My first job working in a gym was about a gazillion years ago when I was in college. I was the Party Coordinator at Lakeshore Athletic Club in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. My job was in birthday party planning for the children of club members – and without the benefit of a Zumba kids license or anything like that (I can’t believe I can tell my children that I was alive before the invention of cell phones, Google, and ZUMBA for Pete’s sake), I got the job because I sold them on the notion that I could make a great party based in fitness that didn’t feel like exercise. We DID dance (in my infinite wisdom I called it Movement to Music), acted out stories (Creative Yoga), and practiced agility (Obstacle Course!) I’m not even sure I worked there a year, not because of the kids, who were pretty sweet, but because of the parents. I was young and inexperienced, and this was a time before Bravo taught me about housewives and Birken bags, so as you can imagine, the women in a luxury athletic club in a ritzy Chicago neighborhood in the early nineties both fascinated and terrified me. Now I know they were probably in their mid to late 30s, maybe a few had hit 40, and were probably going through lots of life’s battles that I have now gone through, but to me they were lifetimes away from my 18 year old self. My observations were watching them pursue FAT FREE indulgence (Snack Wells!) and hours of CARDIO (in Spandex!) while their husbands worked downtown and came home late, and I was the girl who threw the thousand dollar birthday parties designed to secretly melt the babyfat of the children of the club. Moi.
I think about that from time to time. Now those children are well into their twenties, older than I was then. And I’m 40, still selling fitness disguised as a party.
I’ve been writing here since 2009. This blog has afforded me great opportunity to travel and conference and network. I have heard from people all over the country (and really, all over the world) who have connected with my writing somehow and shared with me their experience trying to live a healthier lifestyle. And also I’ve heard from a lot of people asking me how to get skinny.
Which is funny. For obvious reasons.
But one thing I learned early on is that the growth and success of the fitness ‘industry’ depends greatly on a person’s desperate desire for change. It is the desperate person that very often makes the middle of the night infomercial purchase, or has the year-end binge before vowing to clean it all up on January 1, or who orders the shakes/supplements, or finds the doctors who will prescribe the pills. Who pays for the fancy gym membership long after he or she stopped going. Who wants it to be as easy as popping a pill. Who thinks that their pain or insecurity or personal failure is because of their body, and if they could just be THIN they would be happy.
But the other thing I have learned about the fitness industry is about the instructor or trainer. Just like there are different levels of need from a client, an instructor has many competing interests as well. If we’re legit, then we have to be good students to earn the certifications and licensure to teach and train safely and effectively. We have to be good planners to be able to put together a class or session that will keep the student motivated and meet his or her expectation. We have to be an engaging personality so that students will want to be in our classes. And we have to be willing and able to spend lots of money and time to obtain these licenses, certifications, continuing education, conferences, events, and personal liability insurance.
And on top of it all, we have to make it look easy, or at the very least, look accessible, so that people will give something a try.
Some instructors don’t do those things. Many of the formats you see on the group fitness schedule at your gym require nothing more than a check for $300-$1500, and 8-16 hours of your time on a given weekend, and whether or not you have any real knowledge of fitness or safety, you can get a job teaching that format because you completed that training. You don’t have to be a member of any accredited fitness organization to get many popular licenses. And they can be on the same teaching schedule as somebody who has dedicated much time and effort to the study of the science of exercise, or health, or nutrition. It’s up to the integrity of the instructor to put the additional work in, and not all of them do.
And how are YOU to know the difference?
Further, whether we work for a gym or for ourselves, trainers need to attract people in order to have clients. So whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are salesmen, advertisers, and marketers. Whether it’s utilizing our social media, wearing a tee shirt with a slogan, giving a class away for free or doing sales/incentives, placing ads, offering discounts for referrals – we are the sellers of the dream, and though we are in a ‘helping’ profession, few of us do it for free. We are earning income in various ways – we sometimes make money ‘per head’ in a class, or sometimes we are vying for the best time slots on a gyms schedule, or sometimes we teach the group fitness classes in order to attract potential personal training clients – all reasons we want a big turnout in class. And truthfully, many trainers (including the one that inspired this post) work for cash, making hundreds of dollars a week totally under the table. Which, for the trainer, is a great gig. So for myriad reasons, it’s important to a fitness professional to generate a loyal ‘following’ of satisfied (and repeat) clients.
