"I want everybody to understand that they’re worthy of taking care of themselves and that it is not selfish. That it’s your responsibility to your body, to your psyche, to the people in your life, to be the best possible human being you can be."
Suzanne Palazzo is the founder and CEO of Upper Deck Fitness in Stamford, Connecticut. Having set out on a mission to redefine the fitness culture, Suzanne is passionate about creating a space that prioritizes people over the bottom line and challenges individuals to determine the “why” behind wellness.
In this episode, Suzanne shares her entrepreneur story — discussing how she found her voice and unlocked confidence, empowerment, and emotional release through movement and detailing how a unique marriage between dancing and writing led to an unconventional approach to fitness and a fulfilling purpose.
Listen to the conversation to discover how Suzanne’s uncomplicated, unsexy view of fitness has led to long-term life change, both for herself and the clients she serves. For more inspiration, check out the full library of entrepreneur stories.
Joe: Hi there. I’m Joe, president and founder of Keyhole Marketing.
Shannon: And I’m Shannon Jirik. I work for Keyhole as the assistant brand manager.
Joe: And this is Metaphorically Speaking, a podcast that explores the mysterious side of marketing.
Shannon: Welcome to this episode of Metaphorically Speaking. We had the pleasure of chatting with Suzanne Palazzo, who is the creator and owner of Upper Deck Fitness in Stamford, Connecticut. So if you followed along from our last episode, due to just the coronavirus, we are still going back into the archives and kind of pulling out interviews that we did with entrepreneurs in years past.
So yet again, this is a conversation that happened many years ago, but we’re pulling it out because we think it’s a really inspiring conversation and relevant to people today.
So Joe, Connecticut, Colorado, nowhere close to each other. How in the world did you and Suzanne even get connected in the first place?
Joe: Yeah, that was back in 2005, I think, as we first initially met, mostly through email, phone calls probably. I was working at the time in Chicago downtown at a company called Information Resources, Inc. And they were a super sexy company. They would basically buy data from grocery stores, drug stores, that kind of stuff. And we would help out journalists as they would be putting a story together.
So maybe USA Today, Wall Street Journal was writing a story on Snickers sales or something from the last year. And we would just find out how much were sold in the last year and send them that data. So mostly it was me just navigating through spreadsheets and databases and pulling out boring facts and figures.
Shannon: You miss it. I can tell.
Joe: Yeah. Please, please let this podcast be my resume for them to hire me back. But-
Shannon: If you work for IRI, contact Joe today, right?
Joe: Yes. Actually my old boss does still work there. So anyways, she and I got connected. She worked, at the time, through … What was it? Grocery Headquarters, kind of a trade magazine that worked in that space, and periodically she would reach out to me for some data for a story she was doing. And it wasn’t too long in our first conversation where we realized we were both kind of like just worn out by our jobs, weren’t really fulfilled in those roles. And we probably spent more time commiserating on the work than we were actually doing the work.
Shannon: Yeah, getting paid.
Joe: Yeah, kind of. I wonder why they’re not going to hire me back. That’s weird. But no, it was a good friendship right out of the gate, and I guess it’s been 15 years that we knew each other. She worked there for a while and then started this thing a few years back. So yeah, it’s been a good friendship for a long time, and it’s so great to see kind of how far she’s come since then to start her own business.
Shannon: Yeah. I thought that conversation was just super inspiring, and you even just mentioned it. She just goes into detail about how she was kind of unfulfilled with where she was at and how that led her to, not even just initially starting Upper Deck Fitness, but just it led her in this path to where she is now.
And what I appreciated too, is she brought in such a good element of both being a writer and a journalist and a dancer, or somebody who’s passionate about fitness. And you can see just that combination collide so well, and she just articulates that so well. And I love how she just reframes the whole conversation around fitness.
For so many people, the motivation is really unhealthy, even though fitness feels like a healthy thing. And she just dived so much deeper than the physical attractiveness maybe that people want out of it or, ugh, this sucks. I’m in pain. I’m working out.
So I love how she just reframes that whole conversation, and her brand just kind of wrapped their arms around, how do we make fitness a lifestyle? How do we take it deeper? How do we actually listen to people? It isn’t just about going to the gym. It’s listening to their lives and being able to just mesh fitness and a healthy lifestyle into that. So I’m all worked up. I thought it was so cool, just listening to her talk about it and share her journey.
