Interview with Margaret Treland, Chief of the Air Force Fitness Branch, San Antonio


Hi and welcome to Club Industry’s Fitness Business Pro’s Executive Insights podcast. I’m Jennipher Shaver, senior associate editor for the magazine, and I’m joined here today by Margaret Treland, chief of the Air Force Fitness Branch for the Headquarters Services Agency in San Antonio, TX. The branch provides program direction, technical guidance, and administration of the Air Force Fitness program to increase fitness and readiness and reduce health risks while enhancing quality of life of airmen. Treland is responsible for providing functional guidance and oversight for the Fitness Center Master Plan, assisting bases with fitness center design and construction projects, developing operational and procedural guidance, and providing staff assistance for Air Force fitness and sports centers worldwide.
In the first seven years of her Air Force career, Treland held base level positions at Kelly Air Force Base and Lackland Air Force Base fitness centers in San Antonio, TX, managing fitness and wellness programs there. In a previous position at the Services Agency, she served as the Air Force Fitness program manager. Treland has a degree in physical education, specializing in exercise science, from Texas A&M.

Q: So, let’s go ahead and get started. How are you doing today, Margaret?

A: Great, Jennipher. Thank you.

Q: First off, how has the importance of fitness in the Air Force changed in the last five to 10 years and is there a greater emphasis on being fit?

A: Well, the Air Force has changed to quite a bit of a degree. Many people have maintained their mission readiness on their own. However, the Air Force has now embraced the Fit to Fight culture, where they are actually encouraging and allowing PT, physical training, for the military people three times a week during the duty day. That was a significant change for our environment, compared to some of the other services that may have been doing that already.

And is there a greater emphasis on being fit? Yes, there is. And part of that, as we embrace this culture of the mandatory PT, is where we’re allowing the duty-day opportunity for the military members to maintain their mission readiness. It’s the vital key to the success of our mission, and it gets them ready for the deployment and to maintain the sustained fight on the war on terrorism.

Q: In terms of how Air Force Fitness is operated and its mission, how do your fitness facilities differ from the typical health clubs that are in a non-military base environment?

A: Well, our primary mission is to support the unit commander, the commander’s fitness program for his or her people to maintain the mission readiness. As we support the commander, we’re also supporting their staff members who conduct the unit’s PT programs for their units. So our staff, in conjunction with the health and wellness center staff, train the unit PT leaders how to run and manage their unit PT programs. For the most part, a lot of those folks are not functional fitness experts. They’re people who are either interested in fitness themselves, take an active role in it or are in good leadership positions. So as the unit commanders are responsible for the PT programs, they have by then identified these PT leaders who will lead their program. So the fitness center staff trains those individuals.

The second part of our mission is to also provide enhanced fitness programs and sports events. So that as a whole makes us different from the way industry operates. Our mission readiness is our primary responsibility.

Of course, the other part being that we don’t focus on selling memberships. We’re there providing this service for the most part free of cost. There might be certain enhanced programs where we have to bring in specialized contractors where there is a fee for service. However, our objective is not to make a profit. We’re there to provide a service for our customers and to maintain mission readiness.

Q: What about in terms of design, programming and pricing and staffing? Are there a lot of big differences than you would see from a traditional health club, say when it comes to the group exercise schedule or something like that?

A: We have made tremendous strides over the past 15 years in our group exercise programming. We might have had classes three times a week. Now people are having classes five and 10 times a day. The variety and the number of our classes is very consistent with what you’d find in the industry.

And the same thing for facility design. Being involved in the project for the fitness center design construction since 1998, a lot of our facilities are consistent with industry, if not better. We use the American College of Sports Medicine’s health and fitness facility guidelines, as well as the Air Force and DoD (Department of Defense) facility standards, and many of our new facilities are tremendously well designed and very appealing aesthetically, not only just functionally but also aesthetically pleasing. So, we’re doing a good job of providing a pleasant, attractive environment for our customers.

