Monday, December 6, 2021

Exercising the American dream

Some of the best success stories are those in which people rise from the ashes of poverty and despair to the heights of achievement and personal fulfillment.

The Horatio Alger rags to riches narrative is compelling because it provides hope for those who feel that life has dealt them a losing hand, hence, the odds are against them moving up the economic ladder. It is that lack of hope which suffocates the human spirit and snuffs out the dream of a better tomorrow. In order to rise above one’s circumstances it’s essential to develop personal discipline and a goal-oriented passion.

Just ask Jesse Leyva, known locally as Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Fit ( in Flower Mound. He has a tattoo on each forearm to remind him of his goals; one reads “passion,” the other, “discipline.” Originally from California, where, during his youth, many of his friends found his last name hard to pronounce or spell, he was tagged him with the nickname. Years later, he decided to use it for his business.

His father left home when Jesse was 10, also leaving his mother and his younger sister. His formative years were filled with resentment for his father because of the poverty he left them to deal with. When he was 18, he reunited with his father and they moved to Lewisville, Texas. He had developed problems keeping up in school and was left back one year in high school.

“At the time, I didn’t know I had a reading disability, so I just dropped out,” Jesse said during a recent interview. His stepmother, a teacher from Australia, realized his disability and worked with him until he got a GED from Lewisville High. “She taught me how to take my time when reading and I used a flash card when I spoke,” he said. His father lives in Australia now.

“One of my first books that I enjoyed was ‘Awaken the Giant from Within,’ by Tony Robbins,” he said joyously. “That book changed my life completely. It changed me from anger toward my father for leaving when I was younger, and it made me realize that I was the only one who could determine the outcome of my life.” 

Displaying a humility that comes from the experience of difficult times, Jesse says, “I thank God every day that I have what I have. I was broke, lost my car, lived in hotels and started over. I was raised poor and I didn’t want to remain poor. Deciding to just quit would be the same decision; it just was not an option. What’s interesting is when you feel like you’re not worth crap, which I did at the time, without self-worth, I knew I had something more inside me than any of the other guys I hung around with.”

When he first moved to Lewisville, his dad bought him a membership at a fitness club. “I never had weight-trained before and did the same stupid stuff every day and got caught in situations where the bar was too heavy and people would pass by and say, ‘you okay?’ And I would assure them that I was just resting and stretching my legs. Then I met this cool guy who was a bodybuilder and he took me under his wing. He asked me one day to spot him and I thought, “What does that mean?”

A friendship developed and Jesse began to learn the science of bodybuilding. “I always thought that when someone was big and buff it was because of steroids; I had no clue about anything. Then I realized that this guy, who was a college grad, was meticulous in his diet. Every 2 hours he had chicken and potatoes, he had a formula. I had no clue about protein and calories or the science of it. 

“Over time, I went from about 140 lbs. to 170 lbs. of muscle, just by working out and eating properly. As I received attention I became passionate about training and my confidence went through the roof. It was kind of cool learning how to change my body through the decisions I made. It wasn’t just lifting the weights; it was all the hard stuff outside of the gym, the eating and watching the food. When I saw the changes, I was addicted.”

Jesse competed professionally for a few years, winning the Mr. Texas title, middleweight division (176 lbs.) in 2006. In 2010, he won the West Texas, light heavyweight division (198 lbs.).

After becoming a partner in a local gym for a couple of years, Jesse found a prime location to start his own fitness center. About seven years ago, he opened Jesse James Fit at 1001 Cross Timbers Road, and the business grew quickly.

“By then I had learned a lot about business structure, strategy and pricing. I did a lot of cool things that weren’t being done at the time,” he added. “We do a lot of half hour training sessions. We don’t allow anyone to just come in the gym and work out. If you pay for the time, it’s yours. There aren’t people all around using the equipment and you have to wait for them to finish. Instead, you get undivided attention. I don’t need someone who’s paying a $30 membership, and you’re paying for personal training, yet, can’t get on a machine.”

Jesse says his business is client-oriented. “I have a strategy. In my studio you can’t be there unless you have a personal trainer. We bill more in a half hour with 4 people than most places, because we train so that you get more in that half hour than you would working on your own. It’s not only safe, but it’s effective!” he said.  

“If you are one of those people that have weight issues and are a hard nut to crack, I weigh and measure 3 times a week. We will spend 4-5 minutes on this. We don’t pull the tape measure tight; if it’s off it’s off because you are paying for accountability,” he adds with conviction in his voice. These days, Jesse lives in Highland Shores and has a thriving business that continues to grow.

In addition to a huge exercise area, he has a boutique hair salon, sunless tanning, therapeutic massage and more. He plans to open satellite centers throughout the Metroplex, replicating the successful principles he’s used to improve the health and fitness of hundreds of clients. Jesse’s life is a story of triumph over adversity. Life gave him lemons, but instead of wringing his hands in hopeless desperation, he made lemonade and lived the American dream.

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