Daniel J. Green is ACE’s Senior Project Manager and Editor for Publications and Content Development. In addition to his work with organizations including the International Association of Fire Fighters and Agriculture Future of America, Daniel writes an ongoing blog series covering lifestyle change for NBCbetter.com. He has also written feature articles for local publications in Western North Carolina (WNC), including WNC Parent and WNC Magazine.
The Far-reaching Impact of Community Volunteering
The foundation of the health and fitness industry is the professionals who work in their communities every day to improve the health and wellness of not only their individual clients and class participants, but also the community at large. It’s common knowledge in the industry that we tend to reach the same folks again and again, as they join gyms, drop out, then rejoin when it’s New Year’s resolution time.
As a health and exercise professional, your success relies, in part, on your ability to expand your reach and acquire new clients beyond that small pool of return customers. One way to do that is through volunteering and serving those communities that the health and fitness industry may not otherwise be reaching. Of course, volunteering offers countless other benefits, to both you and the people you support, and is often its own reward.
We asked five industry experts to share their experiences as volunteers and as leaders of organizations that provide health and fitness services to underserved communities, beginning with ACE’s own efforts in this area. Then, we provide 10 steps you can take today to begin giving back through community volunteering.
ACE’s Perspective on the Importance of Community Volunteering
Graham Melstrand is the ACE Executive Vice President, Community Health and Wellness. In this role, he leads the team responsible for bringing the organization’s mission into communities that need it the most through partnering with liked-minded organizations. Melstrand also collaborates with organizations and coalitions to encourage policy changes to make physical activity more accessible for all people. Melstrand has more than 35 years of experience in the health and fitness industry and has been with ACE since 2000.
How does the work you do in the Community Health and Wellness department connect to ACE’s overall mission to Get People Moving? Why is community outreach so important to the organization?
ACE’s community health and wellness efforts are an intentional way for ACE to further our mission of getting people moving, alongside the great work that is done every day by ACE Certified Professionals. According to the 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, just over 20% of Americans belong to a health club and therefore have access to the exercise professionals and health coaches they employ. While there are many opportunities for access to health coaches and exercise professionals outside of health clubs, the communities that need them the most are often under-represented or under-resourced when it comes to the places, information, physical-activity programs or leadership to make change. Our overarching goal is to empower individuals and communities to make positive behavior changes by providing education, tools and resources that help them individually, among family, and within the community to live healthier lives through physical activity and related lifestyle practices.
Why is giving back to one’s community or extending one’s reach to communities in need so valuable? What do ACE Pros stand to gain through philanthropy or volunteering?
From the perspective of the public health community, the fitness industry and the professional have tremendous potential to reduce the prevalence and impact of inactivity-related chronic disease through physical-activity programs and interventions, but that potential hasn’t been fully realized. Today’s fitness participants are overwhelmingly white, highly educated, affluent and urban/suburban. We believe that all people want to live their best, healthiest life, but they don’t always know what to do or where to go for resources or assistance. In many instances, those resources are not readily accessible in their communities. That’s where ACE, donors and our professionals can help. Through the development and distribution of education, training, tools and resources in partnership with community-based organizations, we believe that we can help develop the future volunteer and exercise professional workforce in and from the communities where they live that drive our mission to get people moving. For ACE and our professionals, the investments of time, talent and resources improve the visibility of our profession and show our commitment to realizing our full potential as a provider of programs and interventions at the intersection of clinic and community, strengthening relationships and help diversifying our workforce.
Can you describe an experience or moment that stands out to you and really captures the value of the work you are doing?
My a-ha moment came at the first large public health conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., more than 10 years ago. I was having a conversation with one of the conference presenters about the role of exercise professionals as community-based providers of physical-activity programs and interventions. The contrast between how the fitness industry and exercise professionals see themselves vs. how the public health community sees us was startling. There was agreement around the potential for the exercise professional to be a recognized and valued deliverer of preventive health programs and services, but there were significant challenges to be solved regarding access, affordability and availability of the scalable, outcomes-based programs necessary to meet the needs of the broader U.S. population. That conversation helped shape our thinking around how we can move the needle through our community health and wellness efforts.
Reach a Forgotten Population Through Compassion and Mindfulness
Bill Brown, C-IAYT, is the Executive Director of Prison Yoga Project (PYP), a non-profit organization that supports incarcerated people worldwide with trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness programs. PYP envisions a cultural shift toward a healing-centered approach to addressing crime, substance use disorders and mental health disorders. Its mission is to provide programs for rehabilitation and resilience rooted in yoga and embodied mindfulness. Brown began working with PYP in 2013 and has been the Executive Director since 2018.
