbursed from insurance. One of the reasons that hasn’t happened yet is because it’s so difficult to prove that visit and workout happened with the trainer. Imagine pooling all this data (step counts, workout data, etc) into a portal that shows insurance companies everything the individual has done. That’s on the horizon.
Matt: Oh man, so much good stuff to dig into there. Obviously there’s a lot of challenges in our industry to get to where we think it can be, but I know we both believe that most people are really underestimating the growth potential of this space. To bring this back to where we are right now, what actions should gyms be taking right now to best position themselves for the industry of the future?
Ted: In 2015 the American Council of Exercise and I did a survey on trainers use of technology. What we found was that trainers use technology themselves, but they are fearful of using it within their business. That, to me, is a teachable moment. If we could teach gyms and trainers on how to use technology effectively that will change their business outcomes and they will become more profitable. I’m in the process of doing an academic study to survey gyms and trainers every six months to see how fast, or slow, the needle is moving. If you asked me I think that if we do that survey today even more trainers would say that they are using technology on their own, but they are still not maximizing hardware and software technology within their business. It’s a total change of a mindset if you are taught correctly. I was asked a year ago if technology could replace a personal trainer. I thought about it for a moment and said that if you’re a trainer who is afraid you can be replaced by technology then you should be afraid. The reasoning behind that statement is that what makes a personal trainer successful is the interpersonal skills that they have. Technology is a tool and if you’re not using it to better interact with your clients then you will be replaced. I thought I’d get a lot of blowback for that, but a lot of trainers came up to me after and told me that I was absolutely right. Technology is a tool just like a dumbbell is a tool, a treadmill is a tool, or how a pen is a tool. We need to continue to work on finding ways to better utilize technology to strengthen the trainer-client relationship. The opportunities to do this are massive.
Matt: It’s so interesting that you frame it that way. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, specifically where is that next big change in technology adoption going to come from in the industry? Will it come from the trainers or from the gyms? What we’ve seen from our time in this industry is that historically trainers have been undervalued by their employers and only very recently are companies starting to invest in tools to leverage their trainers value even further. Gyms are starting to invest in continual education and software, when that was a foreign concept for years, and they will see a strong ROI on that. It may take a few years for a large organization to see the value returned, but it’s an investment that will be worth every penny.
One other trend I see that gives me a lot of optimism for technology adoption in our space is that younger trainers coming into the job market have used software and hardware their entire life. The learning curve will continue to decrease as these new trainers are hired by companies that have invested in tools specifically to help their employees day-to-day.
Ted: You’re absolutely right, it is a generational thing. Trainers under 25 already know how to use these tools, 25-40 can learn how to use them fairly easily, and trainers older than that will have to invest the time (just like they would for any new tool) to leverage the new hardware and software becoming standard in the industry. One thing to add to that is that not only with trainers have to learn how to use these tools, but gyms and trainers will also have to educate their clients on how to use these new flexible training services that are now possible. There will always be clients who want the old model, private 1on1 training with pen and paper, but we have to educate them that there’s a newer, better option for them.
Matt: Absolutely. To tie that back to the teaching your doing today, do you have any projects with your students that you think are really helping prepare them for this evolving industry?
Ted: There are a few classes that I teach that I absolutely love. One of them is called Wellness Entrepreneurship. We have Master level students coming in who want to the next entrepreneurs in the space. We have them come in and create business plans, but not the type of business plan that you’d bring to a banker. It’s the one-page business plan that allows you to get started on your idea/opportunity. The second class is called Disruptive Health Technologies. We bring in and experiment with new technologies to research how they can disrupt the industry. I have one right here, a bottle that blinks at me if I’m not drinking enough water. I recently had a kidney stone and my doctor told me to drink more water. Saying drink more water and doing it are two different things. So, this bottle blinks at me if I haven’t had enough water. I tell it how many ounces of water a day I want to drink and it holds me accountable. My Fitbit watch also vibrates at me and encourages me to drink more water. That’s the type of small steps we can take with technology that can start to have a large impact over time. The Apple watch can vibrate if you haven’t gotten up and moved in the last hour. That adds up if it happens and encourages you to get up 6-8 times a day. And now, as we speak, I will take another drink of my water (laughing).
Matt: To wrap this up, I’d like to get a little more concrete and ask you what you think the gym of the future looks like? What does the career of the personal trainer look like? What are you excited about?
Ted: I think that the trainers ten years from now will look a lot like they do today, but there will be a lot more specialties for trainers that can be done in a gym. I think the first assessment for gym members will still be done in the gym, but then gyms and trainers will be able to better match the gym members specific needs with the perfect trainer and service for them. It will be flexible because gyms and trainers can utilize the technology so that not every interaction has to happen face-to-face. The clubs that still focused on the four physical walls will have a tough time competing. The gyms that have the four physical walls but extend their reach beyond it with technology will flourish. It can be big box gym, a smaller gym, or a trainer sitting on the beach in San Diego. That’s what excites me. We are tethered to being on the floor 8-12 hours a day with clients. One of the biggest expenses trainers have is equipment. I wouldn’t be surprised if more work-share type gym environments pop up and flourish for trainers to use with their clients when needed. A more flexible type of relationship between the gym and the trainer. That’s the future that gets me so excited I have trouble sleeping at night.
Matt: I feel the same way. Well Ted, I really appreciate you sharing your story. Thank you so much for the time!
If you’d like to follow or further connect with Ted please check out the links below:
Ted's TEDxTalk: - "The Wireless Future of Wellness is Now"
Interested in participating in Ted's industry survey about how fitness professionals use technology? CLICK HERE
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