Fired at 40, comeback at 54: How Ellen Latham built fitness giant Orangetheory

“Women may be thinking ‘but it’s so hard out there!’ And it is, but you’ve got to keep pushing,” Latham told Know Your Value. “As a female, you have to realize that you can do big things, and you have to believe you deserve it.”
Ellen Latham, founder of Orangetheory Fitness
Ellen Latham, founder of Orangetheory FitnessKnow Your Value

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By Halley Bondy

Fitness expert and single mother Ellen Latham suffered a major career setback at 40 when she was suddenly fired from her dream job as an exercise physiologist at a high-end spa in Miami.

“I was devastated,” Latham recounted to NBC’s Joelle Garguilo during an interview for Know Your Value. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do.”

But Latham didn’t give up. Fourteen years later, Latham founded Orangetheory Fitness, a science-based fitness franchise that now boasts over one million members and 1,200 studios around the globe.

Orangetheory combines running, rowing and strength training, while a heart rate monitor ensures that you are optimizing your workout.

The evolution of the franchise is detailed in the new documentary “Momentum Shift.”

“It’s almost overwhelming,” said Latham, now 63. “We’re getting so many members commenting on how this changed their life, not just with weight-loss…”

But it wasn't always easy.

Latham’s comeback career was actually her second meteoric rise. Latham had successfully taught aerobics classes throughout the 80s. She appeared on TV as a fitness expert. And of course, she had her dream job at the spa.

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Ellen Latham made a name for herself in the fitness industry in the 80s.Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness

“I thought: I had arrived. I had 30 employees...I was the ‘it’ person in fitness,” Latham said. “Of course, then I lost everything.”

Latham was fired in 1996.At the time, Latham was raising her 9-year-old son Evan by herself.

Even today, the odds are against women who are mid-career and searching for a new job. In fact, mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers, according to a 2012 study. And ageism at work begins at age 40 for women (as opposed to age 45 for men), after which many employees are no longer considered for training or promotions.

But Latham was not fazed. Instead, she decided to set out on her own.

“Women may be thinking ‘but it’s so hard out there!’ And it is, but you’ve got to keep pushing,” Latham said. “As a female, you have to realize that you can do big things, and you have to believe you deserve it.”

Latham was fired in 1996.At the time, Latham was raising her 9-year-old son Evan by herself.Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness

“Momentum Shift” details the lives of Latham, an Orangetheory coach named Joe Oniwar, and a member named Kristen. Each subject discussed how Orangetheory changed their lives, and how they experienced a complete attitude shift during a low point in their lives.

After Oniwar’s cousin was killed by gun violence in his home neighborhood Compton, Calif., he turned to sports as an escape. Pro football, however, left him with several head injuries and unable to form sentences. Coaching at Orangetheory gave him a fresh start.

“Gratitude leads everything in my life,” Oniwar said in the documentary. “...As I tell my class, if everything in the world has gone bad, it’s an opportunity to be grateful that you’re still here to notice it.”

"Momentum Shift," which came out in October 2019, details Orangethory Fitness founder Ellen Latham's journey.

Kristen fled from an abusive relationship and started over as a single mother. Until she joined Orangetheory, she saw fitness solely as a weight-loss tool.

“Fitness means so much more,” said Kristen in the documentary. “It’s about well-being and health and your ability to do things outside of that room, other than perch on a chair and look a certain way.”

“You can do a lot of things. You can retreat, or hide under the bed,” Latham said in the documentary. “..You can momentum shift up or momentum shift down. Momentum shifting up is focusing on what you have and not on what you don’t have.”

Latham described growing up in Niagara Falls, and credited her father for her comeback. Her father was a physical education teacher who maintained a bright outlook on life.

Ellen Latham with her parents.Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness

“My father always said: Whatever you do, make sure you’re passionate about it because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it,” said Latham in “Momentum Shift.” “For him, he probably never made more than $50,000 a year, and he felt like he was the most successful man walking the Earth.”

Channeling her father after the firing, Latham turned to her Pilates certification. On a whim, she invited gym members to practice Pilates in a spare room in her Florida home. The tiny enterprise became hugely popular.

Over the next 14 years, Latham expanded the venture and incorporated science-backed intensity-based training into her workouts. In 2010, she branded the comprehensive workout as Orangetheory, which is now a $1 billion global business.

The firing turned out to be a blessing for Latham, who has finally found her dream job.

“I would say to anyone: find what lights your fire. Find what excites you,” Latham said during the interview with Garguilo. “I’m very fortunate that it still does, and that’s why I wake up every morning excited and filled. That is priceless.”