What kind of impact have you seen health, fitness and mindfulness make for the incarcerated individuals with whom you work? How has yoga practice changed their lives?
I've witnessed an immediate and significant reduction in stress among our participants, and in some cases, this has been a pivotal moment in their lives. One of the individuals in my current group approached us during a critical crisis, teetering on the edge. The yoga practice we engaged in that day seemed to break the hold of whatever turmoil he was experiencing, quite possibly saving his life. Subsequently, he has become an integral part of our community, drawing others into our fold. This immediate relief from stress serves as a foundation for the development of resilience, which is vital in counteracting the traumatizing effects of incarceration.
Beyond the initial stress relief, I've observed a profound deepening of empathy and compassion, both for themselves and for others, among our participants. This growth in personal awareness is pivotal, as it allows them to confront and acknowledge the harm they've caused. This acknowledgment often motivates them to seek ways to make amends for the harm they've inflicted and to support others in their recovery from the trauma that may have led them to commit harm or turn to substance use as a means of coping. For some, mindfulness practices have been instrumental in dealing with mental health disorders.
What benefits have you seen in your own life stemming from your work with the Prison Yoga Project, whether that’s professionally or personally?
My experience with Prison Yoga Project has had a profound impact on my life. Before joining PYP, I had spent decades working as a software developer. While the work was financially rewarding and intellectually engaging to some extent, I often felt disconnected from a sense of contributing something meaningful to the world. It seemed like I was exchanging my time for money solely for personal gain, lacking a meaningful connection to a broader societal benefit. My professional growth was primarily driven by the necessity to keep up with the rapidly evolving technological landscape.
Working with incarcerated individuals brought me face-to-face with one of the most tangible manifestations of our society's failure to care for all its people. The challenges in this realm are substantial, but the sense of making a meaningful contribution is immense. There are moments when the enormity of the problems and the scale of suffering caused by punitive incarceration, affecting not only incarcerated individuals but also those working within the system, can feel overwhelming. But the personal connection to those I work with and alongside fills me with a sense of purpose.
The longer I've been involved in this work, the more I've felt like I'm peeling back layers of understanding. I've been called upon to confront uncomfortable truths with unwavering compassion. My perspective on the situation has become increasingly nuanced. I've learned to maintain compassionate relationships while recognizing that some of the individuals I work with have committed grievous acts. This experience has helped me become more empathetic and understanding towards all the people I encounter in my life.
On a professional level, my motivation now centers on deepening my understanding of how yoga and embodied mindfulness can aid in healing trauma and fostering resilience. It's not about keeping up with an ever-changing technology landscape anymore; instead, it's about a need for deeper understanding and skillful action rooted in a deep desire to alleviate suffering and transform the social systems and structures that cause and perpetuate it.
Can you describe an experience or moment that stands out to you and really captures the value of the work you are doing?
I've had the privilege of witnessing many personal transformations within our community, not limited to just incarcerated individuals or those working within the system, but also among our facilitators. One particular person stands out in my mind at the moment. She had grappled with mental health issues throughout her teens and 20s. She was heavily medicated and experienced periods of institutionalization. However, as she entered her 30s, she no longer wanted the “zombie life” the medication had her living. She made a determined decision to seek alternatives to medication, turning to yoga and mindfulness for solutions to her challenges.
Her personal recovery inspired her to help others facing similar struggles, leading her to join us as a facilitator. Then in her mid-30s, she had successfully recovered and learned to manage without medication, but she had never held a job as an adult. While working with us and facilitating programs in jail, she decided to get a degree that could open up employment opportunities. During her education, she often grappled with anxiety, particularly when she had to make presentations in front of her classmates. She once shared with me the intense nausea she experienced in such situations. Whenever this happened, she would remind herself: "You teach yoga in a jail." This connected her with the confidence she felt when leading her groups and gave her the courage and determination she needed to persevere. She not only graduated from her program with honors, but also went on to create her dream career that allowed her to travel throughout Europe. She now lives in Paris.
Use Your Passion to Give Back to the Community That Raised You
Kim Olige is the President and Founder of Youth Style Fitness, a Charlotte, N.C.–based non-profit organization that uses a combination of unique programs to holistically empower youth development. The organization’s mission is to foster an awareness of healthy eating, exercise and mental health to empower youth development through health and wellness. Olige, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor and an ACE Ambassador, founded the organization in 2018.
