Fitness trainer Sheila Kalas advocates fitness over 50, not gym memberships

Sheila Kalas works with a client at Fitness Plus.
Sheila Kalas works with a client at Fitness Plus.


Sheila Kalas received her master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky, began training in 1989 and launched her business, Fitness Plus, in 1995. Sheila’s been watching trends, the aging population in particular, and is focused on raising the bar on her profession.

Q: You’ve been helping clients maintain fitness for a couple of decades now. Have you noticed a change in the typical age of clientele?

A: I’ve noticed a change in the interest of the typical age of the clientele and then I try to meet that interest. Aging baby boomers are incredibly interested in their health. They have worked very hard. They have made a lot of money. They want to enjoy a full retirement. And now, their health is front and center. And I noticed that there was a lack in the attention given to that population.

Q: I’d like to get your take on a recent study at the Mayo Clinic looking at aging’s toll on the body, all the way down to the cellular level, and how certain kinds of workouts may undo some of that damage.

A: They looked at certain types of exercise, high intensity exercise in particular. This is about changing how your cells reproduce. You’re a whole new you about every 21 days. Every time those cells reproduce we get a little weaker and that’s when we’re aging and losing elasticity. They showed that high intensity bouts of anaerobic exercise can change how cells reproduce. We started noticing that people who exercise at that high intensity level reproduce healthier cells.

Q: And what kind of exercise would that be?

A: The kind that most people don’t like. It’s the kind that gets you out of breath. It makes you uncomfortable. It needs to be done under supervision with somebody intelligent who knows how to put somebody in that position.

Q: Can you expand on the toll that aging itself takes on the body?

A: There’s a condition that was identified in 1986 called sarcopenia — the age-related loss of muscle mass. You don’t have to lose muscle mass when you age. But if you don’t intervene to stop it, you will. Muscles need to be challenged. You can start losing muscle mass at about age 35, but it becomes really exponential over age 50. It’s easy to lose one to three pounds of muscle a year over the age of 50. And since that’s often replaced with one to three pounds of fat, even if people say “Well, I weigh the same as I did in high school,” they look very different if they’re not intervening with specific strength training. If you challenge your muscles, your muscles will respond. The exercise physiology community did a study with 90-year-old people. These people were wheelchair bound. We put them in a circle and had them toss a beach ball to each other 3 days a week. And after 6 weeks, we measured strength gains in their muscles. They weren’t under a lot of stress. They were just throwing a beach ball. But from nothing, to doing that was the first time we realized that your body never loses the ability to build muscle. We thought it just went away with aging. It does not.

Q: Incidences of injuries and even death from falls increase with age. Why is that?

A: Over the age of 60, injuries from falls are the 6th leading cause of death. And this is mainly due to poor neuromuscular communication — how your brain talks to your muscles. Without regular exercise, your brain is not very well connected to the muscles in your body. So, when you slip, if you’re not able to get your hands out in front of you or turn your body, a lot of times you fall and you hit your head. That’s how people have serious injuries, head injuries, and even death. A little bit of exercise such as what we’re addressing in Strong Over 50 specifically targets increased neuromuscular communication. We want your brain to understand how to talk to your body better.

Q: Strong Over 50. What is it?

A: Strong Over 50 was developed by a man named John Stuef of Raleigh, North Carolina. He found me online and saw that I was addressing this population. We became a Strong Over 50 certified studio here in Kentucky. It mainly has to do with education. Strong Over 50 means that my trainers have a higher level of education and understanding about what happens to a body 50 years and older and how we should change training. The piece of equipment John Steuf came up with was an improvement on the TRX, a training device that uses your body weight.

It’s called suspension training. It hangs from the wall. The Navy Seals invented it. And it’s a great piece of equipment. But you need to be pretty coordinated to use it. John’s equipment was based on that. It’s a much safer version. It doesn’t put your joints at risk. It gives you different grips or ways to hold it. It moves better even if somebody has arthritis.

So, it’s a natural progressive movement from something that was invented maybe 15 or 20 years ago.

Q: Personal trainers are not licensed in the state of Kentucky. Anybody can be a trainer right now. Is that good or bad?

A: It’s terrible. It gives my field a bad reputation. The consumer is unaware of this. The word “certified” is used a lot. I’m a certified personal trainer. I challenge anybody to go on the web and search “personal training certifications.” Anybody reading this can, in less than a day, be a certified personal trainer. You can get online guaranteed-to-pass classes for $99 — “We’ll teach you everything you need to know about exercise physiology and anatomy in 25 minutes.” So, certifications don’t mean a thing, not that there aren’t some good ones out there. I have several, but I don’t hire anyone who doesn’t go to school to do this for a living. Certifications on top of education are fine. But having no minimum standards for somebody in what is basically the healthcare field is just shocking to me. I mean, your hair dresser needs a license, not to mention your physical therapist, your massage therapist, your occupational therapist, and of course your doctor. It’s a passion of mine to get this changed. And I will add that trainers are not required to have licenses in any state in the union, not just Kentucky.

Q: You’ve been working for several years on this?

A: In about 2011, we started something called the Kentucky Association of Wellness Professionals, a broad-based organization for independent healthcare professionals including personal trainers. We want to set standards for trainers. We went to the medical community first. And we found out the number one reason that doctors do not refer their patients to personal trainers is because trainers aren’t licensed and doctors don’t trust them. They want their people to have exercise, but they don’t want to send them to an uneducated person. So, we asked, “If there was a website that you could go to and you could see a list of qualified trainers, would this be a better way for you to refer?” They jumped on that. But without legislation to require licensing we’re not going to be able to get it done. We have some people in Frankfort that are willing to help us. And we hope that by getting the word out like this to consumers that something could happen.

Q: Getting any resistance to this from competitors?

A: There are lobbyists from two arenas right now in Frankfort that are waiting to fight this. One represents the big gyms. Our biggest gym chain in Lexington charges $45 for a 30-minute training session. So, that gym is making $90 an hour for training and that trainer is getting paid between $12 and $15 dollars an hour. The gyms are making big money. Licensing and higher education standards are going to mean that the wages are going to have to go up, so, big gyms are against it. And all of those businesses that certify people, they are big businesses and they make a lot of money certifying. They are lobbying against us, too.

Q: A lot of the big fitness centers and gyms sell memberships. They require advance purchases of packages of training sessions. You don’t do that. How come?

A: I worked in a gym for a while. I sat in on managerial meetings and learned that the goal of most gyms is not to get anybody healthier, but to sign people up for membership and hope that they never come. The average gym plans on only 4 to 10 percent of the membership coming on a regular basis. When I went to trade shows and seminars and sat in on talks about how to increase your bottom line, it was all about up-selling people and hoping they don’t cash in on things. Some of the big gyms might have 7,000 or 8,000 members, but they don’t have 7,000 or 8,000 treadmills. They only have to outfit for that 4 to 10 percent usage. So, that’s how you make money in the gym business and maybe people thought I wasn’t a good business person because I said when I start my business, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to let people control their money. They’re going to come and train. And if they find value in it, they’ll come back. We send our clients a monthly bill. Our clients respect that because we’re telling them that we respect them and their checkbook. I find it an excellent business model and our clients really appreciate it. And we have an incredibly low turnover of clients. We’ve trained people for 15 and 20 years because they trust us.

Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.

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