Active Voice: A Q&A with NiCole Keith, Ph.D., FACSM, ACSM’s 64th President


NiCole Keith
NiCole Keith became the 64th president of ACSM on June 1. SMB staff recently connected with Dr. Keith to learn more about her leadership experience thus far and her vision for ACSM during the next year.

You had the opportunity to meet with ACSM Past President Barbara Drinkwater, Ph.D., FACSM, this past year. What were some highlights from the conversation? Through communications with ACSM Past President Barbara Ainsworth, Ph.D., M.P.H., FACSM and Fellow Rosemary Agostini, M.D., Dr. Drinkwater invited me to her home on Vashon Island in Seattle. While quite frail, she was still very tall and regal. Her white, thick hair covered a very clear mind. She shared the history of her journey from P.E. teacher, to scientist, to president and revealed her secrets to success. I felt like we were amid a light and fun conversation when she became very serious. She reminded me that she was the first ACSM president who was not a man, and I am the first who is not white. She stared hard at me with her steel blue eyes and said, “NiCole, you have great responsibility to those who came before you and for those who will follow. Never forget, being brave for others and for yourself sometimes means making uncomfortable sacrifices.” That was an unforgettable life moment. Today it makes me wonder if she was prophesying 2020.

During your year as president-elect, ACSM underwent many changes. Can you tell us about the experience? Being challenged in this position is not unique. Every ACSM president-elect faces trials, yet these have been quite different. First, after 32 years of service, the ACSM CEO resigned to pursue new opportunities. Volunteer leadership organized a transition team. Each of us spent one day at the National Center each week for the next 12 months to help provide some continuity to ACSM staff. During that difficult time, staff confirmed what we have known all along – they are amazing. Next, we formed a search committee and hired a firm that found talented and qualified CEO candidates. Kristin Belleson won the job. The committee and staff are thrilled with the selection.

Six weeks into Kristin’s tenure, COVID-19 shut down the world, forcing us to cancel the 2020 International Health & Fitness Summit. The leadership team continued to monitor the progression of the pandemic, knowing we’d have to make a decision about the annual meeting next. The health and well-being of our members, staff and all participants were at the front of our decision. We also had to consider contractual obligations and the financial implications. Members expressed frustration with the slow approach to canceling, but there were literally millions of reasons to wait. Kristin did a great job leading the efforts. The president-elect chairs the ACSM Annual Meeting Program Committee, and a year of work was basically erased. We were all disappointed, but there was no other choice. Instead, we truly hope everyone enjoys the 2020 ACSM Virtual Experience – which launches tomorrow (June 17).

Do you have any ACSM updates in light of the challenges presented by COVID-19? ACSM remains strong financially and organizationally. The staff has been working remotely since the Indiana governor issued the stay-at-home order in March. ACSM staff and committee meetings continue via videoconference. Volunteers have continued to provide COVID-19 content that staff have assembled on the ACSM COVID-19 web page.

What do you hope to accomplish as ACSM president and has your vision changed at all from what you expressed as a candidate? My vision remains the same. ACSM has numerous priorities, including providing professional development opportunities to all members. Member engagement, collaboration and mentorship are critical. My focus on leadership development will continue through ACSM’s two well-established and highly successful mentoring programs. A new focus will involve better engagement of fitness professionals and health care providers to support the health of people from all populations. This will help us move toward health equity through physical activity and sport participation. As ACSM president, however, I must be sensitive to other strategic priorities, which I will always respect and support in my promotion of organizational inclusivity.

A special thanks to Dr. Keith for making time to share these insights. You can hear more of Dr. Keith’s thoughts in her presidential address video, read a letter from ACSM Immediate Past President William Kraus, M.D., FACSM, and watch the official gavel exchange on this page.

About Dr. Keith
NiCole Keith, Ph.D., FACSM, is a research scientist at the Indiana University Center for Aging Research, a Regenstrief Institute investigator, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and the associate dean of Faculty Affairs for the IUPUI School of Health and Human Sciences. Besides being the 2020-21 ACSM President, Dr. Keith also serves on the Exercise is Medicine® and American Fitness Index® Advisory Boards and on several national committees. She co-founded Physically Active Residential Communities and Schools – a partnership between Indianapolis Public Schools, Eskenazi Health and IUPUI that provides exercise opportunities to more than 4,000 Indianapolis residents. Dr. Keith’s research examines healthy aging, physical activity, fitness and health outcomes.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions or policies of ACSM. Active Voice authors who have received financial or other considerations from a commercial entity associated with their topic must disclose such relationships at the time they accept an invitation to write for SMB.