Joe: It sounds like you just got a workout in right there just kind of talking-
Shannon: I did, just like my heart rate is accelerating.
Joe: Perfect. She’ll be happy to hear that. No, I think what’s interesting too about her story as a dancer, I mean, she started dancing at such a young age and in an area of the country that it was a big deal. It wasn’t just sort of a side gig just to keep her away from her parents for four hours a day. It was a serious deal that was yeah, just pus really hard.
And I think she saw a lot of good from that, but she also saw a lot of negative from that. And she was able to kind of log, okay, how do we make these things healthy for people? And I don’t know that she saw it as a young age how she was going to use that, but it’s been fun to see how she’s made kind of the unhealthy parts of that transform into a healthy business and helped people see, not only how can I live physically healthy, but mentally healthy in the right place and see where should these things fit in the right place.
So it’s also kind of interesting, just in this time of life where we’re really trying to navigate through such a new experience, and it’s different for every person because we all already had our own baggage before COVID, and now we have new baggage that we didn’t expect. And just talking to her before we went live at this podcast, it was great to hear from her that her business is doing really well. They already had a virtual training business going so people can still get their physical health, but also can check in mentally and make sure that their mental health is strong as well.
So that was cool to see that they’re doing well, but also that people are still getting the treatment that they need during this time. So hopefully you’ll enjoy this conversation from a few years back and find some nuggets of truth that might be helpful for you as well.
Joe: You and I met a lifetime ago when I worked for IRI—a market research firm in Chicago and you worked for a trade magazine—Grocery Headquarters. I remember two things from back then: you were a writer and a dancer. And I always thought that was a really interesting pairing . Can you describe your journey through both of those art forms?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Sure. To me, both dancing and writing are forms of communication. I started training at the age of three recreationally, just because it was something to do. Relatively early on, I guess I showed some promise. I can remember from a young age, also, very quickly falling love with the physicality of it. Liking the concept of my body facing a challenge, replicating movement that I saw in somebody else. It’s certainly a visual art form, and as I grew older—by that, I just mean like into my teens—that’s when it started to become a form of expression.
Dance is ingrained in me. I consider it part of my DNA and to this day, even though I’m not actively performing and training, I would probably put dancer on the top 10 words I would use to describe myself. Because, to me, there’s a lot more to it than just an individual who performs. There are a lot of other skillsets and characteristics that became embedded in me through the dancing, such as discipline and work ethic and focus.
But, I danced through college. I went to Fordham University at Lincoln Center, where I trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for four years, and it was probably four of the toughest years of my life. And that’s saying a lot considering what I’ve been through since then, but it was a very trying program. It was kind of like a make you or break you type scenario. We started our freshman class with 30 dancers, and we graduated with half of that. During that time, I was very aware of what a career in the dance world would be like and knew that I needed to have a backup. That’s why I also studied journalism while I was at Fordham. That was kind of my Plan B.
Joe: Ahh okay.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Writing, kind of like dancing, was something that always came naturally to me. Again, it’s that communication piece. I love the concept of telling a story. I really enjoy being persuasive when I am passionate about something. I enjoy coming up with a compelling argument to get somebody on my side, so the two, during college, kind of dovetailed very nicely.
Then, I did dance professionally out of school, but learned very quickly that, from a lifestyle perspective, that pursuing a career in dance was not necessarily my forte.
To say it’s a labor of love is an understatement. You know, The Black Swan movie, there’s a lot of truth to that. In particular, quite honestly, I started to run into some issues. I guess this is kind of foreboding as I’m talking to you. I was running into issues with artistic directors—meaning, dealing with egos.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Telling me what to do, simply for the sake of telling me what to do. I had a voice and was told on more than one occasion to keep it quiet and that there was no place for it. That really never sat right with me.
One of the analogies I’ve always used is that being a dancer/performer is being a puppet in somebody else’s parade. It just wasn’t sitting right with me, so I made the excruciating decision to leave the dance world—much to my family’s chagrin.
At first, my thought was to pursue writing, and I was lucky enough to land an internship with a publication known as Dance Magazine. It’s the premier consumer publication for dancers. I started working there and really loved that lifestyle of editing and the fast-paced deadlines. It really suited me well because I was writing about dance. It was great.
