Jewish Journal


January 24, 2002

The ‘Personal’ Touch


Trainer Anthony Swain, left, works with a client on lunges and squats. Photo by Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Trainer Anthony Swain, left, works with a client on lunges and squats. Photo by Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Rhoda Weisman was having trouble motivating herself to exercise. Although she belonged to a gym and wanted to stay fit, the 43-year-old Angeleno worked out only sporadically and felt frustrated by what she saw as her physical "weakness." "I decided my body needed an overhaul," said Hillel's chief creative officer, who is based in Los Angeles. So she hired a personal trainer, and ever since, "I feel healthier, stronger and more confident," Weisman told The Journal.

As the concern for a healthy lifestyle grows, personal trainers -- exercise coaches who are employed privately to work out one-on-one with their clients -- are becoming more popular. Generally, a personal trainer prescribes a personalized exercise program for the clients, one that takes into account the client's particular situation and needs. The trainer also works out with clients, continuously motivating them to do their exercises correctly and stay in shape.

Today, as many people eschew their gym memberships for the workouts provided by personal trainers, it is clear that trainers have created a niche in the fitness industry that presents fitness seekers with a viable -- albeit costly -- alternative to working out alone or at a gym.

People employ trainers for a variety of reasons. Some, like Weisman, feel that they need a boost to get in shape or to lose weight. Others, like Shirley Pollack, 81, who began working out with a trainer to rehabilitate herself after a stroke, use a trainer as an aid to recovery after a serious illness. There are also people who employ a trainer to help them reach a certain fitness goal, such as running a marathon or completing a triathlon.

The main benefit of having a trainer, many say, is the discipline it provides.

Mara Blum, 33, started working out with personal trainer Betsy Mendel after she had her first baby. "I wanted someone to make me work out. It is easy to join a gym and never go, but if someone is coming over to your house at a scheduled time, then [you] get your energy going and just do it." Another client of Mendel's, Vivien Shane, a senior, says that working out "takes an amount of discipline, but knowing that [Betsy's] coming disciplines you enough to get up and go."

Some trainers, such as Greg Small, 32, of Brentwood, make their clients sign contracts financially binding them to their workout times, so that last-minute-I-don't-feel-like-it cancellations are not tolerated. "You have to get the person to love exercise. Your client has one hour with you two to three times a week -- and they have one hour a day with you, and they have 23 hours a day to undo what you just did for them, but if they love coming to the gym, and they understand that it is about your mindset just as much, if they love coming to the gym, then the relationship works a lot better."

It's the "personal" in personal training that hook many fitness buffs. Citing convenience of a trainer coming to the home, many note that they feel more confident with the tailor-made exercise programs that the trainer provided than the general work-out-as-you-wish plans that come with a gym membership. "There are a lot of people who just don't know where to start, and they feel intimidated by the machines at the gym," says Mendel, who has been a personal trainer for two years. "I bring the gym to them, and can make sure that they are doing it right."

Yet personal training is not for those who want to get in shape on the cheap. Trainers' fees range from $30 an hour upwards of $125 an hour, with many trainers seeing their clients more than once a week. And, like many services, one does not necessarily get a better workout for a higher price: Small believes that the main difference between his $70 workouts and other trainers' $125 workouts is the marketing costs that some trainers incur to get themselves on infomercials and written about in fitness magazines.

Vic Gainer, a trainer who specializes in running and training runners for marathons, told The Journal that he thinks the high prices are "absurd -- but I don't make the rules, I just make my own rules." Gainer's $50 fee for eight private sessions is atypical of this industry. "A person can go to a gym and spend $50 an hour doing free-weight work, but I don't think that they are going to get any of the benefits [runners] are getting," he says, noting benefits that include emotional and spiritual well-being, in addition to weight loss and general cardiovascular fitness.

Personal trainers have other drawbacks too. Since the client and the trainer work closely together, the relationship is not one that can withstand personality clashes. Weisman says she discontinued the services of trainer when she found that he was inattentive and "not very interested" in her fitness. Small admits this too: "The personality part of personal training is very big. You can't be a stick-in-the-mud and have a great business."

Furthermore, although becoming a trainer does require certification, the industry is free of checks and balances that standardize certification requirements for trainers. "Fifteen years ago, [aspiring] actors would be bartenders, but today a lot of them are personal trainers," Small says. "Some just look in the mirror and say 'Hey -- I look really good. I like what I see. Where can I hang up my sign?"

Small himself became a trainer thinking that his success at the job would be determined by his knowledge of physiology, and he is frustrated by what he sees as the false allure of aesthetics in the industry. "Is someone who has a great body a fitness expert?" he asks rhetorically. "It is not that people are getting hurt in the gym, it is just that people aren't getting helped the way they should be helped." Small, who received his certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, said that he is "constantly reading and continuing his education" so that he can serve his clients better and keep up with all the new innovations in fitness.

Regardless of the hassles people face finding a trainer that suits them, when they finally do, they tend to wax euphoric about the experience. "I feel great, I look better than I have done in years, and it is a wonderful experience," Blum says. Shane echoes her sentiments: "I have more energy, and I have lost inches."

Trainers, it seems, sometimes feel the same way. Says Gainer: "You know that you are doing something very special for these people."

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