We are creatures of habit and behavior change is hard. When there is a trigger that gets us excited (New Year’s resolution, bikini season, a reunion, etc.), people tend to set unrealistic goals. For example, someone who is barely working out thinks they will suddenly exercise every morning…they’ll go from eating poorly to eating a salad every day??? Again, changing habits are hard, especially entrenched ones so it’s important to focus on changing one small thing at a time — commit to drinking one more glass of water a day. Everyone wants the quick fix and the reality is there is no such thing — we need to focus on one SMALL change at a time. The real question is whether we have the resilience and patience to see these small changes into bigger ones — and for some of us, it helps to have a partner to keep us accountable, especially earlier in the journey.
Ihad the pleasure to interview Stephanie Hu. Stephanie is the CEO of Fitness Together Franchise, LLC, a fitness franchise with over 150 studios, the brand pairs clients with expert personal trainers who create customized workout plans specific to their client’s needs. Stephanie brings over 20 years of consumer products and health and fitness experience to the Fitness Together brand, most recently serving as the President of Life Time Sport (a division of Life Time, Inc.). Stephanie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BBA from the University of Michigan.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
After surviving my early years on pepperoni, crackers and pop-tarts, I felt the importance of good nutrition in high school as I realized what I ate had a direct impact on my tennis game. Now, while I was heavily influenced by the fat-free fad of the early 90’s (which we now know isn’t so healthy), I was acutely aware of how exercise and nutrition impacted my performance.
It wasn’t until I was in college and diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease that affects 1.6 million Americans similar to Crohns Disease) that led me to my passion of helping to simplify the complex world of health. People take their health for granted until it is taken away. I had three massive surgeries in a span of 4 years. After my surgeries, I weighed 78lbs and I knew that I was lucky to be alive. I had an ostomy bag for a few months and I felt like a cartoon character — I’d have Gatorade and a few minutes later, I’d see it pour out into my ostomy bag! At 21 years old, I had to re-learn how to go the bathroom and use exercise as a way to calm my mind and build my body back up. My goal is to teach people how to appreciate what they have before it’s taken away.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My passion has always revolved around health and wellness; however, there were times throughout my career where I diverged from my North Star. In reflecting, it’s not an accident that I’ve been at my best when what I’m working on day-to-day has a direct impact on someone’s health. Being able to help people live healthier, happier lives is what motivates me. I already have some favorite stories from my short tenure at Fitness Together. For example, I spoke to a client who after years of trying IVF, finally got pregnant naturally after focusing on her health and working with one of our fantastic trainers. Or from a grandma who can still keep up with her 8 grandkids because she has been coming to Fitness Together three times a week for years! And these are just a couple of the wonderful stories I’ve heard from traveling across the country and speaking to our franchisees and clients.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
This one might still get told as a cautionary tale around the dangers of being “overly” prepared! I was getting ready to go out on maternity leave with our first and typical of my planning, I had my birth announcement email ready to go. This email was literally ready to send, all I had unfilled was her weight because clearly, she was not yet born! I had noted she weighed “X lbs, Y oz.” Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going, but I accidentally sent the email and within seconds, I was getting congratulation emails. The immediate lesson of course is to be careful when it comes to email (reply all, forwarding things you shouldn’t, etc); however, the greater life lesson for me was the ability to laugh at yourself. Of course, my immediate reaction was sheer embarrassment, but I decided it was better to simply embrace my true overly Type A, neurotic planning self! I’ve learned to use self-deprecating humor to defuse many tense situations/meetings because people appreciate the vulnerability and the humor!
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
As CEO of Fitness Together Franchise, I’ve established a strong, successful history in the health and wellness industries leading up to this role. In my first corporate leadership role in the industry, I served as President of Total Health (the B2B corporate wellness division of Life Time, Inc.) where I created a new health coaching program that exceeded industry standards. Following this, I served as the President of Life Time Sport (a division of Life Time, Inc.) where I launched the brand’s first stand-alone location and created the marketing, brand and operations strategy.
I’m excited to be part of the Fitness Together team and continue to transform the lives of clients guiding them on their fitness and wellness journey.
I’d call myself an empathetic consumer — while I may not have the health and nutrition degrees, I balance my personal experience with the appropriate business mindset to identify and scale the right solution. Ultimately, if we can’t figure out how to add value to consumers that drives behavior and physical results, then nothing else really matters.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Scott B. was one of my first managers at General Mills. Scott got an idealistic, fiercely independent, resilient but head strong associate. He was not only incredibly intelligent, but also very humble and he did everything he could to let me shine. The term “Servant Leadership” has recently gained popularity and that is Scott to the tee. I loved working for Scott because he let me run with my ideas while removing barriers. As a leader, it’s important to be able to delegate and let your team shine. Furthermore — he taught me to truly listen, to see the world from other people’s viewpoints, and to find the unique skillset in everyone. It is my responsibility as a leader at Fitness Together to harness the incredible talent across the franchisee system to help change the lives of more people to live happier, healthier lives.
