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Career Shift: From Sports Writer to Physical Trainer

Fred Kirsch was stymied when he first tried to switch fields, then he landed a job that's a perfect fit

By Lani Luciano | May 30, 2012

Fred Kirsch has never been interested in retiring. A lifelong sports and feature writer, he had worked for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Va., since 1980. But in 2004, when he was 62, Kirsch figured that his employer might offer him a buyout package before too long, because his industry was rapidly shrinking. So he began to ponder a second career — as a nurse. After all, he liked the idea of helping people, and nurses were in demand.
 
To test the waters, he took an anatomy and physiology course at nearby Tidewater Community College. “The class was about 30 young women and me,” recalls Kirsch, now 69. “I was a little rusty. On the first day, a classmate saw me taking notes and tapped me on the shoulder to say, ‘The lecture is online.’”
 
Finding the Right Fit

He enjoyed learning about the human body — Kirsch keeps his own in top shape through daily exercise — but decided that nursing wasn’t a good fit. “Blood, needles, I don’t think so,” he remembers thinking. That's when it occurred to him to become a personal trainer. With that in mind, he went back to school, taking two semesters in exercise physiology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
 
Satisfied that this career choice was the right one, he signed up for the personal trainer certification exam given by the American College of Sports Medicine, though taking it wasn't absolutely necessary. “Anyone can call himself a personal trainer,” Kirsch says. “There’s no license required. But I figured the certificate would help me get a job.”
 
Then Came the Buyout

When his employer finally made the buyout offer, in 2007, Kirsch grabbed the severance package and left the paper. Then, certification in hand, he made the rounds of local gyms and health clubs, looking for a job. But the search didn’t go well; he didn't land any interviews. “I got the impression I wasn’t their ideal job candidate,” he says.
 
As months went by, Kirsch took some freelance writing assignments, but he was frustrated that his new career plan wasn’t panning out.
 
A New Opportunity

In 2008, his wife, Mary, an editor at a business publication, received a press release about the Lifestyle Center at the nearby Chesapeake Regional Medical Center. According to the release, it offered both standard fitness services and special programs for people recovering from, say, open heart surgery or a hip replacement.
 
Kirsch applied for a job at the Lifestyle Center and was hired on the spot. Soon he was working four hours a day, four days a week, advising and assisting members and teaching the 30-minute Lite Fitness class. “Most members are people in their late 80s — one is 96 — who have medical issues,” he says.

For this reason, he finds his age is a major advantage rather than a drawback. “I think my class feels I understand their challenges better because I’m closer to their age," he says. "The next oldest trainer is a mere child of 48.”
 
A father of three grown daughters with a 1-year-old granddaughter (“Madeline — we call her Peanut”), Kirsch likes his work and the income it generates (trainers in the United States typically earn $30 to $75 an hour, depending on where they are located). But he’s not thrilled about getting up at 5 a.m. each workday to prepare for the center’s 7 a.m. opening. Still, with his afternoons free, “it’s a nice life,” he says.
 
Kirsch's Advice on Second Careers

If you're contemplating a second career relatively late in life, Kirsch offers these four tips:
 
1. Start researching possibilities years before you plan to make a switch. That way, you won’t be unprepared if your first career ends sooner than you expect. Classes are one way to learn about a new field. So is volunteer work or a part-time job.
 
2. Don’t take more than a year off between careers. It’s fine to take a break, but don't make it a long one. “You’ll lose your momentum and the habits of working," Kirsch explains. "A year will turn into two and then five, and then it may be too hard to get going again.”
 
3. Look for a place to use your skills where your age doesn’t matter — or is even a plus. Like Kirsch, you might hunt down a job where the customers or clients are typically over 50.
 
4. Pursue something you enjoy. This is much more important than chasing after a position just because it sounds impressive. “If you feel good doing it, it’s a great job,” Kirsch says.