Dance Magazine was owned by the same company that owned Grocery Headquarters. And while I was doing the internship, I ended up being offered a full-time position for a trade publication that, on the surface, I had zero interest in, but I took it because it was paying work. Things kind of escalated there in a great way very quickly, because I worked for a really awesome boss who saw that I had some talent and kind of let me take the ball and run with it.
While I was there, I stopped dancing. And instead, I became a gym rat, because I went from training and rehearsing eight hours a day to sitting behind a desk eight hours a day, so there was all this excess energy. I spent my free time at the gym and became very interested in fitness and just generally taking care of myself. I had to really pay attention to what I was eating because I wasn’t dancing eight hours a day anymore. I kind of became, in the office, this resident health person that people would come to and ask questions.
This was back in 2004 or 2005 . . .
Joe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: . . . when wellness, if you will, in grocery stores was just starting to make an appearance. There were new dedicated sections, and Whole Foods was starting to have a name for itself. My boss allowed me to create a section in the magazine that was about the selling and the marketing of natural and organic foods. I’m grateful for it because it allowed me to take this job at a trade publication that was seemingly pointless, and I kind of created something with it. I had a team of other editors and the art department that worked with me. It was the very early stages of some kind of management responsibilities and just creating something from scratch, which that process—the vision and implementation piece—I absolutely fell in love with.
But, it was a really neat opportunity. Like I said, the concept of creating something from nothing and nourishing it and watching it thrive is incredibly rewarding for me.
Joe: When you go from dancing eight hours a day to sitting at a desk eight hours a day, what are some health changes you had to make?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: It might seem silly because I was rather young at the time, but my body started to hurt from not moving. That was a real “Aha!” moment for me. Having danced for all those years, I knew the body was designed to move. So when I went from dancing all the time to sitting at work and commuting an hour and a half in each direction, my body, honestly, went from one extreme to the other. That piece was very challenging.
I also found that the lack of movement really affected my mood and not in a good way. Not only has movement always been a bit of an emotional release for me, but, in particular, movement is my primary source of confidence and empowerment.
And I also became curious about what I was putting in my body from a nutritional standpoint. What I started to learn was that when I was dancing I was very hyper aware of my intake—but in a negative way. I obsessed. I calorie counted. I journaled. I documented. I weighed myself on a regular basis. Tendencies I can now see, in hindsight, were very unhealthy.
A lot of the things I thought I was eating for health were really just fat-free, sugar-free, calorie-free things, because I was so focused on maintaining my weight, as opposed to the actual quality and nutrition of my food. I started to get a lot more interested into what I was eating.
And quite honestly, I didn’t have as much wiggle room. When you’re not dancing eight hours a day, you have to kind of be aware of quantity as well as quality. That was kind of a new place for me to be, but I became fascinated by it. I realized that there were so many people out there utterly confused about what they should and should not be doing, because there is so much conflicting information out there.
Joe: Yeah, yeah. I agree.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Unfortunately, it’s a big business, you know? I don’t know that people always understand that there are companies out there—and a ton of people in my industry—that ultimately don’t care about the true wellbeing of the individual. They are just trying to sell you a product or a service.
Joe: You eluded earlier to some hard things you’ve experienced in life. I’m curious if you wouldn’t mind sharing some of the Cliff’s Notes on those experiences?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Yeah, absolutely. There’s been a lot of uncertainty. To be clear, I’m incredibly blessed and fortunate and wouldn’t trade an ounce of my experiences thus far for anything. But I got married, and I got divorced. It was very unforeseen and turned my world upside down in a lot of ways. But it was part of a process of personal discovery and helped me land where I am right now.
While that was all happening, I left one really great job for what I thought was an even better one. That transition proved to be difficult and then the even better one proved not to be what it promised to be on the surface. At one point, I guess three years ago, I was divorced and unemployed. For me, in my young 30s, if you had ever told me that that’s where I would be, it felt like rock bottom.
At the time, I was very concerned about perception. I had worked very hard to build up both my personal and professional lives, and I felt like I was letting a lot of people down. Even though, in my heart of hearts, every decision I had made felt very right and very instinctual and very necessary. I can see now, without a doubt, that all of that change needed to happen to get me where I am right now, which feels incredibly right. But, it was a very challenging time, because every step of the way, every minute of the day, you’re basically asking yourself, “Am I doing the right thing?”
