Army Service propelled Matt Hesse to become a wellness phenom
By Will Martin
(Men's Health Magazine)
DURING THE HEIGHT of the Covid pandemic, most of us hunkered down in our apartments and homes, weathering the uncertainties of a global pandemic. But for U.S. Army veteran Matt Hesse, that wasn’t an option. He was busy launching a university.
“I was in the process of building the University of Health & Performance,” says Hesse. “I needed to do what I love to do, which was to help people—and the university is the culmination of so much hard work.”
Helping people, however, hasn’t always been a driving force for Hesse. In his late teens, he buried himself in his passion for bull riding and all that lifestyle involves, namely getting in fights and chewing Copenhagen tobacco.
But an encounter with an Army recruiter who knew his way around a boxing ring presented Hesse with his first mentor. After-school sparring sessions offered Hesse a window into the life of his recruiter, where structure and meaning informed his every move. It was enough to get him to enlist.
“He set me on a life that I’m super happy and blessed to be living,” Hesse said during a recent podcast with the Army’s Special Operations Command. “Service in everything in my life and I learned it in the military.”
After departing the Army, Hesse grew aware that veterans, many with multiple combat deployments under their belt, often struggled to transition to a tempo that didn’t require constant readiness and controlling their environments. Stuck in a loop of aggression and performance, they needed space to take an inventory of their lives and reclaim their sense of purpose.
Hesse’s initial response was FitOps, a foundation he launched in 2017 to “empower the veteran population to do good in their communities and do well for themselves through a program that qualified them to work as personal trainers.”
FitOps has evolved into nationwide network of educators that provides employable skills and a sense of community to veterans passionate about fitness. But for Hesse, it didn’t go far enough.
“FitOps remains important to me,” says Hesse. “But the pandemic nudged me to do something I always wanted to do—something even bigger.”
So, in early 2021, Hesse traveled to Arkansas, purchasing several hundred acres for what would become the University of Health and Performance. Offering its first courses in 2022, the university involves a three-week immersive experience at a world-class retreat. “A Disneyland for transition,” it aims to not only train but transform its students.
“The ultimate goal is to prepare world-class health and wellness coaches,” says Hesse. “It’s not just about certification. It’s about values in leadership.”
The university is built on The Purpose Blueprint, Hesse’s educational philosophy rooted in the “interconnected nature of being able to think, train, feel, and lead.”
Beyond rigorous classwork and time at the gym, the program requires its students to dive deep, reconnecting with their values framework. Emotional inventories and frank group discussions are mainstays of the curriculum.
One recent graduate, a Marine veteran who got hooked on pain pills after a combat injury, found his way to the university after completing drug rehab. In crafting his personalized Purpose Blueprint, he was able to realize his goal of becoming a counselor, earning a master’s degree so he could serve the veteran community, Hesse says.
“When I went into the military, I saw what great values and great leadership look like,” says Hesse. “There are a lot of things the military gives you but being able to operate from a really solid value system—that should be table stakes for all human beings.”