Fitness is Good For Business
Kari Young Gearhart '81 has had a lifelong dedication to health and fitness in her education and career. After serving professionally in corporate wellness roles and taking a personal interest in triathaloning, she combined lessons learned in both to start her own business, The Performance Bridge, which fosters leadership growth using the principles of fitness training.
Kari Young Gearhardt '81 uses the principles of good fitness to train better leaders
Describe your journey from degrees in Dietetics and Physical Education all the way to establishing your own corporate leadership training company.
I’ve always had a passion for staying fit and healthy. When I was ready for college, nutritional science was gaining more attention as a good career choice for the future. After searching for schools, I chose Hood because the exceptional undergraduate program in dietetics. Right out of college, I worked as a dietitian for several years in a hospital, a cancer center and retirement communities. As I worked with patients in these various healthcare settings over the years, I became even more passionate about how lifestyle choices make a difference in our quality of life—physically and mentally. Around that same time, corporate wellness initiatives were taking route and I wanted to be a part of this movement. I decided to obtain a master's in exercise physiology from Temple University. I applied my education in nutrition and exercise science to work in the commercial weight loss industry for several years training the staff in the centers around the United States.
In the late '90s, I took that love of designing and delivering training and shifted my career to the pharmaceutical industry. My first role was with Johnson & Johnson supporting their corporate wellness program and then, a few years later with Merck. I worked at Merck for 18 years in various leadership roles. One of my favorite assignments was managing executive development programs. I loved the idea that training one leader had the potential to impact so many others they led in their organization.
In the year 2000, I signed up for my first triathlon (swim, bike, run). It was a fund-raising event for cancer, and I expected it to be a one-and-done experience. I fell in love with the cross-training aspect of the sport. I’ve completed more than 50 races in the past 20 years. This sport gave me more than fitness. The lessons I’ve learned and confidence I gained from participating in this sport was an important aspect of my career journey and growth as a leader. I didn’t appreciate the connections and the benefits I was obtaining from my athletic interests until much later in my career.
In 2015, while attending a leadership conference, I met Ashley Tappan. We shared the same passion for making the connection between fitness and leadership growth. We knew from our personal experience and research that to get to the finish line, participants applied key leadership skills to accomplish a challenging athletic goal. Soon after meeting, we joined forces to design and deliver a program called Fit to LeadTM that intentionally makes these connections. The leadership lessons included topics such as creating a personal vision, setting goals, resiliency and creating a support network. The program was rewarding for us and a great success with our participants. We loved hearing the stories about how the program helped them see what was possible for them physically and in their career. A common quote from these first-time triathletes was “If I can finish a triathlon, I can do other hard things”. After several years of running the program for a nonprofit businesswomen’s association, we decided to look for ways to reach more women by offering Fit to Lead to corporations and then writing a book.
In 2016, I set up my company – The Performance Bridge. I now lead various leadership programs for corporations including the Fit to LeadTM program. Our book, REACH – Using Fitness to Grow Your Leadership -- published in 2022, is guided journal including lessons taught in the Fit to LeadTM program.
Give us a couple of favorite memories from your student days at Hood.
I have so many great memories when I reflect on my four years at Hood. I loved dorm life in Meyran Hall, where I spent three years living, studying and making great friends. The Dad and Daughter weekend event was a highlight. I still remember dancing for the first time with my dad that evening in Coblentz Hall. An experience that helped me decide on my first job happened in my senior year. Our program included an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital. We lived in a dormitory across from the hospital with medical students for one semester. This “real world” experience was instrumental in preparing me for my first job as a dietitian after graduation.
Were there any classes, professors or mentors at Hood that made a particular impact on you?
My professors in the dietetics program were excellent. Professors like Irene Pistachio and Barbara Clark were passionate about helping us successfully navigate through the dietetics program. They were responsible for setting up our internship experiences at well-known institutions such as Children’s Hospital in Washington D.C. and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The classes and experiences prepared us for starting our careers in dietetics soon after graduation.
What is your company, The Performance Bridge, all about?
I established The Performance Bridge to offer organizations leadership and wellness programs that help them reach their full potential. I offer workshop facilitation on topics such as Everything DiSC (a Behavior Styles workshop), Resiliency Skills and Emotional Intelligence. My focus with the business is growing the the Fit to LeadTM Program.
Fit to LeadTM, focuses on core elements that apply to both preparing for a fitness challenge like a triathlon as well as developing leadership capabilities. Here is a quick summary of the five connections made in the program and the book.
Take inventory of your priorities - The first step is getting intentional with where you focus your attention and time to ultimately get where you want to go. Getting this “big picture” view of your life enables you to identify where you are excelling and where there is an opportunity for improvement.
Create vision, goals that inspire you - Leaders know that every successful business has a clear and inspiring vision around which they can rally. Creating a vision for your future can motivate and inspire you toward daily action in pursuit of your most important career and fitness goals. Once your vision is clear, the next step is setting goals to help you get there.
Build your agility and resilience skills - Whether it’s leading a team or competing in a sport, both take concentration, preparation, and the ability to regain your confidence. Successful leaders and athletes require skills to bounce back from challenges and even failures to achieve personal and professional success. Optimizing your mindset to navigate challenging situations is one of the most important keys to building your agility and resilience.
Create and maintain your support team - Building and maintaining relationships that are mutually beneficial for your career and your life is key to succeeding as a leader. Whether you’re working on fitness or professional ambitions, supportive relationships are essential to achieving your goals.
Celebrate your achievements - Once most leaders “check the box” on a goal or accomplishment or run across the finish line of a race, they quickly move on to the next goal. We encourage leaders/athletes to take the time to reflect on all that they’ve learned and accomplished — and to think of it as a boost for their well-being.
What trends have you observed that inform what's next in wellness? What do you see as the future of wellness generally and corporate wellness in particular?
Corporations are taking a broader view of wellness beyond offering employees things like fitness center access and healthy eating. These types of offerings were aimed at reducing absenteeism, supporting productivity, and reducing overall healthcare costs. Today companies are looking more broadly at what wellness programs offer their employees while impacting the bottom line. Of course, there are many trends going on in the wellness arena from increased focus on mental health to the use of technology like apps and wearables to track wellness activities. What I’m most interested in, and hoping more corporations adopt, is making a deliberate connection between staying fit (mind & body) and growing as a leader.
What does wellness mean to you personally?
I continue to be a student in the field of wellness as more research emerges on the topic. My certification in applied positive psychology in 2017 gave me an appreciation of the many facets of wellness. To me wellness is a holistic integration of physical, mental and spiritual well-being. This includes fueling the body, engaging the mind, and nurturing the spirit. I like to think of it like spokes on a wheel. Each spoke having an important role to keep your life’s “ride” running smoothly. I have personally benefited from including all these key elements in my life and enjoy sharing this with others through the programs I offer at The Performance Bridge.