The staffing is also very consistent with industry. We have a tiered training approach, where we start out with on-the-job type training, in-house training from the health and wellness center staff, in-house training from the fitness center staff, and then they also do Air Force training out at Lackland Air Force Base and the Service Academy. And then some individuals will be selected to do follow-on advanced training with commercial industries, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the Cooper Institute and some of the other industries that provide certification that we find meets the needs of our customers and our staff.

Q: Now how closely do you follow the for-profit and nonprofit fitness facilities, like the Ys, and how much do you learn or take from them when it comes to retention or staffing or programming or pricing?

A: One of the things we learned or have learned over time [is that] customer service is very important to keeping the customers coming back. So even though we’re not charging them [for] the for-profit activities, we know that customer service keeps them coming back.

Quality of equipment is important—equipment that’s well maintained. One of the frustrating things, when I’ve been out in the industry, is to see signs on the equipment, even to be on the equipment. ‘Oh, the equipment’s not working.’ That sort of thing.

Those are some of the things that we’ve learned from them, that it’s important for retention to maintain good customer service, the quality of equipment, as well as credentialed staff members who are available to assist them with their programming, even personal trainers or group exercise instructors. And another, too, is to keep up with the programming trends that are successful in the sector. We’ll sometimes watch them because we can’t always bring them in due to funding limitations, but things like yoga and Pilates, most of our facilities are offering those types of programs now because it’s what the customers want. If they get outside the gate and can come get it on base, they usually give recommendations to the staff and when possible, [the staff will] add it to the course curriculum.

Q: What about Vanderberg’s Air Force Base (CA). It’s under construction currently, and it’s following LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines to be greener. Are other facilities or other fitness centers doing similar initiatives to go green?

A: Yes. A new Air Force policy requires that the MILCON project, military construction project, receives a minimum of silver rating for LEED. Previous fitness center construction with the LEED rating includes Barksdale Air Force Base (LA), and Tyndall Air Force Base (FL) is currently under construction and will have a minimum of silver and targeting gold. Then there are some other Air Force facilities that also have the LEED certification that are non fitness-related: the library, support center and satellite fire station. That kind of shows you that this is the direction Air Force is going, to follow the LEED certification, and, as I stated, it’s an Air Force policy for that.

Q: Do airmen have any unique fitness needs that Air Force fitness professionals have to work with or work around?

A: In some degrees, yes. One of the unique challenges is providing fitness in a wartime environment, unlike industry fitness facilities [that] don’t have to go out and work in a deployed area and provide fitness for their folks in a war zone. Another unique need is providing our airmen who have duty-limited conditions [with] the same fitness opportunities as their customers. So, whether they’re limited due to injury of war, surgery or some other accident, the programs have to be adapted accordingly. Our fitness professionals are trained to work with the exercise prescription that would be passed down from the individual’s physician, physical therapist or the exercise physiologist.

Q: In your experience, what’s the most challenging part of running an Air Force fitness facility?

A: Probably one of the biggest things is when funding becomes limited. It has a direct impact on our programs, the equipment procurement and the maintenance, civilian and military staff training. We might get them initially trained, but we can’t do the continuing education or follow-on [training]. That’s one of the greatest challenges for our directors out in the field and continuing to meet customer expectations when the funding becomes limited. Because they have high expectations, because they’ve always seen a lot of programs and now all of a sudden, we’ve had to cut back either due to staff reasons, the inability to fund these additional programs or the supplies needed for them.

Q: So what are some of the ways that you get around that or save some money here or there to still put out that good product without going over budget?

A: What some of the facilities do is get volunteer instructors. What we might do is send somebody to become a Spinning certified instructor, and then that person will conduct classes free of charge, so we don’t incur the costs of a daily contractor fee for performing the class. We just have that initial cost of the certification for the course and then that person comes back and conducts a class for free for a predetermined period of time. Another way [is that] they’ll send the staff members to certification for the specific type of activities, and then it’ll be the staff that conducts the courses.

Q: What about the obesity epidemic? Obviously, it’s big in this country. Has that affected Air Force Fitness in any way, and are you seeing more overweight patrons in your fitness centers?

