Live Well Exercise Clinic - Sara Hodson, President


Jun 02, 2018

Our Founder and President (and exercise guru)
Sara Hodson, BHK, ACSM CCEP

With a 15-year career in chronic disease and exercise, Sara is a leader in the movement of clinically-based medical fitness programs.  With a professional background in cardiac rehab programming and diabetes, Sara launched LIVE WELL in 2011 with a deep passion and recognition of a gap in our healthcare system for medical fitness programs which allow people to be highly successful in a safe, supportive, supervised exercise environment.  Sara represents LIVE WELL's hardcore values as she continues to live them every day.  Sara is smart, nimble, hard-working and passionate and an awesome mom to four young children.   What’s the story behind LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic?

Sara Hodson:  After my fourth child, I cashed in my pension to launch LIVE WELL with just an idea that quickly turned one location into three, all in just three short years (well OK, they were long years!)             

But I didn’t want just three clinics; I wanted 100 clinics, all across Canada. I have been on a mission to help Canadians live longer, healthier lives since opening my first location and to lead the movement in Exercise is Medicine in this country. 

I opened my second location in 2013 right beside one of the most successful consumer healthcare AND franchise brands in Canada,  Nurse Next Door. John DeHart, the co-founder, walked into my clinic one day after having met a number of our members. I remember his words "Everyone I meet is a raving fan who says you have changed their life; what are you doing in here?" I was intimated, because here was one of the most successful healthcare entrepreneurs in the Country, who had already built what I wanted to build, quizzing me on my company. He became my mentor, and two years later his wife Gayla and him became my full partner in the business.  

It was a match made in heaven. I brought the spirit and the Exercise is Medicine expertise; he brought the systems, brand, franchising and healthcare experience; and Gayla brought the coaching and human behaviour background (she has her PHD in Psychology)  to round off a dream team of passionately driven and engaged entrepreneurs who want to change the world.  

We took the first year to build the scalable systems, and then we launched our franchise system. In our first year we grew faster than Orange Theory here in Canada, so we have had a great start!   What made you decide to create this franchise?

Sara Hodson:  Working for 10 years in cardiac rehab, I saw three problems that lead to the creation of LIVE WELL:

First, Cardiac rehab was for heart patients only. However, if you look at the rise of chronic disease (STAT), and the power of exercise on managing or preventing chronic disease, well that is  a no brainer. We needed to take what we do at cardiac rehab and apply it to other chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, COPD, hyper tension, and the list goes on…and on. 

Second, The cardiac rehab program only lasted 16 weeks. But 16 weeks isn't long enough! These patients were getting great outcomes (ie reduction in blood pressure; weight, etc), but when we researched our patient population 1 year later, only 1% were still exercising! 16 weeks just isn't long enough for habit to kick in. So we developed LIVE WELL where most of our members stay 6 at least months, and it is common to see members who have been with us for the 7 years that we have been in business. 

And third, going to a government run, exercise program inside of a hospital just isn't very fun. And one thing we know about exercise is that most people don’t like it. And if you don’t like it, then it is going to be awfully difficult to motivate someone to change their lifestyle through exercise. So we made it super fun; social and inspiring so our members would want to keep coming into our clinics. I always say we are a healthcare company disguised as a really fun and social gym. Our members never feel like it is healthcare. And that is important. I learned that one from my partner John DeHart, who built one of the most successful consumer healthcare brands in Canada. That is their specialty, delivering service that never felt like healthcare.   What was your background prior to forming the company?

Sara Hodson:  I am a Kinesiologist and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist and ran a cardiac rehab program in a hospital for 10 years. My Partner, John DeHart, co-founded and built one of Canadas biggest franchise systems, Nurse Next Door, which has 200 locations worldwide now.   Can you tell us a about the (industry) Market?

Sara Hodson:  We are in this really interesting time where:

·         There are more fitness concepts than ever before like Cross fit; bar fitness, personal training, Zumba, orange theory, etc.

·         Even with this growth of new concepts, only 17% of the total population works out, and obesity and chronic disease are on the rapid rise. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared chronic diseases the number one killer on the planet.   Chronic disease is now the cause of over sixty percent of deaths worldwide.

·         We know that exercise is the miracle drug. In the words of Dr. Robert Butler, the   Former Director, National Institute on Aging, "if exercise could be packed in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation."                                      

The reality is, the fitness industry is missing an entire population of people. What about the 83% of people who don’t go to the gym? What about the people who struggle with chronic health issues such as hyper tension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes? What about the baby boomer who is out of shape and needs to start exercising or they will end up with a chronic disease? 

There is a massive gap in the fitness industry. No one serves this market. 

