Phillip Mills has spent five decades in the fitness and health club industry. From cleaning floors in his parents’ New Zealand gym as a teenager to leading one of the largest global fitness empires as an adult and father, he has experienced firsthand how fitness changes lives.

Today, Mills is helping lead the charge to make fitness and health a global priority because he knows that wellness can change communities and the world. 24Life sat down with Mills to talk Les Mills’ “fitter planet” initiative, why building community is more important than ever, and what the future of the fitness industry looks like around the globe.

24Life: What is Les Mills’ “fitter planet” initiative, and what inspired it?

Phillip Mills: My parents were track and field athletes. My dad went to USC on a track scholarship, competed in four Olympic Games in the shot and discuss, and became New Zealand’s national track coach. They had a passion for exercise that they loved sharing with people. When they opened their first public gym 50 years ago my dad said, “It’s our job to help people fall in love with fitness.” That has remained at the core of our culture all this time—for years our internal company mission statement was “creating life-changing fitness experiences.”

When Jackie [Dr. Jackie Mills, MD] and I wrote “Fighting Globesity” in 2006, we analyzed the multi-trillion dollar cost blowout of the global health system—the annual cost of the U.S. health system alone grew from $2.1 trillion in 2006 to $3.2 trillion in 2015—and realized that 70 to 80 percent of it was a result of lifestyle diseases; basically people eating badly and not exercising enough. At that point we decided that the fitness industry was more likely to solve the problem than medical science and in fact had a responsibility to do so, and we changed the mission statement to “for a fitter planet.”

The fitness industry barely existed when I started working cleaning my parents’ clubs after school in 1968. We were a tiny, tiny industry. Now we’re the biggest adult sport in the world. If you’re working in any fitness organization around the world—it’s really important what you do, not only improving individual people’s lives, but fighting a crisis that threatens the sustainability of our global health systems.

24Life: Why do you think that building community has become such a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in fitness?

PM: Society has become more fragmented. A lot of the old communities that we had—the corner bar, even the church—have diminished in mass popularity over the last 50 years or so. We’ve become much more isolated in our lives. We don’t play those team sports and get together as communities.

But humans are pack animals. We crave community and social interaction. You see that from the rise of social media. It’s an indication of how desperately we need to socialize. And that’s been something that I think has really driven the growth of gyms as a place where people can commune and just be around other people. The gym has kind of taken over, in a lot of countries, from the corner bar where people used to get together.

24Life: How does community form around a cause, like Les Mills?

PM: I think that communities form when an idea’s time has come and people are passionate about it, then other people want to get involved. Fitness is an idea whose time has come. People want to be healthier and fitter and eat better and look after their bodies better. It’s just something that we are naturally attracted to. You can’t do anything to stop this [fitness] movement.

24Life: For someone just getting started working out, why is community so important?

PM: When people say to me, “You’re in the exercise business, right?” I say, “Well, not really. Really we’re in the motivation business.” People can exercise anywhere. They can exercise at home in their living room or running around the block or at the local park. But most people don’t tend to. They need to be motivated. That’s why they come to gyms.

Motivation is a big word. There are all sorts of things that gyms do to motivate people: having exciting workouts, having fitness leaders, personal trainers and Group X instructors who are inspiring and motivating. Having other people there. The whole community thing, that’s motivation. You want to work out with other people.

If somebody asks me, “How do I get started in fitness? How do I successfully build a fitness lifestyle?” I’ll say, “One of the things that you’ve got to do is you’ve got to make it social because that’s going to motivate you. That’s going to make it fun: to do it with friends. Or if you don’t have time to do it with your friends, then get a personal trainer. If you can’t afford a personal trainer, do Group X.

Group X classes are great for this because you form a social relationship with your teacher, and gradually, over time, you form relationships with other people who are in the classes. And Group X has a lot of other motivators like music and fun ways to move.

As my dad said in 1968, “We’re in the business of helping people fall in love with fitness.” And that’s about finding all the different ways to motivate different people to exercise.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Les Mills