CLEVELAND, Ohio — Two Northeast Ohio natives are hoping that their online fitness venture will someday transform them into the go-to experts for all things health- and fitness-related for the black community.
Ilen and Lauren Bell are the husband-and-wife team behind Black Fitness Today, a website dedicated to helping African-Americans become more fit and healthy.
The Bells, both 28, started the site in late 2011. In June they launched I Am Black Fitness Today, a nationwide health and fitness campaign via social media. The focus of the campaign is to get as many people as possible to sign a pledge to follow a healthier lifestyle and get involved with others on social media. The Bells also are using the Web site to spotlight individuals who are working toward their fitness goals.
“Our own family histories [include] high blood pressure, diabetes, cancers, said Lauren Bell, a 2003 graduate of Twinsburg High School who has a degree in communications from John Carroll University as well as a masters degree in management and leadership. [The web site] comes from a desire to break the mold.
Added Ilen Bell, a 2003 graduate of Maple Heights High School who in 2011 received his masters degree in exercise science and health promotion from California University of Pennsylvania: On so many health and fitness magazines, theres a always a person on the cover who looks like a model. A lot of people think thats what fitness is. We want to change that thinking.
The couple first met in the gym.
In 2008 Lauren was working out at the now-closed Bally Total Fitness in Severance Town Center in Cleveland Heights. As she was using the chest fly machine, Ilen – one of Ballys personal trainers — spotted her and walked over.
The first question he asked me was, Why do you look so mad? she said. He became her personal trainer. Then they became friends. Eventually they started dating.
The Web site is the result of two years of dreaming about wanting to help black people become healthier. Those plans were shelved temporarily when Ilen Bell left Cleveland in September 2009 to accept a position with a military contractor as an interrogation instructor at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, about 90 minutes south of Tucson.
After a year, Ilen returned to Cleveland. He had been laid off, giving the couple time to resume working on their dream. They started doing research, looking at how much it would cost to start a web site, mulling over their values and mission statements.
After the Bells married in October 2010, they relocated to Phoenix.
In 2011, Ilen began working as a strength coach to college and professional football players. When the 130-day NFL lockout ended in July, he returned to Fort Huachuca as an interrogation instructor. Until they launched Black Fitness Today, Lauren worked as a marketing/public relations coordinator for Primavera Online High School in Chandler, Arizona.
In March 2012 the couple moved to the Tucson area to be closer to the military base, where Ilen continues to work full-time. They took time out of their hectic schedule to chat with The Plain Dealer recently.
Are the two of you natural athletes?
Growing up, I was always active,” said Lauren. “I played basketball through high school. But I allowed myself to get out of shape when I went to college.
My goal [in joining Bally’s] was to get back in shape, to make a true commitment to get back into fitness again.
With the military it was so ingrained in the culture,” Ilen said. He spent nearly three years in the Army, serving with the 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion out of Fort Hood, Texas.
Every morning I would get up and exercise, said Ilen, who in 2006 was deployed to Iraq for 11 months, where he conducted detainee interrogations. Exercise helped alleviate the stress of the job.
It really became a part of my identity, he said. When I got out, I knew thats what I wanted to do. After being medically discharged in December 2007, he became certified as a personal trainer and worked at health clubs and gyms in the Cleveland area.
Why focus on fitness?
Lauren and I were brainstorming ways that we could reach the African American community, Ilen said. It seemed like [there is] a lot of hesitation to start fitness programs. It was just wanting to reach more than one person at a time, reach people on a much larger scale.
Why not just open a gym?
Opening up a gym is definitely an expense, said Ilen. Online, you can reach the whole world. Its an opportunity to reach people on a much larger scale.
We’ve truly been a true start-up, weve funded everything ourselves, said Lauren, who freelances as a communications consultant to help pay the bills. We havent minded doing that, its something that we’re passionate about.
Who are you trying to reach?
“Our target audience is ages 18-35,” said Lauren. “Adults and young families. But it really doesnt matter what age [you are].
How do you stay in shape? where do you work out?
We love food, said Lauren, who is a certified personal fitness chef. I’ve been able to turn that love of food and transform it into very healthy dishes. [But] we like to indulge and have a cheat meal one meal a week.
The couple does a lot of resistance training, cardio and high-intensity workouts. We work out four to six times a week at a gym close to our house, Ilen said. The main thing we do is to try to keep it interesting and to have specific goals.
What is your husband like as a trainer?
He has the ability to make you feel good enough about yourself, and then flip the switch and make you feel so angry that you want to perform, Lauren said.
What do you do differently?
What has been able to separate us is the human element that we bring to the table, Lauren said. Were not just pumping out and cranking out health information. We empower people and their own journeys. We want to help people believe they can make a change for themselves. If were not promoting a behavior change, were not going to make an impact.
Were on the journey with people as well. We werent born with six packs, we dont eat spinach out of a bag each day. This is a long journey.
What are your long-term professional goals?
We want to be the subject matter experts for fitness and nutrition in the African American community, Lauren said. Theyre thinking big — health fairs, conferences, mobile tours, fitness coaching, even a physical location, she said. At the end of the day its all about, How can we encourage people who may have sedentary lifestyles?
We want to change the statistics, Ilen said. We want to cut down on chronic diseases.
Will you ever come back to Cleveland?
Our goal is to be closer to home, Ilen said. Adds Lauren, All of our family is incredibly supportive. Our parents have been our biggest cheerleaders.
- ^ Black Fitness Today (blackfitnesstoday.com)
- ^ Fort Huachuca (huachuca-www.army.mil)
- ^ 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion (www.hood.army.mil)
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