I've always admired my friends who dutifully get themselves to the gym, plug in to their Walkmans or iPods and do their 45 minutes on the treadmill or Stairmaster. I've never been able to stand the tedium for more than three weeks at a time. There are many reasons to pay for some time with a personal trainer, and accountability is certainly one of them. When you're paying $40-$70 for that hour, you're a lot less likely to blow it off.
I'm sure most everyone has periods where eating properly and exercising are not the number-one priorities. Unfortunately, some of us are not blessed with a forgiving genetic inheritance. In 2005, I found myself on beta-blockers for mild hypertension, with the nurse practitioner sounding like my own personal spirit of Christmas-Yet-to-Come as she described the downward spiral of insulin resistance to metabolic syndrome to diabetes and heart disease.
Overwhelmed by the task ahead, I joined a gym that emphasized cardio and weight-training classes, but found that I was too weak for some of the exercises. Old injuries from my happily active team sport days began to flare up, and I wasn't seeing much progress in my health. Eventually a class trainer suggested a few sessions with one of the personal trainers on staff. Quitting at that point did not look like an option, and I figured my time in PT couldn't be any more humiliating than attempting to keep up in the classes.
The weak, the out-of-shape and obese are not the only people who consult personal trainers. I've worked with three since 2005, and while they've told me their clientele has its share of people like me, they also train athletes bored with their workouts or who have specific goals like a triathlon or a personal best in mind. They frequently train men and women who simply want to look and feel better. Sadly, and more on this later, they mostly train people with the means to pay, or those of lesser means who are willing to spend at lot of what they earn on their own health and fitness.
A good personal trainer has a college or university degree in one of the physical fitness disciplines and certification as a strength and conditioning specialist or as a personal trainer. My first trainer had me walk up and down the gym a few times to assess my body mechanics. I learned that the way I walked was contributing to my knee problems and that my "left glute wasn't firing." (Yes, the lingo can be entertaining.) Drawing pictures of feet on the blackboard, she explained how I could intentionally modify the way my foot came down, and that ultimately I would have fewer problems with my knee and hip. Many of the exercises she had me perform over the next few months were designed to strengthen the muscles I would need to walk correctly and get that glute firing.
It made a tremendous difference to have someone design my workouts with my very specific needs and idiosyncrasies in mind. One of those idiosyncrasies is attitude. I get easily discouraged when I don't see quick progress, and positive thinking has not always been a strong suit. At first it was hard just being in the same room with my trainer, who was relentlessly positive and didn't consider her work done until she got me to reframe in positive language whatever struggle I saw myself up against. She laughed off my curmudgeonly attitude in those early sessions, although there were sometimes intense negotiations, trading exercises I hated (say, 20 reverse lunges) for ones I enjoyed (two minutes of medicine ball crunches). My trainer was a diplomat and motivator as well as a fitness expert. I began making progress, working around those old injuries to get my legs stronger. I became able to take some yoga classes and occasional cardio classes. I cut my beta-blocker dosage in half.
Most, though not all, of the personal trainers working in Madison's gyms and athletic clubs are young people, not far past college graduation. Their youth and energy, their enthusiasm and idealism about the value of what they're doing are strong and infectious. But being young and with many things yet to do, they tend to move on. I had my first trainer for six months, my second and third for a year each.
Going for PT two or three times a week can make you feel surprisingly vulnerable. You're working with someone who understands all too well the strengths and weaknesses of your body and even, to a certain extent, your mind. She has helped you shape goals (my first goal was simply "Don't quit"; after 18 months, I was training to walk 10 miles a day over hilly terrain in Southwest England). She has watched you sweat and pinched your fat pads periodically to measure changes in your body composition.
I was raised in the era when parents told you what to do and left you to do it. The notion that someone might get down on the floor with you while you learned to do something so physically taxing it made you want to cry was not only astounding, but a tremendous motivator in itself. All this by way of saying that each change was hard. I hated losing each of my trainers. And then each new trainer proved to have a different perspective that worked in its own particular way, and so it goes.
After two and a half years of PT, I've gone off beta-blockers completely, though I do remain on a small dose of a calcium channel blocker. I've lost 10% of my body weight and increased muscle mass by more. I successfully (though honestly, not without pain) walked roughly 10 miles a day for 12 days in a row on our trip to England last summer, by the way impressing my husband with my baggage-carrying capabilities. I'm even occasionally a very positive person. I'm also tapped out.
It is a wonderful thing that personal training is so widely available in Madison right now (most area health clubs offer the service). Costs per session vary, depending on the facility. Some athletic clubs offer a few personal training sessions as part of new membership. Some facilities are beginning to offer small-group training, with more personalized attention than a large class, but without the privacy of one-to-one PT. And though not everyone needs or would want to continue with a personal trainer for as long as I did, the dollars still add up. I was lucky to have the money to hang in there as long as I did, and I know the difference it made in my health and outlook on life. It's an experience I would wish for anyone who has struggled with exercise and fitness, not only those with the ability to pay.