Joe: Oh for sure. Thank you for sharing that. So let’s go back to your childhood. You grew up in Connecticut, right?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Yes, Stamford, which is where Upper Deck Fitness is now..
Joe: Okay, yeah. Paint a picture of that area of the country—specifically the people and their lifestyles.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Sure. Stamford is located 40 minutes outside of New York City. It’s small town, yet with a big city feel. We have about 150,000 people here, with a very large commuter population. It’s not a huge city, but it went from being more of a village and “neighborhoody” to having these really amazing downtown and waterfront areas that are a real destination for people to live now. It’s been kind of incredible to watch grow.
The one downside, if you will, to the area for me, which has been challenging, is it is an incredibly Type A population—very high achieving and very affluent. It’s a very high-pressured lifestyle, to succeed, to do well, and to show that you’re doing well.
I say that it’s a challenge for me because I am a Type A person, so I sometimes get stuck in that need to prove myself, which I’m learning sometimes does more harm than good. For my business now, it’s a really amazing place to be, because we cater to those Type A personalities. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
Joe: So, without diving into the Upper Deck Fitness business just yet, talk a little bit about how fitness as a profession came on the horizon.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Yeah, I was at the magazine and kind of became the office health nut. People started asking questions and I just kind of sensed that there was a need to properly communicate information. That a lot of the confusion and a lot of the things people were doing incorrectly stemmed from the fact that not only that there was all this conflicting information out there, but that it wasn’t being dialed down to the basics. It was being made a lot more complicated than it needed to be.
And so that was where my writing brain kicked in, because I started to come up with ways to just—even in an e-mail—give somebody three bullet points of, “Here, do this, this, and this through the week and see how you feel.”
Also, while I was at Grocery Headquarters, I went to what’s called The Institute of Integrative Nutrition. I originally went to enhance my writing, because I was writing about this up and coming segment within the food industry. I thought I was going to learn a lot about food and nutrition. I really didn’t know until I got there that their main objective was to educate you so that you could become what they call a “Health Coach.”
While I was there, I started to kind of think what would be my style and approach if I was become a coach myself? Everybody has their own platform, their own philosophy, what they stand behind. Some of it I thought was crazy. Some I thought didn’t resonate with me. But I started asking myself, “who would I want to attract? What would be my messaging?”
I started to kind of toy with the idea of going into the industry. All the while, I was getting sick and tired of sitting at a desk all day. The handwriting was kind of on the wall, that as long as I continued in the publishing field, there was going to be a lot of sitting, a lot of kind of stagnate work.
Joe: I hear you.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: So, again, I was blessed with a boss who gave me the opportunity to start dabbling in it, while maintaining some freelance work so I didn’t have to jump ship completely in order to try it out. I started promoting myself kind of loosely with friends and family and offering some services for little to no fee, just to kind of get some practice. That’s kind of initially how I dabbled.
I went and got some fitness certifications that I needed to obviously do things authentically. It was a very gradual, yet organic, process. Over time, the training and the nutrition piece became more, and I started to freelance write less. Eventually, I was able to drop the writing altogether and work in fitness full time.
Joe: That’s excellent. And then, while it might be a big jump forward from that point in your career, what led you to start Upper Deck Fitness?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: Yeah. I will say, honestly, that business ownership was never on my bucket list. Both of my parents owned their own business when I was a child, and I was very aware of the level of sacrifice that owning a business required. I was also aware that a steady paycheck and health insurance and paid time off was a gift, so business ownership was not my end all be all.
But, I worked two jobs managing very big health clubs. What I learned during that time, or what I took away, was that there are a lot of things wrong with the fitness industry—with the way that it is structured. It’s not always providing solutions. In fact, it’s very rarely focused on that. It’s a business. It’s focusing on a bottom line, getting people in the door, and getting them to commit to something. Whether or not they actually come in and utilize the services is irrelevant, because you have their money.
Not only did that not jive with me ethically, but I saw an opportunity to solve some pretty fundamental problems.
I think everybody knows that they should be eating well and working out and exercising. The question is why aren’t more people doing it? So, I saw the chance to create a facility—to create a brand, quite honestly—that got to the heart of those issues and offered staff that was a resource in and of themselves to get people to consistently move and exercise. Granted, everybody wants to get healthy and lose weight, but those are the pleasant side effects, if you will, of just getting into a regular routine of taking care of yourself. It’s kind of reframing the equation.