What changes have you seen in the young people you work with every day, in terms of their mental and physical well-being? What do you think your organization means to them?
I see improvements with the youth we serve daily through their behaviors. Along with helping them get in shape, exercise serves as an intervention to place youth in a positive social environment that improves mental health disparities, depression and anxiety. During our daily operations, I see kids become more social with others and learn certain skills, such as self-discipline and leadership. The kids we serve know that Youth Style Fitness is an organization that provides positive opportunities for them to build healthy habits.
Why is this work so important to you? What value has it brought to your life, both professionally and personally?
The work is important to me because operating as a non-profit gives me the opportunity to give back to the community that raised me. It also allows me to work with at-risk youth and help change their lives. I find no greater satisfaction than being able to look after the community from which I came and provide the necessary resources to build health equity. This occupation has let me turn my passion into a profession.
Can you describe an experience or moment that stands out to you and really captures the value of the work you are doing?
I realized the value of the work Youth Style Fitness is doing when we won the 2021 Volunteer of the Year award from the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. We offered free fitness classes, mental health and cooking programs to young children at the Boys and Girls Club. Our organization was featured on the Salvation Army’s website and we were interviewed at their headquarters here in Charlotte. That award meant something to me because it is a testament to the fact that we are executing our mission of empowering youth holistically.
Use Your Skills and Knowledge to Impact Public Health
Steven Loy, PhD, is an exercise physiologist with a current emphasis on creating more visibility for the field of kinesiology in the public health arena. He has developed 3 WINS Fitness, a student-delivered FREE exercise program for underserved communities in and around Northridge, Calif. 3 WINS Fitness has been recognized at the White House as an example of what the profession of kinesiology can do to improve the public’s health, particularly in underserved communities.
Programs like 3 WINS Fitness demonstrate the impact health and fitness can have at the community level (i.e., on public health). Can you briefly describe the changes you’ve seen in the underserved communities where 3 WINS Fitness offers its free exercise classes?
Over time, I see more and more the lack of education regarding physical activity/exercise within the community, in both underserved communities and those with greater education and affluence. To that extent, I tell my students and other professionals to value their education and to not underestimate their value. I say this without data, but more from being in the community for more than 12 years, the challenges of safe and appropriate physical activity are greater due to lack of affordable opportunities and facilities, as well as trustworthy sources of information. I believe generally that people are aware they should be physically active but beyond the usual walking, there is not the awareness of the value of increased intensity and regular strength training. We have consistent population attending who share the message with their friends and family, but increasing the population participating is challenging, though in part it’s due to the one time in the morning we offer our class because of our students’ university class schedule. I believe if we had greater flexibility, we would have greater attendance. The desire is out there. Professionals must recognize the need for accessibility and affordability. The social component is critical in emphasizing the value of group participation.
3 WINS Fitness offers exercise classes led by university students. What personal benefits do these student/instructors see as the result of participation and what academic or professional benefits have you noticed for them since launching the program?
The biggest benefit for students, especially in this post-pandemic period, is the building of the soft skills of personal communication and leadership. While in the pre-pandemic years, this was also critical, I’ve seen two major differences. (1) The number of students interested and motivated to join 3 WINS Fitness is down significantly. I project this lack of engagement in extracurricular opportunities requiring soft skills will be present for five to 10 years unless the university and secondary schools focus on including this type of activity within the academic setting. The university environment has also changed, and teachers and faculty have to get back to the classroom and teach these socialization skills. (2) Those students that do join the program increase their communication skills, but have seemed less interested in group socializing and leading others to become more engaged. Having run this program for nine years pre-pandemic and almost two years post-pandemic, there is most definitely a difference in the soft skills and ability to think critically about how to increase program effectiveness and put these thoughts into action. That said, more opportunities for students to develop must be created if we are going to correct this current deficit.
Last year, I created the San Fernando Valley Mile in partnership with the City of San Fernando and Anthem Blue Cross. It was the opportunity to walk or run a straight mile through the heart of San Fernando. Tied to a cultural event, Dia de los Muertos, it was focused on the community. The success of over 600 participants encourage a repeat this year, again with the city and with Providence Health and Services. An event with the youngest to the oldest of all fitness levels highlights the value of health and being able to move. The largest heat was the Family group. However, the moment that captured the value was one of our participants who joined 3 WINS about two months before last year’s event and she said she wanted to try last year and was able to walk only a portion. She had suffered a brain aneurysm eight years prior and had limited use of her left side, though she could walk slowly. I told her we’d work on her fitness and aim for this year’s walk. Getting a very early start in order to finish with the Family group, she made her way without her motorized wheelchair and completed the whole mile! The crowd was cheering her last block and she told me that the completion of a full mile has resulted in her making the affirmation that this year, she would be leaving her wheelchair home regularly and getting to public transportation via the train because she had the confidence that she would have the endurance to do so. Her world just got bigger.
