Dr. Ari Levy, a former member of the medical team for the Chicago Blackhawks, says he’ll never forget how his peers looked at him when, as a freshman at Highland Park High School, he stood just 4-feet-9-inches tall because of a kidney condition.
“I could see how people would look at you differently,” says Levy, now 38, living in Lake View and heading a River North startup health and fitness venture called SHIFT that combines personalized training with medical care.
His parents helped him take responsibility for his own health, taking daily medications and testing the level of protein in his urine. By 15, he overcame his condition.
He got his medical degree from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago, which he started working on while doing his residency in internal medicine.
After starting a workplace wellness-consulting firm, he raised $3 million in private equity funding for SHIFT, a high-end, all-in-one workout, health-care and well-being center that opened in February on North Orleans Street. Levy spoke the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy about his vision. An edited transcript follows.
Question: What’s SHIFT?
Answer: It really started 19 years ago, when I sent one of my brothers an email with a bunch of my first ideas, including combining a gym with a doctor’s office. We bring together experts in fitness, nutrition, medicine and recovery.
Goals, habits and accountability are such an important part of the SHIFT experience. A lot of us think we’re climbing Mount Everest to do whatever our goals and aspirations are. But it just takes one step — a little shift — which leads to another one.
SHIFT offers three memberships: The basic starts at $3,000 for personalized medical well-being care; $4,300 for people who travel or prefer remote personalized fitness and medical oversight; and a yearly $6,000, or $550 a month, for making day-to-day lifestyle changes in eating, exercising and recovery. The programs are covered by most health savings and flexible spending accounts but not by medical insurance.
Q: How do you get to your goal of opening this up to communities in the direst need?
A: I hope SHIFT proves so successful we can be in a position to work in underserved communities. I’m not doing this to be a wealthy man. I’m here to help people live better.
Q: You’ve shifted several times — walking away from the tennis team in college to become an emergency medical technician and focus on medical studies; becoming a personal trainer; selling part of your former company, Engaged Health Solutions, and shutting the rest of it to focus on the new venture.
A: When I say I’m going to do something, rest assured it will happen. I know when I’m not thriving at a goal any longer. I am very aware of when I’m not totally alive, excited and thrilled, and pushing on all cylinders. For eight years, up until this past year, I was one of the Blackhawks’ team internists. I had the fortunate experience of seeing the team win three Stanley Cups. But it was a natural transition to leave after eight years to focus on SHIFT and attend to the moving pieces of this wonderful opportunity.
Q: You credit your parents with being your advocates in your health care.
A: My father, Hezi Levy, was a Davis Cup tennis player for Israel in the 1970s. He met my mom and decided that was his new profession. His literacy level was very low. Yet he worked real hard. He modeled what it was like to get up every day, work hard and be a good husband and father and helped show us how to live in this world. He taught tennis in the late 1970s and early 1980s at Lakeshore Athletic Club in Lincoln Park.
My mom, who grew up in Skokie, was teaching English as a second language in Israel when she stumbled upon this tennis pro. She worked as a travel agent and later became a personal trainer. She was a wonderful, strong maternal influence on all of us. She ensured that education was a priority.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I play with my kids Gabrielle, 5, and Benjamin, who will be 3 in April. I hang out with my wife Alicia and my friends. I love to exercise. In the morning, exercise is calming for me. I don’t have a specific routine. I try to constantly challenge my body and allow it to repair and recover. I run, swim or row for cardio. I play tennis. I do weights or resistance training. And I love group workouts.