Joe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: I’ve always wrestled, very much so, with the aesthetic component of this industry—on both sides. One is that the consumer typically comes into a gym because they want to alter their appearance. I’d say 90 percent of the time, that’s the case. On the flip side, the professionals in the industry are typically very absorbed with their appearance and use their physicality to sell their brand and their philosophy. I’ve wrestled with this a lot because I don’t want that to be the main motivation for somebody to come into Upper Deck or to work with me.
Yes, I take very good care of my body—and I feel that the way it looks is a direct result of that—but I don’t want that to be the driving force. Honestly, it’s been my own personal transformation in that regard. For so long, movement was about altering my appearance, and it’s not anymore for me. It’s become something so much bigger and momentous than that. And if I can do that for people and get them to change their relationship with themselves through their relationship with movement, then I’ve completely done my job.
Joe: Interesting. Why was that moment in time when you decided to start that business the right moment for you?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: It was 100 percent out of necessity. I was divorced and unemployed. And in the fitness industry, there’s a bit of a ceiling. Either you’re a full-time great trainer and make very good money, or you run some sort of facility on the management side. I had done both of those things and neither of them felt like enough for me. They just didn’t feel fulfilling. I didn’t want to go back to running another big health club. I knew I was only going to run into the same problems again, so it really became a necessity. I had to create something for myself that, A, I could earn a living doing, and B, became reflective of my own personal mantra.
Joe: Going back to your own question, “Why aren’t more people eating well and exercising?” What are some of the answers you’re finding to that question?
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: There are a few. Some of them are very practical, as in, things aren’t convenient. Fitness is not always accessible to some people. It often comes, particularly in our neck of the woods, with a very high price point. That’s one very big fundamental problem.
The other is a little bit more structural in that people don’t do things with consistency. The reason for that is they don’t enjoy what they’re doing. I always use Zumba as an example. Nobody thought Zumba was going to be what it is and stick around as long as it has. The reason it has is because people love to dance. They take a class and love it. They’re having fun. They feel amazing. What do they want to do? They want to go back the next day. It’s reframing movement not as a chore, but rather something that your body was meant to do and can actually be a pleasant part of the process. It’s a really big piece of the equation.
I think a lot of people hate to exercise because they’ve been doing the wrong types. It’s like when somebody says to me, “I hate to run. It hurts, but I do it anyway.” It’s the most asinine thing I could possibly hear.
Joe: For sure.
Suzanne, Upper Deck Fitness: The third piece of the puzzle to me, which is perhaps the most important, is very philosophical, if you will. It’s because people are lacking the motivation—the reason why—they want to be a better version of themselves.
I think most people don’t understand how absolutely incredible they can feel, both physically and mentally. They have no real point of comparison. They’re more apt to be content with where they are than to strive for better. They may be in a relationship or a professional job situation where they’re put down on a regular basis. Their self-esteem is in the gutter, and that’s where they reside.
I think when somebody is truly fueled with a why, that’s a pretty profound thing. Simply wanting to lose weight or look good in a pair of pants is not enough motivation to keep you going for a lifetime. You need to find something bigger and better than yourself. It’s almost spiritual, quite honestly, to take it to that place. But I think a lot of people are lacking that because for so long exercise has been this thing that a doctor tells you to do because you’re overweight or your cholesterol’s high. It’s punishment.
Suzanne: You know? Now, granted, we’re shifting a lot because the fitness industry has taken off considerable. Now there’s SoulCycle and all of these great places where people can go and listen to awesome music and have fun. That also comes with a bit of a price tag too.
Joe: Yeah, but even there I think the underlying message is to look more amazing.
Suzanne: Yes, 100 percent.
Joe: So now that I have a better understanding of what differentiates you in the market, how do you make yourself appealing to people when everything in culture tells us other things—like fitting into those jeans from the 80s—is the key driver?
Suzanne: It’s a great question. I think about it on a daily basis, because I told my team before we opened our doors that what we were proposing to do wasn’t sexy.
Suzanne: And I get that. However, I think there is such an insatiable need for what we’re doing.
For example, you might see on our social media that our two biggest hashtags are #BecauseICan and #WorkInProgress. What we strive to do is talk to the real people in the world who are not a size zero and understand that they really don’t even need to be. We profile ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So, #BecauseICan, for example, has become this rally cry.