Volunteer for an Organization that Contributed to Your Own Success
Tiffany Copeland is the Director of Fitness Warriors at Sports Backers, where she works with a team of volunteers to ensure that the Fitness Warriors program is reaching those communities that need it most in the Richmond, Va., area. The mission of this program is to train area residents who have talent, passion and potential to be professional fitness instructors to reach those communities with the highest rates of chronic disease. Copeland, an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor, has been with the organization since 2017.
What do you think is the biggest impact that your program has had on the communities you serve? The goal is to reach areas with high rates of chronic disease and help turn that tide, but what other benefits have you noticed during your time with the program?
The biggest impact that the program has had on the communities it serves is showing the participants that they are capable of completing hard things while building their own personal confidence. Our survey data for 2022–2023 showed that our class participants gained the following things from joining us for a fitness class: 88% said they gained an increased knowledge of fitness, 84% has a more positive outlook on life and 88% had increased confidence. Stress reduction was another huge data point, with 83% attributing that to the classes they attend. I would go further to say that for our seniors specifically, we are breaking isolation and helping them to form new bonds we like to call FitFams in the classes they attend. Many of them traveling to classes together!
We’ve always wanted to get people to move and, while weight loss is not our focus, 64% of participants said that they’ve lost weight and 43% have seen a reduction in their medication. We are seeing moms with their children find ways to bond—and that’s moms of all ages!
What have you gained, personally and professionally, from working with not only the volunteers in your program but also with the members of the community?
I try to make sure everyone knows that I don’t just run the program, I am a product of the program. While my weight-loss story started prior to joining the Fitness Warriors, it has been a pivotal part of my personal and professional life since 2017. It gave me the confidence to walk away from a 13-year corporate America career to take the helm of the program in 2018. Since then, my connections in the community and with volunteers have allowed me to continue to advocate for my community in various ways, including attending the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health. The program, similar to what our participants have experienced, has boosted my confidence, given me a more positive look on life and, while it can be stressful, has assured that I have the tools I need to reduce stress and maintain a good bill of health for FREE!
An experience that stands out is when I attended a community class lead by Fitness Warrior Laurel Gregory. Laurel, a 65-year-old certified instructor, leads a chair-based fitness class, 50+ Fit & Functional Fitness. While at a site visit, I spoke with a 45-year-old woman who had been frequenting the class as a way to support her 83-year-old mother, not only in moving, but also in breaking out of her own silo. While speaking with her, she shared with me her ability to chase her grandkids and how her energy had changed. “I thought I was doing this weekly to help my mother, when in reality I’ve been helping myself!” I love seeing participants get it, when they see the small change, the ability to walk upstairs without being winded. It’s them pushing from not wanting to walk a mile to walking a 5k. Age is no longer a deciding factor in what many participants think they are capable of doing!
The First Steps Toward Giving Back
We asked each of the five contributors to this article to provide some immediately doable and impactful things that ACE Certified Pros can do today to start making a difference in their communities or with underserved populations. The following is what they consider the first steps toward giving back:
- Volunteer to talk to a community group about physical activity, nutrition or behavior change, or to deliver a physical-activity experience.
- Connect with others who are already doing the work you’re passionate about, preferably an organization or entity with established trust in the community.
- Offer one slot of your service for free or at an “income-based rate” and be intentional in sharing this in communities where people do not have the means.
- Connect with a community center or community organizer and offer your expertise for free.
- Find programs/non-profits in your area and offer to be a subject matter expert to help further their mission.
- Complete at least one continuing education course on a topic that pertains to an underserved group.
- Identify the pain point relative to physical activity within your community, then figure out how you can relieve that pain through a simple program.
- Do not seek to cure or fix others. Instead, seek to create the conditions for healing and personal empowerment.
- Look to see who is not in the room and offer them an opportunity to shine.
- Consider donating to ACE’s community health and wellness initiatives.
In the video below, which was filmed as part of the ACE Health and Fitness Summit: A Holistic Approach to Mental Health, ACE Pro Reena Vokoun describes how to build community by offering a wide range of wellness programs that meet the needs of the people you serve.