Corporate wellness specialist reveals how to ‘make it’ in the fitness industry

For Danielle Conte, wellness isn’t just a lifestyle, it’s her job.

Conte is a Fitness and Wellness Specialist at The Boeing Company in Chicago, Ill., but her career began in 2006 at East Carolina University.

Growing up, Conte tells me she always loved physical therapy (PT) after undergoing PT from various cheerleading injuries. However, her experience volunteering at a physical therapy clinic during college was nothing like she expected:

“It turned out that not a lot of people I saw wanted to get better. In fact, most people were there because their doctor told them to get better. Now there’s always exceptions, but the majority of people I saw didn’t want to be there. They’d complain of injuries, but only wanted me to ice them so they could leave. They weren’t being productive, they weren’t learning how to prevent injuries. The ones that did, weren’t getting enough sessions from insurance companies.”

Throughout our conversation, Conte shared insights on her career in the wellness space, as well as essential tips for any aspiring personal trainer to become successful.

Danielle Conte smiling with one of her clients. (Photo credit: Danielle Conte)

Danielle Conte smiling with one of her clients. (Photo credit: Danielle Conte)

How did you get your start in the Fitness/Wellness industry?

I was taking a class called “exercise psychology,” where we learned all about the stages of change, and it was awesome – I loved it and I was really passionate about health promotion. So for me, someone who has wanted to be a physical therapist since the age of 16, I was very confused, and I was really upset about it. I went to my advisor and he told me my options were either going into physical education (PE), or become a health fitness specialist – which is my official degree – and mentioned I can use that degree for any future job in wellness.

My school required a full-time internship, like most colleges, so during my last semester of college I did an internship in Tampa, Fla., with USAA. They had an on-site fitness center and a wellness department where they created wellness programs for their employees – my internship was absolutely fantastic! The main thing I took from that experience was BE MARKETABLE. I learned everything, even though I didn't want to learn how to do it. Even though I’ve done jobs I didn’t necessarily want to do, I’ve pulled something out of them so I could bring it into current and future roles.

From there, I’ve had various corporate wellness experiences – my very first job was in DC with L&T Health and Fitness. All corporate wellness jobs require a four-year degree in either health promotion or exercise science. It’s an added bonus if you have a certification in personal training. Now, here I am in Chicago, working at the Corporate Fitness Center at Boeing!

When you started, did you imagine your career would take this path?

I’ve always loved being with customers and chatting, so I always knew I’d go into an industry that required those skills. Also, I’ve always loved the human body, as well as teaching. The internship helped single out what I actually wanted to do. I want to be able to do EVERYTHING, and not be pigeonholed into a certain job. Additionally, you will need more certifications in this industry (American College of Sports Medicine and Wellco are great!); making sure that you are constantly “in the know” is important.

What advice do you have for those who are just getting their start in the Fitness/Wellness space?

My suggestion is to go to a local fitness center, not a big gym, because the big gyms are all about the sales. Go to a SMALL fitness center that is near you, and say that you are able to personal train and teach classes. From what I’ve seen, because I’ve worked in a small fitness center (commercially) AND a big fitness center, the big fitness centers only care about the sales. The local ones want to have and keep good people. If there’s a small gym close to you, introduce yourself, say you want more experience, you’re able to teach a boot camp class (or whatever you’re able to teach) and present yourself in that way.

The locals will know who you are through taking yourclasses, they’ll get to know you and you’ll obtain new clients from those experiences. Don’t be afraid to promote your blog and social media, too. Mention that you can be a guest speaker at local fitness/health events in the community on specific topics, and get your name/face out there!

Community events are really picking up. For example, you can work with Athlete to teach classes – I’ve done them a million times. Become a face. Be consistent in the community. Show how educated you are in this – prove what you can do. Then, people will ask you if you train clients, and you can get a lot of business from there.

How can those working full-time in other industries leverage their skill sets and professional education to gain experience in the fitness industry?

For you (Kayla), as a communicator, ask if you can work the front desk, as well, so you can get to know members and learn the back-end of the business. Every job I’ve had, I’ve had to report back to my manager the names of 50 people and fun facts about them within two weeks of starting. At the end of the day, fitness is a “people-centric” business.

It takes a long time to get confident. I think it took me a year and a half to get truly comfortable teaching group fitness classes, which I love!

I’ve always been very comfortable in front of a crowd, and I don’t know what happened, one day it just clicked. I observed how my co-workers interacted with members and I realized I wanted to become like them. I’m spotting them during weight workouts and doing things of that nature to show them I’m knowledge, simply by “being there.”

Where do you get inspiration when building workout programs for clients?

I utilize credible resources, such as ACE. Fortunately, I learned in school how the muscles move, as far as the muscle fibers, and you can manipulate any exercise to do what you want to do. For example, if you want to activate the lats, you don’t just have to use the machine – you can use resistance bands. You can do a superman exercise, it’s all about knowing where the muscle contracts and relaxes. I pull exercises out of the woodwork, I don’t even know where they come from sometimes, but I do know what they’re activating. Teaching classes, you definitely have to get creative, because you have to hold their attention. The American Council of Sports Medicine and ACE are awesome resources for workout material. ACE, specifically, has great videos they post for the public. They also host training events and workshops.

I’d be wary of online workouts and social media, because a lot of those people aren’t certified. See how ACE and ACSM are doing, even see if you can continue your education with niche certifications to learn more!

Do you think you have to have a niche to be successful in this industry?

Like I said from the beginning, be the face – be the personality. Prove with your words and actions that you can handle the situation. If your niche is to be practical with fitness for the working person, when you are in a job with personal training, that should be in your biography. If figuring out strategies to become healthy in a busy life is your thing– show that is what you do well. You have to be empathetic and listen and make sure you understand what they want to do.

I hope you found this interview helpful, friends! Be sure to reach out to me via Instagram or email if you have any follow-up questions for Danielle :)