And I am so blessed. I get so much correspondence on a regular basis from my clientele telling me that they picked up a 40-pound bag of dog food. They threw it in the trunk like it was a pillow, and they were never able to do that before.
So, by profiling those types of stories we become very relatable. Because that’s, again, going back to why people aren’t exercising more. This industry is completely intimidating. I hesitate to put myself in my own marketing, because people look at me and think, “I can never look like that,” and that’s not the message I want to send.
We have a client here who we share a lot in our marketing. He’s lost 120 pounds and he still has room to go. This guy has done it all the hard way. It’s taken two years to lose the weight. He is exactly the type of poster child I want to have. He’s a divorced Dad. He’s a working professional. He is exactly who I want to represent the Upper Deck brand.
[pullquote]I think one of the main reasons we are standing out right now is because our messaging is so different. It’s because we’re not posting people in yoga poses, headstands and lululemon clothes all the time.[/pullquote]
Joe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne: I’ll be honest. I think one of the main reasons we are standing out right now is because our messaging is so different. It’s because we’re not posting people in yoga poses, headstands and lululemon clothes all the time.
We are attracting a crowd of people that nobody has been talking to, and, as a result, our clientele skews more mature. By that, I mean our core demographic is between 40 and 55 years old, and then we have clients in their 70s. We have very few 20-somethings that work out here. I think it largely has to do with our messaging.
Joe: That makes sense.
Suzanne: We’re attracting a crowd who, like you said, has tried every damn diet on the planet. Who has been to every gym and fitness center and who is finally understanding that they need a combination of hard work and some education in order to make this work.
As a result, from a business perspective, they’re an incredibly loyal consumer base. They have the disposable income at this point in their life and they understand the value of making an investment in themselves. They’re seeing results. And our crowd—even though I obviously believe our workouts are top-notch—is not going to run out the door when the next fad—Orangetheory, SoulCycle, fill in the blank—opens down the block.
They don’t care about that stuff. They don’t go to a gym to be seen. They go to a gym, yes, to see the people that are there, because the community we’ve created here is a big piece of the accountability side of things. But, they go to get the work done and to spend some time on themselves as opposed to, again, making it such an outward activity.
Joe: How does that actually work? If I were to come into your place, am I signing up for programs? Am I signing up for a membership to the club? Am I working with you first hand to determine what it is I even need?
Suzanne: Yeah, all great questions. I can’t express how much thought went into our strategy and our approach. We have built our brand around a concept I created, called Prescribed Fitness. Basically, what that means is that, depending on what your goals are, you need to follow a bit of a protocol. In that everybody should not be doing the same thing or just coming in and haphazardly taking classes, based randomly on a class schedule. There’s a lot of logic behind what we do and when we do it.
First things first, we don’t have a membership. We consider that to be a major feather in our cap. Everything here is pretty much a la carte, pay as you go. You pay for what you need and when you need it. Before I opened the doors, a lot of people told me that it was brilliant, but really risky from a business perspective. They were right on both accounts. It’s risky in that we don’t have a steady monthly income. Meaning, I don’t know what next month’s going to look like.
Suzanne: Now, on the flip side of that, it forces us to be on our A game, to make sure we are constantly providing an incredible customer service experience from the minute somebody walks in the door until they leave and then some. We’re the gym that checks in with people when they don’t show up.
It’s also been a major selling point to get people in the door. People don’t want to commit to something before they know they really like it. They sign their life away at another gym and then for the next year—whether they use it or not—it’s getting auto deducted out of their checking account.
Suzanne: When people hear that, it makes the point of entry very accessible. And as a result, our attrition rate is incredibly low. Once people are here, they’re pretty much not leaving.
So getting back to your question, when somebody comes through the door, the first thing they do is get a consult with me. I literally spend an hour of my time with somebody having a pretty in-depth conversation about their health history, their goals, their lifestyle. Are they a corporate exec? Are they a stay-at-home mom? Do they travel a lot? What does their life look like? Only then can I give them their prescription.
The prescription can contain one or many things, ranging from classes on our class schedule to private training to massage to some nutritional support. Usually, the prescription they’re given is something that we ask them to follow for about a month. Kind of like, “This is where I think you should start. Can you meet me halfway, say you’ll at least try this for a month, and see where we land?”
Joe: I see.
