If you had ever told me that I would look forward to cleaning dog kennels on my days off, I would have thought you were one sick puppy. Yet that’s exactly what I rush off to do every Thursday afternoon when I volunteer at our local humane society. In fact, I consider my role as a bone-a fide animal groomer/walker/
pooper-picker-upper to be one of the most rewarding “jobs” of my career.

Clearly, I am in good company. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteerism is on the rise. Approximately 63.8 million Americans performed some type of unpaid work in the period from September 2002 to September 2003 (U.S. DOL 2003).

The number of volunteers has risen steadily over the past decade, especially among young people and women. And their efforts are a valuable commodity: In 1998, the volunteer workforce represented the equivalent of more than 9 million full-time workers, whose combined efforts were worth a whopping $225 billion (Points of Light Foundation 2000)!

Are you interested in becoming a volunteer yourself but unsure how to get started? We examined trends and demographics in volunteerism to see where you might fit in. We also asked your fitness professional peers to tell us about their volunteer causes and how giving back has enriched their own lives in the process. Finally, we polled our own ranks to see what IDEA staffers are doing to make the world a better place.

Come Together

Although volunteers come in every size and color in the United States, certain trends are noteworthy. Women tend to volunteer their time more often than men,
regardless of age group or education level. In fact,
approximately 32.2% of women did volunteer work in the year that ended September 2003, compared to 25.1% of men (U.S. DOL 2003).

As a rule, people 35-44 years old are most likely to volunteer, followed closely by those 45-54. Among teenagers, the volunteer rate is increasing. Adults who are 65 and older devote the most time—a median of 88 hours per year—to volunteer activities (U.S. DOL 2003). Surprisingly, the rate of volunteerism is higher among those who are employed than those who do not hold a full- or part-time job.

Most people who volunteer their time are involved with one or two organizations. Older volunteers gravitate toward religious organizations, whereas parents with school-age children tend to volunteer for educational or youth-oriented causes, such as school projects and Little League.

Volunteering is also an emerging trend among fitness professionals. In last year’s IDEA Trendwatch report, 16 of the 20 survey participants polled said they donate personal training sessions or club memberships to charity to promote goodwill and give back to their communities (Lofshult 2003).

Across the Universe

Compassion, interest and perspective are some of the reasons that fitness professionals cite when asked why they volunteer their time.

“In keeping with IDEA’s goal to Inspire the World to Fitness®, my goal [in volunteering] is to create awareness and help individuals from all countries understand that fitness is necessary for a great quality of life,” says Lawrence Biscontini, 2004 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and group fitness manager of the Golden Door Spa in Puerto Rico.

In addition to volunteering his time to teach yoga to incarcerated youth twice a month, in 1998 Biscontini founded a nonprofit group called Fitness Group 2000 (FG2000), which provides free continuing education for fitness instructors in Third-World countries in South America and Eastern Europe. “It’s a really rewarding organization that provides cutting-edge programs for people who cannot afford to attend regular fitness conventions.”

Some fitness professionals are veterans when it comes to volunteering their time. “I’ve always believed in giving back to my community,” says Suzanne Nottingham, fitness director for the Double Eagle Resort and Creekside Spa in June Lake, California. “I think my first volunteer work was when I was in seventh grade and worked with kids with muscular dystrophy.” These days, Nottingham supports a number of causes. “From sick community members to youth sports, there are so many good causes,” she says, “and giving an hour or two, or more, of my week is really insignificant.”

Nottingham sees her volunteer work as an extension of her fitness career. “I live in a small town, so even if teaching fitness isn’t the main objective of my volunteer work, everyone here knows that’s what I do,” she says. “I am ultimately a fitness spokesperson and am happy to share information.”

Like many parents, Nottingham is involved in her children’s school activities. “I train cheerleaders and coach youth soccer. At the spa where I work, I also volunteer as a personal trainer for at-risk members who don’t have [the money] for training.”

Nottingham also enjoys volunteering with older adults. “To do this, I hang out in senior centers, which has its perks, like playing bingo!”

Ask Me Why

Like Nottingham, Justin Price believes that his volunteer work has paid dividends. “It is a way of increasing awareness of the types of services I provide,” he says. Price, a San Diego-based personal trainer and biomechanics specialist, has provided free sessions to charitable organizations and medical professionals in his neighborhood and also has “severely reduced” his rates for clients with Parkinson’s disease. “I have also offered my time and services in the form of gift certificates that I donate to charity fundraiser events like silent auctions.” Price was motivated to volunteer after several clients approached him about donating his time.

