Alumna’s new focus “melts” experiences, education, passion into innovative fitness venture
Painted on the wall of studio Melt’s brightly lit exercise room are the words “defrost your mind, discover your body.”
Those words are much more than a slogan for one of Madison’s most successful fitness studios, which provides personal training, group exercise, massage therapy, and nutrition counseling at a State Street location in the downtown square. For studio Melt owner Mona Melms, ’86, the phrase represents her life’s journey of personal struggle and triumph as well as her challenge for all who enter Melt wanting to improve their own health and well being.
Melms’ professional journey began with a career in preschool education before she quickly made the switch to nursing.
“I had always been interested in nursing school and, while I enjoyed working with kids, what I was doing wasn’t a good fit,” Melms said.
After earning her nursing degree and license, she eventually landed at Meriter Hospital in Madison where she became a nurse and, soon after, a nurse manager. As her managerial responsibilities became more and more prevalent and a path towards health care administration was looking to be Melms’ strongest option for career advancement, she decided to go back to school for her master’s degree.
“Advanced education is very important to me and I knew it was something I would return to at some point in my life,” Melms said. “But the fit needed to be right; I needed a program that allowed me to still work full time.”
Stritch’s degree programs for working adults were just getting started in Madison in the early 1980s and Melms enrolled as a member of one of the first cohorts in the area.
“I knew from that first phone call I made to inquire about the program that Stritch was a good fit,” said Melms, who chose the health administration master’s program and appreciated both the cohort model and the hands-on instruction. She remembers developing close relationships with her classmates, who hailed from various walks of life, and using them as a sounding board.
“Earning my master’s degree from Stritch opened up every major door for me in my career,” Melms said. “It gave me so much credibility. People started listening to what I had to say.”
So much so that Meriter launched a new childcare center based on research Melms did in her master’s degree program.
“Due to the nationwide shortage of nurses in the 1980s, I knew one way to help with retention, recruitment and overall job satisfaction for nurses within hospital systems would be to add on-site childcare services,” Melms said.
Her final Stritch capstone project focused on nursing retention and developed a full plan for implementing the childcare center at the hospital.
“I was well respected at the hospital, so I got on the agenda at one of the Board of Directors meetings,” Melms said. “I was so nervous. I had to get up there and present my work and those were the days of no PowerPoint. It was just me and my work.”
Her presentation impressed the board enough that, even though they didn’t implement her plan right away, they invited her a few years later to come back to reintroduce the plan. The second time, it got the green light.
Relying on those initial roots as a preschool educator, Melms got involved with setting up the center.
“From interviewing the teachers to painting the rooms, I had a part in each step of the process,” said Melms, who transformed an old school building across the street from Meriter into the new childcare center. “It was rewarding to see the work and research I did as a master’s student at Stritch come to life with this center. On the first day the center opened it was filled and had a waiting list of 50.”
Today, the hospital now also has a second site and it’s known as the Meriter Children’s Center. On-site daycare centers now are standard at many healthcare systems, but Melms proposed the idea well ahead of this trend.
Melms was on the fast track to an administrator’s role with Meriter when, on a cold Valentine’s Day in 1992, she received news that a pea-sized lump she found was stage three breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Her daughters were just four and two at the time.
“I was given 18 months,” Melms said. “For someone who was very career driven and a perfectionist in all I did, the diagnosis was a real turning point for me in the sense that it forced me to re-evaluate what I wanted out of life.”
Melms and her medical team decided to take an aggressive route in treatment and enrolled in an advanced research study that included a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy treatments at four times the standard dosage.
“I never felt victimized,” Melms said. “That mindset was important in my recovery. I never uttered those words, ‘Why me?’ but instead just told myself I have been handed another challenge that I needed to overcome.”
Throughout the treatment process and the months that followed in her healing, Melms researched and went after any natural healing remedy she could find.
“While I trusted the modern Western medicine approach, I wanted to be sure I was exploring all of my options,” Melms said.
Where she found most comfort was with spiritual healers, who focused on the body’s natural healing properties and taught Melms ways to access the body’s own healing abilities.
After returning to work when her health improved, Melms knew she did not want to go back to the job and grueling schedule she once kept. She decided it was time again to make a career change. She had become very interested in wellness and health promotion following her own personal journey as a cancer patient and went on to work for the Sports Medicine Center at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. She immersed herself in health and fitness programs and eventually started teaching a variety of fitness and wellness classes. At the peak, she was practicing in seven different studios throughout Madison.
“My clients kept telling me that I needed to open my own studio,” said Melms of the decision to branch out on her own.
It was the fall of 2007 and her youngest daughter had just started college and Melms thought that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“I was able to give this venture 100% of my time and attention, which is crucial when starting any business,” Melms said.