We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
- We are creatures of habit and behavior change is hard. When there is a trigger that gets us excited (New Year’s resolution, bikini season, a reunion, etc.), people tend to set unrealistic goals. For example, someone who is barely working out thinks they will suddenly exercise every morning…they’ll go from eating poorly to eating a salad every day??? Again, changing habits are hard, especially entrenched ones so it’s important to focus on changing one small thing at a time — commit to drinking one more glass of water a day. Everyone wants the quick fix and the reality is there is no such thing — we need to focus on one SMALL change at a time. The real question is whether we have the resilience and patience to see these small changes into bigger ones — and for some of us, it helps to have a partner to keep us accountable, especially earlier in the journey.
- Our friends and family. Yup, your husband and best friend are probably your biggest (unwitting) saboteurs of your health goals. Everyone has heard it before, “just come out and have some pizza and one beer with me or let’s just stay in and watch a show.” It’s important to get your friends and family behind your goals to keep you on track. For example, I went out with my Fitness Together team for dinner. The waiter asked if we wanted bread and it was like she asked if we wanted poison! Everyone ordered salads. What do you think I ordered?
- Time. Time in and of itself is not a negative, but (lack of) prioritization is. Every single person will say (or has said) — I don’t have the time to exercise or eat healthy. Not true — it’s just not a priority. It sounds harsh, but write down everything you did today. What did you prioritize over doing 20 minutes of exercise? Some things might be easier to cut out like spending time on social media, but others can be harder like meeting a friend for a drink or spending time with your kids. Rather than looking at things as an either/or, try to find compromise and re-frame the choice. Meet the friend for a walk or workout instead. Play tag with your kids and get them involved in your active lifestyle. Life is full of tough choices — don’t make your health one of them!
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
Be Grateful — As a family, we end each day with three things for which we are thankful. It shifts your mindset immediately. If you only do one thing, I’d strongly recommend this one. My favorite part is hearing what my girls are thankful for. It can be really deep — the other day, my youngest thanked me for giving her life and for believing that she could actually be part unicorn! Or it can be a small thing like being able to get a co-worker to smile. I’m thankful that I’m resilient and that no matter what life throws at me, I will not only figure out a way but also find the silver lining!
Breathe — Okay, I know this sounds silly, but when I’m stressed, I sometimes find that I’m literally holding my breath. Yoga has taught me how to breathe better but I still need work! I try to practice when I’m in the car or whenever I’m walking my dog. Breathing properly allows me to be more mindful and simply slow down to take stock of the important things in my life — health, friends, family (and wine 😉)
Combine what you love — I’m an advocate of “relentless prioritization.” With two kids, a dog and a husband who also has a career, exercise can sometimes easily be forgotten. Therefore, I combine my family time with exercise — which for us can mean going for a hike, paddle boarding, playing tennis, playing tag, etc. From a social perspective, it may be family get-togethers at the pool or replacing a happy hour with a power hour of yoga instead! There are only so many hours in the day so if you can effectively multi-task and make things even more enjoyable, you have to take the opportunity.
Get outside — There are so studies about on the positive impact of spending time outdoors (always with sunscreen though!) I always try to be outside — whether that’s checking email on my deck to taking breaks to go for a quick walk. Fresh air and the sun always re-invigorate me.
Drink water — I know this is intuitive but it is one of the easier things you can change. It has such a positive impact on your body, especially when you replace water with (soda, coffee, fill-in-the-blank). I never go anywhere without my water bottle. A helpful tip to start positive changes — tie the change you want to something you are already doing. You need that trigger and that consistency so you don’t even have to think about it.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
Promotes Happiness: Talk to anyone that exercises regularly and they will say they are grumpy when they don’t get to exercise. Exercise provides an endorphin rush that makes you happy! What I didn’t realize are the longer-term benefits. A new study came out that exercise today has a positive effect on your personality/happiness two decades later. My husband works out a ton so I was teasing him that in 20 years he won’t be such a curmudgeon. I guess I’ll have to stick around that long in order to reap the benefits!
Minimizes Bone Density Loss: This is particularly relevant for women. As we age, we lose muscle mass. Women in particular tend to shy away from strength training for multiple reasons — they don’t like it, they think they are going to bulk-up, etc. But the benefits of strength training are significant so definitely look into a good strength training program to go along with your cardio program. Anyone with osteoporosis will tell you they wish they would have known this sooner.