Nicki Anderson gravitated to volunteering after she became involved with her local chamber of commerce and school district in Naperville, Illinois. Her company, Reality Fitness Inc., regularly donates services to youth organizations, such as Brownie troops. “We teach them the value of a healthy body,” she says.

She is also part of a program called “Girls on the Run,” a national organization that teaches girls how to strength train, and another organization called “Meld Young Moms,” which promotes health and fitness for teenage mothers and their children. “I also volunteer my time going into the schools to talk to kids and their parents about the value of regular exercise and sound nutrition,” says Anderson.

Like many mothers, 1999 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Mindy Mylrea was motivated to volunteer in her community when her children first attended school. “For the past 14 years, I have volunteered one day a week teaching children’s fitness in the Santa Cruz City School District,” she explains. “I try to make physical education and fitness fun by involving all the kids and making them all feel special by letting them show off their unique talents. It’s rewarding to know that you are making a difference in children’s lives.”

Can’t Buy Me Love

Lori Chaplin, owner of Sol Gyms in San Francisco and San Diego, became a volunteer through serendipity. “A situation finds you, and you feel compelled to help,” she says. “It’s not money driven or ego driven. It’s just something you must do.”

Chaplin, who donates personal training sessions to clients with disabilities who can’t afford to pay, got started when she was teaching adaptive physical education at City College in San Francisco. “A young woman with severe stroke symptoms came in using a wheelchair. I felt bad for her and told her that I would train her for free if she kept it a secret. It has been about 10 years now, and she’s never left. The most amazing thing is that she walked a marathon in Jamaica last year!”

While watching a client go from a wheelchair to a marathon is quite an accomplishment, Chaplin says she is most proud of the fact that this special client recently walked to the gym by herself. “I cried that day. She didn’t tell me she was going to do that. Her tenacity got her there. What a survivor!”

Fundraisers are another great way to help your community, says Amanda Vogel, vice president of FitCity for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia, which occasionally holds free group-taught fitness classes for local charities. “Volunteering my time and instructing skills for special fund-raiser classes is one way that I have been able to give back to my community,” she says. “I really like being able to share the experience with other fitness instructors as well. Group exercise instructors rarely get the chance to teach together and socialize in a class setting, so it’s always a lot of fun and a great way to build team spirit.”

Alex McMillan, co-owner and president of Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington, considers fundraising an important business priority. “We’ve made it a regular part of our company’s yearly agenda to dedicate specific dates and times to donate to community events and services,” he says. “We volunteer at community youth shelters and assisted living [centers] and help out at charity auctions that raise money for low-income populations and for organizations such
as the American Heart Association.”

Although McMillan says that volunteering provides the “satisfaction of being part of a greater purpose,” he also points to other, more practical rewards. “I have created many new client relationships from volunteering my time and services. Not only is volunteering time a good thing to do as a human being; it also establishes you as a leader in your community. This leads to exposure that you may not have expected, as well as recognition as a giving member of society.”

We Can Work It Out

Volunteering may inadvertently boost your business, but Anderson insists that it’s not all about the bottom line. “Sure, there is a definite perk as far as [personal] exposure, but there are so many other rewards,” she says. “As a business owner, you should be a role model for your staff, to show them it’s about what we are able to give to others. Volunteering adds to your credibility and shows [others] what you value.”

Anderson said one of her most rewarding experiences is holding an annual essay contest in which the winning author is awarded 12 weeks of free personal training sessions. “This year’s winner was a cancer survivor who lost 25 pounds, lowered her triglyceride level and blood pressure, and now feels that she has her life back. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being able to make such a difference. It’s an amazing feeling!”

When it comes to finding a volunteer cause to support, Mylrea encourages fitness professionals to “just do it!” “We owe it to our communities to give our gift. We were all given this amazing gift to be able to teach, and we need to reach out to the people who really need it.”

According to Nottingham, helping others lead a healthier life is more than worth the effort in the long run. “Know that you’ll never make cash,” she warns. “Instead, you will make friends. Step outside yourself for 1 hour a month, and it will feel like therapy for your spirit. Sometimes I feel elated, and other times I am sad because I know that my little, meager effort won’t really make that much of a difference. But I have faith that somewhere along the line, I will have influenced people to live longer.”