Suzanne: Again, we’re here to hold them accountable for that. When somebody looks me in the eye and says, “I really want to do this, but I need your help,” they’re going to get that. We run something called our MIA Report each week. And if somebody hasn’t been in for a few days, they’re getting a phone call, a text message, an e-mail from us.
It’s very hands on. I don’t mind holding hands, so to speak. Some trainers have egos that they shouldn’t have to do that. Kind of like, “Pay me for my time, show up, I’ll kick your butt.” I just think that’s wrong and so incomplete. If we are not addressing with the client what’s going on in their life outside of the hours during the week they spend with us, we’re never going to make true progress with them.
Joe: Yeah, I think many of the other fitness models ignore all the history that one walks in the doors with: their misconceptions, their shortcomings, their mental struggles, their self-esteem. How much do you dive into some of that?
Suzanne: I consider it some of the most important use of my time here. I get pretty deep. Everything is confidential, and you’d be surprised what people share with you. I’m pretty certain that people are desperate to be heard in our world now. Whether they’re unhappy at work or in their marriage, they want a sounding board. They want to be able to be acknowledged for their feelings and to tell somebody that. People share a lot with me.
Simply asking people what they do for a living, asking if they enjoy their job, asking them some very basic questions will open up a whole world of information that will tell you a lot about that person—whether or not they’re a self motivator, how they perform, etc. I can tell so much about a person by the way they approach a workout, and vice versa, by what they tell me they have going on in their everyday lives.
That to me is the beauty of fitness. There is such a parallel between our relationship with our bodies and movements in how we approach things in our day-to-day lives.
Joe: You’re treating the individual and not just the symptoms.
Suzanne: For sure, which again in my world, the symptom is, “I need to lose weight,” or, “I was injured and I need to recover from it,” as opposed to treating the individual as a whole.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, everybody who comes into my facility has tried out at least a dozen other things in their lifetime or has gained weight/lost weight, you know, etc. At the end of the day, I want to stop that pattern of ebbing and flowing and figure out what that person needs in order to thrive consistently.
Joe: And so do you have people who walk into your office, you meet with them for an hour, and determine they’re not the right fit for your model?
Suzanne: Yes, I have. It’s people who throughout the course of the conversation make it very clear that they’re looking for results very quickly. A, I will never promise something that I cannot deliver on and B, just that quick fix mentality really flies in the face of what we’re trying to do here—which is to create some rhythm and make this about the process itself. The hashtag #WorkInProgress is there to remind all of us that there’s no real end game.
Of course we want you to reach the goals that you’re articulating, but this is a process and something that could be really fulfilling and enjoyable if you view it in that way.
Joe: Even that word “process” kind of rubs me the wrong way because it seems to imply that there’s a starting and an ending.
Suzanne: Yes. You do this, this, this, and this. With our prescribed fitness, we do give somebody something to follow, but then we’re constantly checking in with them. Life does ebb and flow and there are certainly curveballs in life. For example, God forbid, if somebody loses a family member. Their parent passes away and their life’s been turned upside down. We’re going to tweak the prescription because what you need right now is different than what you needed when you walked in the door two months ago.
I think it’s one of the things really lacking in the fitness world. We don’t step back to reassess. Our approach to our health should ebb and flow with us. Sometimes we have to change our standards or expectations to take it a little bit easier. Dial it down, because the rest of our life is kicking our butt at the moment. We’re there to be that guide and, conversely, to tell somebody that they do need to kick it up a notch.
Joe: Last question, you’ve alluded to it a few times, but what’s the one—or a handful of things— you hope people take away from Upper Deck Fitness?
Suzanne: I really hope to change people’s relationship with themselves. By that, I mean, obviously, this health care piece. I want everybody to understand that they’re worthy of taking care of themselves and that it is not selfish. That it’s your responsibility to your body, to your psyche, to the people in your life, to be the best possible human being you can be. First and foremost, I pray for that, and I really hope that in that people start to view exercise differently: as a gift and a vehicle for that type of personal transformation.
I’m not trying to say that exercise is butterflies and sunshine all the time. We all have days where we push ourselves through a workout when there are 20 other things we’d rather do. Sometimes it doesn’t feel great. But what you learn about yourself through the process—doubting yourself and then overcoming that—can be life changing when translated to your everyday life. It has been for me. Fitness gave me the strength—physically and mentally—to make some of the biggest, hardest decisions in my life, because I felt secure who I was and who I was becoming.
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