I mean let's look at the baby boomer generation. They control 70% of ALL spending. They are the unhealthiest cohort to ever live at this age. They will (and are) spending a lot if money on looking better and feeling better (the latest numbers how that their spending has increased 500,000 percent in next 10 years - that’s crazy) 

But where do they go to change their unhealthy lifestyle? Most won't go to a gym because those gyms are targeting millennials and Gen Y'ers who are beautiful and fit and enjoy exercise. And if they have health issues? Well there isn't anywhere to go that will help them. 

And that is where LIVE WELL comes in. Its why we are growing so fast. We have tapped into a market where no one else is , yet. And it is a massive market.   Could you describe your corporate culture and how it is built on your experience in this?

Sara Hodson:  If you really want to get to know us, you have to understand our Core Values.  These are our non-negotiable rules of how we do things; but they go deeper than even this. They are our soul. The very fabric what makes us, well, who we are. Our Core Values drive every major decision in our organization and will never change.  They are apparent in everything we do, from performance reviews, to hiring and firing, to training, they are our guide for how we conduct ourselves and our business.  Our Core Values are the reason why our brand is well, so unique and extraordinary. 

So, they are: 

Champion the Potential  everybody has a "why" behind what they do.  At LIVE WELL, we help our members find it, and then help them take the necessary steps to get there. We CHAMPION our members’ potential to be do-ers, to act on the things they know they should and can do. We know that the key to this process is making small, incremental lifestyle changes.  We then help them our members celebrate the successes along the way (especially the small ones because we know they are the most important). 

Find the Joy  We always look for ways to help members find a ‘win,’ to be happy, to celebrate success, to play a favourite song, to smile, to hug, to find connection with others on their journey to better health.   People don’t come to LIVE WELL because they love to work out on a treadmill. Our job is to create a culture of fun and happiness, where everyone who enters one of our clinics will have a laugh (or two); will feel a sense of belonging; and will feel like they are part of a bigger community.   And so we make sure to infuse JOY and fun into every exercise session.

We are ALL in There is no dipping your toes in the water here. We are on a crusade: exercise is medicine. We live, breathe, eat and sleep this philosophy. And we will do whatever it takes to make it happen.    Your programs emphasize a team approach to focus on every aspect of health – not just weight. Can you tell us why this is so important?

Sara Hodson:  First off, we aren't a weight loss center. Weight is certainly one of the outcomes we measure, but it is only one of our measures. Many of our members come to us after living a life of trying every diet under the sun. And failing at it. They have been searching for that ever elusive "quick fix". But there are no quick fixes. 

Our entire model is designed around two very powerful forces in changing our members lifestyles:

·         Exercise. The miracle drug. We customize exercise routines to suit every member (our members all have different needs), supervise them with professionals in a group setting, and make it super fun and social so they actually start to "enjoy" exercise.

·         Habit change. We are experts in the science of habit change, coaching our members in changing their lifestyles by implementing key habits into the way they live. 

We have been able to execute our model for thousands of members. And as simple as this might sound, think of it this way. How do you get someone who doesn’t like to exercise; perhaps they haven't exercised since high school PE class; who has lived in an unhealthy way for a large part of their life. How do you get them to start; and more importantly stick with it so that this way of living just becomes part of their life? Well, that is our expertise; it is what we have spent years working on. So we appeal to members who struggle with all types of health issues: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, weight issues, arthritis, high blood pressure, sleep issues, cancer. Because Exercise IS medicine - that has been proven worldwide. 

And it shows in our health outcomes that we achieve once a member is in our program. But more importantly, just talk to our members. They are raving fans for a reason - we have changed their life through exercise and habit change. It really is the most purpose driven and satisfying businesses to be in if you like that sort of stuff.   What are the advantages in being a LIVE WELL franchisee?

Sara Hodson:  First off, we literally have no competition. Gyms don’t do what we do and don’t cater to the type of member we have. And it is difficult for them to do so for two main reasons:

·         Our members feel "gym-timidated" in a regular gym . They don’t feel comfortable in a gym surrounded by hot, skinny yoga girls and big muscled men.

·         We have designed our programs and systems from a healthcare perspective. For example, when you have someone who is obese and struggles with diabetes, a gym doesn’t have the expertise and programs to help. Our typical member has these sorts of health issues, and you need a specific level of expertise to motivate, help and sustain this person on lifestyle change. 

And when we do have competition? We have a huge head start. 7 years of outcomes data and proving out our systems and model. Over 1000 referring doctors a(and growing every week). 20 open locations as of August. 

How does this help[p our Zees? It is a wide open space for them to be a first mover in in every city across Canada. That helps. Second - we have made So many mistakes. So much learning to figure out how to get people who don’t like to exercise to stick to it and love it . So much learning in terms of helping our franchisees build their businesses quickly without any knowledge or experience doing what we do. So they don’t have to make the same mistakes. 