A: Well, since the Air Force community is just a subset of the overall population, you know we do see individuals who are increased in body weight. So when these individuals are cleared for activity, they’ll come in, and our fitness staff is ready and able to assist. We don’t track the statistics on whether or not [they’re overweight] or a daily head count of overweight people coming in. That’s just a number we don’t have.

Q: What can for-profit and nonprofit health club owners outside of the military learn from the Air Force? What can they learn from your fitness centers and your experience?

A: One of the things is the continuity of training. In our Air Force fitness facilities and our programs, we ensure all our staff members who are working with customers receive similar training, which then provides the continuity and consistency to our customers. So, I think another thing they can probably learn from [us]—and of course the YMCAs have a lot of the sporting events, but more of the health club type—very few of them offer sporting events or gymnasiums and that sort of thing. And that is a really big draw in the Air Force facilities. Some in the health club industry could benefit from providing more sporting opportunities, and they could expand their clientele by offering programs of that nature.

Another thing is our commitment to customer service. We provide ongoing training at some locales. It might be on a quarterly basis, sometimes an annual, but we know that that’s important to keep our customers happy and to keep them coming in the door. That’s important to us. Probably the biggest thing is how to do more with less. How you have to adapt to not having the funding you need, or not having the personnel you need to run a program, but still run a quality program.

Q: I know you’ve touched a little on how you keep your staff members up-to-date on trends and research, but do you have problems finding qualified staff? I know that’s a problem in the commercial industry. Do you have that issue at all?

A: Typically, no. We find qualified staff, and then we’re able to train them if they don’t come in with all the credentials that we require. One of the biggest challenges, though, is once we do train them, losing them, especially for the military people, when they go to another base, or they go on deployment, or they move to another position. And so, we find the staff that we need; it’s just that keeping them is sometimes difficult.

Then to maintain their currency, we have continuing education, and it’s really beneficial now where the online-type seminars that are available, trade publications, annual conferences, where people can attend and learn about the latest in trends and that sort of thing. And then for those with certifications for personal training, group exercise, etc., they also maintain their CEUs that are required by their certification.

Q: What’s next for Air Force Fitness? What’s in the plans for this year and beyond?

A: One of the things that we’re working on right now is called the Common Output Level Standard. And it’s something that all the other military services are doing. Part of that is to compare, to work with joint-basing type operations, where you would have, say, the Air Force and the Army post right next to each other and for beneficial operations or efficiencies or what have you, one of the services takes the lead and the other falls under their umbrella. So, some of the things that we’re doing to make it easier to take a big snapshot picture of Army Fitness and Air Force Fitness. What are our standards? What are our similarities? What are our differences? In order to make that comparison, we’re developing this tool that basically consolidates all of that to help ease the transition into a giant basing operation.

Q: Do you have a timeline on that?

A: No, we don’t. We’re doing that now. We’re field testing the tools for fitness, which we expect to be completed in October. However, there are a whole lot of the other activities that are doing the same thing, such as libraries.

One of the things, from a fitness promotion angle, we have an annual fitness promotion. We have sponsorship that goes out to the installations. What we’ve done this year is to add an In Training program where our objective is to recruit runners, primarily for the Air Force Marathon. However, [the objective also is] to bring in new runners in general because there’s so many folks out there who’ve been wanting to start a running program, but they just didn’t have time, the knowledge or the incentive to do so. You don’t have to run a marathon. We’re also looking at half marathons, 5K, 10K, that sort of thing—just getting people out and getting them moving. So in conjunction with our marketing office here and the Services Agency and a few other sponsors, we’ve put together this program, which is basically a turnkey operation that the installations can use. It’s an online tracking mechanism where people can build up their mileage and during two different blocks of time, earn mileage going towards various incentives, such as In Training shirts. We’re looking forward to that and that we at least drive up the Air Force Marathon attendance by a few hundred, as well as just grow some runners in general across the Air Force.

Well that’s it for me. Thank you for joining me on this Executive Insights podcast. We sure did learn a lot. Thanks so much again and have a good day.

Thank you. You’re welcome, Jennipher. Bye.

Listen to the interview with Maraget Treland.

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