Purdue alum develops graduate thesis into business aimed at shifting the fitness culture
Through his connections and experiences in Purdue University’s Department of Health and Kinesiology and Purdue’s Recreation and Wellness Center, Damien Michel (MS ’20) cultivated his unique passion for making fitness more fun and accessible. Today, he’s growing that vision of a better fitness industry by coordinating fitness programs at Florida Atlantic University and operating his own business, The Shift Method, which began as his graduate thesis, and encompasses coaching, education, social media campaigning, and a podcast that promotes the idea that anyone can be empowered to practice fitness.
Here is Damien’s story in his own words.
Can you tell us about your position at FAU?
Currently my title is Coordinator of Fitness at Florida Atlantic University’s Recreation & Fitness Center down in South Florida. I oversee the personal training and group fitness departments. My main operations are hiring, training, and evaluating the staff, helping with the creation and implementation of fitness programs, and more.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I’d say my favorite part is getting to work with young professionals in the field that are wide-eyed and have big lofty goals. In a college setting a lot of people are very open to experience, so I get to have fun, unique, and challenging conversations around fitness. They’re going through their coursework, so they’re getting some practical experience there as well as at the rec. Having the opportunity to mentor young professionals and provide them with educational opportunities is a blast.
Could you also tell us about the business you’ve started?
It’s called the Shift Method. It’s a fitness and education-based LLC. I started it a little over a year ago during the height of the pandemic. It was actually my graduation/thesis project for grad school to create a fitness business model, and I decided to implement it in real life after I graduated. To explain what the Shift Method is, let’s start with the love-hate relationship I have with the fitness industry. At its core, fitness is about helping people be more active and helping them live better lives. But there are things in the fitness industry that aren’t that wonderful. A lot of times in our fitness culture, value is placed solely on how we look. When we put our sole value as human beings into things like that—and the emphasis is completely on looking a certain way or restricting fitness because it can only look a certain way—that is a problem. So, my job and the job of the Shift Method is to shift the culture and make fitness accessible to people. We do this by providing education and reliable resources to help people learn how to be active. I also provide education to fitness professionals, which is something I do in both my jobs. I give them the tools to be successful with any type of client. My job is to make fitness fun. You have to find a way to do things that you love and enjoy, so that way it can be a lifelong habit. And that ties into the last part, which is the wellness aspect. We’re finding out that your physical health is very important, but perhaps an equally if not more important question that needs to be asked is, what’s going on with your psychological health, and what’s the relationship between those two things? I’m shifting the conversation to include not just the physical health but also the psychological.
How do you balance a full-time position with running your own business?
I’m very grateful that at FAU, they emphasize work-life balance. When I’m done with work, I’m able to have a hard separation between work and life. It’s nice to be able to leave work and do Shift Method on the side. Or I do my work with the Shift Method in the morning and then hop right into my role at FAU. It depends on availability and if I have any projects I’m doing, but I’d say on average I put in 15-20 hours a week for the Shift Method. Every day looks a little bit different but usually I have one client a day, either in person or virtual. I spend time creating content. I’m very active on social media. It’s a good medium for a creative outlet, and it’s fun. It’s also a great way to provide educational resources to people and market myself simultaneously. I also do podcasts about once a week. And every now and again I’ll have students reach out to me, and I’ll have meetings, I’ll follow-up with professors, or I’ll present to a class—that’s an additional education piece I do.
Balancing physical and mental health is also an emphasis at Purdue RecWell! How were you involved there?
I can’t say enough nice things about Purdue RecWell. I did a graduate assistantship there, as GA for fitness ops and services. I oversaw their personal training and fitness department—separate from group fitness. It was a really great experience. Things I did that I’m proud of with the team that I worked with: We helped Purdue RecWell's fitness department go virtual. Even before COVID. We wanted to be conscious of our footprint on the environment and not waste paper, and also be more efficient with our process and improve the user fitness experience of our staff and patrons. As you alluded to, Purdue RecWell has an awesome wellness aspect. We did some collaboration with our wellness team, and we would offer wellness services with personal trainers. You can also get a session with a wellness coach. We would communicate with each other a lot to accomplish good things, so it was great working with the wellness team.
How was your internship impactful to your professional journey?
I had the opportunity to do an internship with a local gym in Lafayette Indiana, called Human Movement. I worked with Coach Lucas Woody, the founder and head coach, to learn the business side of the fitness industry. My internship with Coach Lucas Woody is where I did my thesis project, which was all about creating my business. Along with doing other tasks and projects, every week I would sit and talk with him. Lucas was key in ensuring that I wasn’t just making a business to make a business. He would prompt: Are you doing it in service of other people? Are you doing it because you can provide something unique to the community? He’s a very deep man, and he cares a lot about not just doing something because, but doing something because you’re providing value. I got to learn and watch him firsthand, and I implemented ideas from him into my own business, which was an experience that was phenomenal and extremely helpful in starting The Shift Method.
What else was impactful about your Purdue experience?
As a Health and Kinesiology student I had some cool opportunities. I got to be a TA for the first time with my phenomenal advisor and professor, Cassandra Ledman. I got to do a research paper on the class as a sort of case study. The class centered on developing skills in students who were aspiring to be personal trainers, so working with them and writing a paper about the course was extremely rewarding.
Both in RecWell and in the HK department I had a lot of opportunities to do presentations. I’ve done presentations at St. Louis University’s Midwest Fit Fest, and thanks to Cassie, I was able to do a presentation at a Midwest ACSM conference—a big conference in exercise science. Those opportunities were amazing. A couple of those presentations focused on the topic of pain and exercise. As coaches, we’re not given much guidance on the subject of pain. Usually if someone’s in pain the common advice is to stop what you’re doing and refer them out to a doctor or physical therapist. I thought there had to be better tools we could use to help someone dealing with pain, so my presentations centered around strategies to assist with this issue.
So, on the Health and Kinesiology side I must give a big shout-out to Cassandra Ledman. She opened a lot of doors for me. She’s a super relatable person, cares a lot, and challenges me.
From the RecWell side of things—I don’t want to name everyone that impacted me because it would take me fifteen minutes to do so, but all my trainers that I worked with were phenomenal to be around. Arthur Hockwald, my former supervisor, was an awesome, very high energy, empathetic person, who was a hard worker, and fun to be around— everything you could want in a boss. It was great working with him. Brendan Adams— he was the lead personal trainer. He’s a hard-working kid. We had a blast and he’s still one of my good friends to this day. I’ve got to give credit to him. Michelle Whipple oversaw assessment and student development—she does amazing things. She was always supportive of the fitness department, always making sure we were taken care of, that we were doing okay and that we were set up for success, so, I can’t thank her enough for all that she’s done.
I talk about my company’s goal of changing and creating culture, but I learned what culture really meant from being at Purdue. The pride of being a Boilermaker is something other experiences can’t compare to. I’ll never forget this example. I was at Disneyworld wearing a Purdue backpack and I heard someone yell “Boiler Up!” so I instinctively yelled, “Hammer Down!” And that’s an amazing experience of culture. No matter where you are, no matter where you come from, we all have the same values. Being a Boilermaker is centered on academic excellence, it’s being the best, being competitive, being a family. And those values carried on to RecWell and now to the Shift Method. I loved the culture, so, thank you from the bottom of my heart Purdue University, for the opportunities that you gave me and thank you Purdue RecWell for making me the professional that I am today.
Contact: Beth Ferrier, email@example.com
September 14, 2021