Now take no competition and add to it a massive potential market size. As I said earlier, our market is the 73% of the population who don’t go to the gym - that amounts to a lot of people. And what we have proven is that we can attract that person through our marketing (we have a digital marketing team) and sales (through Doctors) and keep them for a long period of time (through our brand experience and our habit coaching systems). Remember, our member is typically someone who doesn’t like the gym, doesn’t exercise, and probably doesn't eat very well. How do you inspire this person on the journey to change their lifestyle and more importantly, sustain it? I would say that is our secret sauce and reason for success. 

Finally, we have fully systematized model and system from build out to start up to launch to growth mode. I mean, I bet a lot of franchise systems say that. But with John DeHart, who has built one of the most successful franchise systems in the country, who is the Chair of the Canadian Franchise Association, We have the system. Now it is about finding the right partners to execute. Follow the system! Work the system!  And once the biz is up and running and the membership numbers are achieved, it is a fairly simple and sustainable business  to operate. In fact, many of our current zees are now opening their 2nd and 3rd locations, because our model is suited for it.   What differentiates LIVE WELL from its competitors.

Sara Hodson:  
First, our programs are designed by medical experts and delivered by clinical health specialists, and are proven to drive clinical outcomes in our target member population
. What does this do? It enables us to command the respect of Physicians, who make up our largest source of member referrals to our program. We now have over 7 years of servicing members, compiling a sizeable database of outcome data and results. (We will be looking to publish our data in the upcoming future.)   

Second, our members come to us because their Doctors tell them to; they stay because we have crafted a program and experience that makes exercise fun, social and inspiring. We have designed and deliver a unique brand experience that is specifically orchestrated to create a fun, social and inspiring environment.  Think “Soul Cycle” but for people with chronic disease. This is what makes our members stay; and is what makes our members such raving fans of our programs. (Remember, one of our Co-founders is an expert in building unique brand experiences.)  

Third, we are experts in habit formation, which is the foundation of the entire LIVE WELL program. If you speak with any medical expert about chronic disease, they will tell you that it is the lack of developing the habit to live a healthier lifestyle is the reason why we have an epidemic of such large proportions when it comes to chronic disease on our hands. Behaviour change is the key piece in helping someone overcome chronic disease and we have designed our entire program around this.   

Fourth, we execute all of the above through our custom designed web based EMR System (The SOLE System) that maps the workflow of the business and helps us execute the same look, the same feel, and the results, every time (and all the time.) Five years and over a million $$ (and a ton of trial and error!) has gone into the development of our SOLE system to make a clinic run seamlessly, lessen the administrative burden on our Partners while delivering real, evidence based outcomes to our members. 

And fifth? Our expertise. I know, everyone probably says this. But I think our credentials and experience speak for themselves. Sara is one of the experts in Canada in Exercise is Medicine. (She can go toe to toe with any Medical expert in the Country). John is one of the legendary health care brand builders, entrepreneur’s and Franchisors in Canada. Dr. Gayla has a P.H.D in Psychology (pretty helpful when it comes to habits and behaviour change). And Dr. Ali Zentner is one of the more famous Obesity experts out there. You would be pretty hard pressed to find a more experienced team to build a brand delivering exercise is medicine. 

This is important to our partners because they have highly seasoned experts holding their hand through all stages of development and growth. And they have leading experts in this country developing new health programs and developing the brand.   What advice do you have for someone looking to acquire a Franchise?

Sara Hodson:
·         Don’t just look for opportunities where you can "make money." Combine making money with doing something purposeful; something you can really become passionate about. Building a business isn't easy, but when you are truly passionate about what you are doing, it is often what you need to pull you through the tough times. And it will make you happier. 

·         Make sure you align with the franchise team and will enjoy working with them. Franchising is dependent on the franchisee / franchisor relationship. You will, by default, work very closely with your franchisor. Make sure you like them! Make sure they are the team that will help you when you need it.

·         Can you build an asset that you can sell? The beauty of business ownership is that if you can build  a solid business, at some point, if you choose, you can sell it and hopefully get a great return!  If you are building a business in a desirable long term market (think demographic change), you will have a great opportunity to achieve this, because as the demographics change, more and more people will want to be in your business segment. I see this with my Partner John's first business in home care. Everyone wants to be in homecare now because of the aging market. LIVE WELL is the next one!   In your opinion, why do you think that LIVE WELL would be a great opportunity for someone?

Sara Hodson:  This is a deeply, purposeful business.  Our members become raving fans for one simple reason: their lives are changed for the better when they come to LIVE WELL. We hear it over, and over, and over. And it never gets tiring because it is so powerful; and so meaningful to all of us at LIVE WELL. Its why so many of our members are now inquiring (and becoming) a franchise partner.

Then you add to this the sheer size of the untapped market we are addressing, and the fact that we are the first to market.  For the person who wants that blend of purpose and business potential, is there really a better business opportunity in the Country right now?


To learn more about the Live Well Exercise Clinic franchise concept, visit them here at