And somebody with years of practical experience, all kinds of formal education, certifications and training and lots of happy clients can be working in the same arena as somebody with an 8 hour license, an engaging personality, and a gimmick. Hardly seems fair, but it’s true.
It’s funny that so many people ask me questions about healthy living, because from a superficial standpoint, somebody could easily say that I’m not a great ‘commercial’ for the commodity I sell. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m not thin. My vastly improved strength/endurance/flexibility isn’t something seen when you look at me. Nor is my daily defeat of the anxiety and occasional depression that working out has helped me manage. The fact that my social life consists more of fitness parties and 5Ks instead of pitchers of beer and shots is something that has to be explained because when you look at me, you see only my right now. And the truth is, for most people, fit equals thin and that’s not me. But still, people who know me or know something about my journey will ask me questions, and sometimes I will give my opinion. And if something sounds dangerous or unhealthy, I will say so.
The email that pushed me to write came from somebody I’ve met along the way who lives in a gated community in Florida, where beachbodies are a hot commodity. A trainer approached the HOA about coming in and utilizing the pool and fitness facility to work with residents of the neighborhood, there was a vote, and she was approved. She went door to door with fliers about classes, personal training, and nutritional counselling. Every now and again I hear from this woman who tells me something that goes on there, usually because she herself feels a little uncomfortable with it, but just wasn’t confident enough to say so. From what has been shared with me, the instructor makes a lot of jokes about calling her workouts ‘torture’, but really they kind of are. She said it’s a pretty common occurrence for somebody to have to stop during a workout due to dizziness or nausea. My reader said it’s kind of like a badge of honor to say you felt like you needed to barf, or better yet, to barf and then get back to work. She shared with me this trainer’s reaction to her story about taking a trio Zumba class at a conference, where her HRM showed a great calorie burn, and she actually had FUN – where it wasn’t torture at all! The trainers response? “Wouldn’t the teachers be thin if they really knew anything about fitness?”
But this trainer keeps a tight hold on her clients, and just like with any “diet” or fad, people lose weight when they stick with her every day. I looked at this woman’s website and social media – lots of pics of women flexing their muscles and talking about Her! Amazing! Results! with any and all kinds of credit being focused on the trainer. But from what my friend has told me, it’s not so much a teaching environment as it is a just do what you’re told environment. From the one-side of the story I have received, this trainer has ONE way of training EVERY client, regardless of their starting point, and it is the clients job to get up to speed.
The after pics my friend has shown me of these women –many of whom are her neighbors and friends – are way more telling than the flexing and the duck lips – the AFTER afters. After the student has run out of money or motivation, burned out, and dropped out of this elite fitness clique. You know, when the weight came back.
A few days ago this reader emailed me, and in the subject line was: THE LAST STRAW. She was told by this trainer that she couldn’t have the information on a “cleanse” lots of the clients were doing if she was going to just run to somebody else for an opinion. The trainer said if my friend didn’t trust her to make her thin, then she should just go find a Zumba class.
Now I realize this is an extreme story and most trainers are NOT this egotistical. But there are glimmers of truthful experiences we have all been through in this example. My friend said she could see now how her desperation to ‘fix’ her body is what this trainer picked up on and exploited, and even though so many of the other woman didn’t see that yet, they would eventually.
And that, my friends, DOES happen. All the time.
My friend wrote “if that stupid cleanse isn’t something she’s willing to put out in public, then it’s probably not something that’s going to truly benefit me. These things keep us dependent on her. If I’m going to change myself, it has to come from ME. I can’t believe how caught up I got in trying to fit in with that.”
Even though she asked my opinion, she already had her answer. And she found that she had the confidence to go her own way.
So the moral of the story is, listen to your inner voice. Ask for credentials as well as testimonials, and if you are ever shamed for getting second (or third or fourth) opinions, move on. If you like the boot camp style, if you want to work out until you puke, if that’s what motivates you and makes you push your limits, that’s okay. But if it’s not, that’s okay too. You’ll know when you’re in the right place for YOU.
Biggest Jazz Hands EVAH
And if you’re ever unsure, you can always ask MrsFatass.