Starting a business from scratch is a risk; starting one during one of the worst times in the recent economic recession is sheer madness.
“I opened my business on a handshake,” said Melms who had found the ideal location but had no idea how she was going to pay the rent. “I knew what I wanted to do. I knew it could be successful and I believed in myself. That was it.”
She was indeed able to make rent that first month. And, in five years, Melms has grown the business to the point where she expanded to a second floor because she was running out of space.
Studio Melt sits in a rehabbed warehouse building on the square in downtown Madison, just steps away from the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Not only was having a bright and inviting space in the heart of the city necessary, Melms also wanted the name of the studio to represent her vision for what she wanted her clients to experience.
“I wanted the name to evoke something that was more about the mind, body, and spirit,” Melms said. “I was driving in my car and it just came to me. The word ‘melt’ meaning to ‘defrost your mind, discover your body.’ Melt whatever it is. Let go so you can find yourself.”
The classes and even the environment at Melt follow Melms’ own philosophical approach to fitness by designing programs to address both intensity and intention. Modalities that address only intensity to build core strength, power and balance will eventually fail the body if they are not balanced with intentional and mindful modalities that promote recovery and healing.
“That is why you don’t see a lot of equipment in the studio,” Melms said. “We are all about strengthening that core through body-weight activity.”
While weight loss and muscle strengthening tend to be the popular motivating factors for clients to attend classes or sign up for training, Melms aims to give a much more holistic approach, all while providing her clients with a community of cheerleaders, people who are there to help them succeed.
“Melt means transformation; you don’t know what the end product will look like, but you know change will happen,” Melms said. “I want my clients to be healthy – physically, spiritually and mentally. I want them to eat and sleep well. I want them to learn ways to ‘melt’ those stressors in life.”
Outside of overseeing the day-to-day management of the studio seven days a week, Melms herself teaches 21 classes each week. When asked how she does it, Melms laughed and said, “I’m really good at surrounding myself with incredible clients and colleagues who energize me!” She has worked to build a creative, supportive team that allows her to be the “dreamer.”
“Even going back to my days in the master’s program, I was the creative person,” Melms said. “I had the great ideas and vision but lacked the ability to tackle all of the details.”
When Melms launched Melt, she took a chance on a young professional also in the personal fitness arena, Benjamin Dreyer, who is her details guy and business partner.
“We are a perfect team,” Melms said. “I am the creative one and Ben is the realistic, financial guy.”
All trainers and practitioners at Melt hold advanced degrees and are the best in their respective fields.
“I wanted to elevate the professional practice of trainers and fitness professionals,” said Melms of her unique approach to staffing her studio.
Melms mirrored her business model off a studio she learned of in San Francisco that was set up much like a co-op. At Melt, all practitioners are independent contractors, setting their own prices and hours. She provides them with the space and equipment, and charges a fee for using the studio facilities.
“The business model had to be beneficial for both parties,” Melms said. “This gives the independent practitioners the empowerment to develop their own client base and define their own success.”
The approach has paid off – for both her practitioners and the studio. In only two years, Melt has grown to include a total of 14 different practitioners who range from personal trainers and massage therapists to physical therapists with hopes to add a chiropractor this fall. The studio now encompasses two floors.
“One of the most challenging aspects of running a fitness and wellness studio is the constant training and energy it takes to stay on top of your game. You have to be at your peak at all times,” Melms said.
Always seeking to learn more, Melms is now one of only a handful of master trainers in the Midwest for what is called Foundation Training, which rebalances your body through breathing and core strengthening techniques to help change movement patterns that are causing pain. The technique specifically has helped people who suffer from all types of back pain.
“I really feel like this is going to be the new yoga and go mainstream,” Melms said.
Through the long hours and pressure to stay current with all of the trends, Melms finds her joy in seeing her clients succeed.
“Being able to see someone who could hardly walk, now run their first 5K, that is rewarding,” Melms said. “Helping people transform their bodies to their ideal state, to a point where they feel good, mentally and physically, that is the ultimate reward for me.”
While there was a point in Mona Melms’ life where she once worried if she would ever get to see her daughters finish kindergarten, she has been fortunate to get to see both go on to college and earn master’s degrees and watch her oldest get married. Mara, her oldest, is now 27 and working as a civil engineer in Sarasota, Florida and Liza is 25 and getting a master's degree in Arabic and middle eastern diplomacy at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Throughout the whole process of surviving and beating cancer, I learned so much about the power of your own strength and what your body is truly capable of,” Melms said. “And after having a career change every three to five years since the age of 20, I feel I finally found something that feeds all of what I was looking for and that keeps me revved up. I am truly living my passion.”
To find out more about studio Melt, visit http://studiomelt.com/. Read more about Melms in a recent story featured in BRAVA magazine.