Gives You More Energy: There is no doubt about the endorphin rush you get from a good workout to start the day. I’ve had many 5am mornings in the middle of the lovely Minnesota winters where nothing sounded better than staying in my warm bed. However, I can’t think of one instance when I dragged myself out of bed and through a workout, even a short 15 minute one, where I regretted it AND I generally found myself more productive and energetic those mornings! Coffee helps, but morning workouts + that morning coffee is nirvana 😉
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
I’m not trying to avoid this question, but it’s a really difficult one to answer. Your exercise routine should be personalized to you (e.g. age, level of fitness, ailments, etc.) for the best results. For example, the three exercises I might recommend for a 60 year-old woman with arthritic knees will be vastly different than what I might suggest for a 30 year-old male who isn’t getting enough sleep. This is what makes being healthy so hard. There are so many things to consider and so you have to be careful when you see a headline that says, “three easy exercises to a six-pack…” There is so much information out there that it can be overwhelming, but again, I think starting small is the way to go…and getting advice or a training program from a fitness professional isn’t a bad way to begin either!
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?
It is a myth that being sore is always the sign of a good workout. More importantly, what is the duration of the soreness? While a little bit of soreness can be fine, persistent soreness could be indicative of bigger issues. But I think a staple for most should be our good friend the form roller. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with it. One, I don’t like to take the time to do it and two, I have to fight off the good “pain” from foam rolling sore muscles. Another thing to look into is your diet. When you are building muscle you need more protein for muscle recovery. This is something I never get enough of and I have to make a conscious effort to eat a protein snack right after working out.
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
Once again, I’m not trying to avoid this question, but it’s a really difficult one to answer. Your nutrition plan should be personalized to you (e.g. age, current eating habits, ailments, etc.) for the best results.
I’m not a big believer in meal plans or diets, but instead the importance of teaching clients how to make smart choices and slowly change their behavior. Sticking to a diet or tracking your food can be incredibly time consuming and frankly, it simply isn’t practical for the majority of people. I try to keep it pretty simple: (i) drink a lot of water; (ii) eat (preferably) organic vegetables and LOTS of them (I’m lucky to have an amazing cook in my mother-in-law who makes them taste delicious); (iii) get enough protein (i.e. organic cage free chicken or plant based protein); and (iv) get healthy fats; which is somewhat difficult for those from earlier generations to take-up, but avocados are one of my favorites.
The above is my “foundation” but don’t let anyone fool you, I love my bread, coffee and wine!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Good to Great by Jim Collins. One of the key premises of the book is that great leaders focus on the who before the what. The best plan in place won’t be effective if you don’t have the right team to execute the plan. Earlier in my career, I focused more on developing the plan and not nearly enough on ensuring that I had the right people in the right seats. I wanted to move fast and thought that by putting together the plan myself (vs. bringing others along with you) was the fastest way to get things done. However, what took me awhile to discover is that you can’t go nearly as far! Now whenever I start a new job, I initially always focus on getting the right people in the right seats. This can apply to your personal life as well. Who is your support system? Life can be exhausting if you try to do it all yourself!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Focus on turning how we look at healthcare to be proactive vs. reactive. The majority of chronic illness can be prevented through exercise, nutrition and life-style changes yet our entire healthcare system is predicated on helping you once you are already sick. I used to think the best way to change that mindset was from within the healthcare industry, but I now see the biggest change happening from outside the industry. It is why I’m so excited to join the Fitness Together team. Why can’t Fitness Together influence looking at healthcare more proactively? A primary care doctor generally is not trained to put together a comprehensive exercise and nutrition plan for you nor do they have the time to help you change your behavior — again, their goal is to help treat you once you’re already sick. What if every primary care doctor could refer you to a health coach, personal trainer such as those we have at Fitness Together?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“When you try to be everything to everyone, you accomplish being nothing to anyone.”
— Bonnie Gillespie
Early in my career, I said yes to everything at work and yes to everything with family and friends. It was exhausting and frankly, I wasn’t doing anything well. It wasn’t until I had my fist child that I finally realized that I physically couldn’t do everything. It forced me to prioritize. I try to apply the above quote not only to my personal life but also to running businesses.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Melinda Gates. I was watching a Netflix documentary on Bill and Melinda Gates and as you might expect, it focused on the brilliance and single-minded nature of Bill Gates re: his desire to bring clean potable water to developing countries. However, it also showed how Melinda helps modify, tweak and challenge his ideas to ensure that it wasn’t just about the “product” (i.e. the toilet in this case), but also about the human experience. Bill approaches projects primarily from an engineer perspective while Melinda approaches them from a consumer one. In order to improve the health of America, we can’t continue to focus on reactive care, we have to approach it more proactively and understand consumer behaviors and to encourage small positive behaviors. Further, it was just announced that she’s committing significant resources to drive gender equality in the workplace, which is another cause near and dear to my heart as I consider the corporate world that my two daughters will eventually enter. I think she sets a great example for all leaders, women and men alike, in her philanthropic endeavors.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Instagram, Fitness Together: https://www.instagram.com/fitnesstogether/?hl=en