If You Use a Personal Trainer, Will You Also Exercise Alone?

As I was changing in the locker room, a woman entered wiping her face with a towel and sighing, “ Thank God that’s over.“ She sat down on a bench looking exhausted.

“Training?” I asked. “Of course,” she answered.  “I hate it, but I know it is good for me. I would never exercise if I didn’t have to meet with my trainer three times a week. In fact, she is going on maternity leave in a couple of weeks, and I am going to have to force myself to come to the gym.” “So you don’t work out on your own?” I asked.  “Never,” came the immediate answer.

I assumed that she had had been going to the gym only recently and depended on her trainer to teach her how to best use the equipment and balance her strength training with cardiovascular workouts. But no, she had been using this trainer for 5 years and earlier, another trainer associated with a gym to which she used to belong.

Obviously using a personal trainer engaged her in sufficient physical activity to keep her fit and confer all the benefits that regular exercise brings. But I wondered how it was that she could not make the transition to exercising on her own. She was not a beginner, she felt comfortable in the gym and, after so many years, knew the routines her trainer put her through.

Was having a personal trainer preventing her from exercising by herself? She reminded me of dieters who are able to restrict calories, adhere to portion size, avoid unhealthy foods and eat the recommended number of vegetable servings each day only when eating the packaged foods of a commercial weight-loss plan, or when checking daily with a nutritionist or other support individual. Indeed, such a dieter finds it difficult to make the transition into eating in such a way so as to maintain the weight loss while being compatible with the dieter’s normal lifestyle (no one eats diet packaged foods forever). Without supervision, often the dieter can’t or won’t avoid excessive portion sizes, highly caloric foods, or eat the required daily servings of high fiber, vegetables and fruits.

The woman in the locker room confessed that she doubted she would return to the gym until her trainer did because she could not make herself exercise with the same intensity and pain.  I suggested that exercising need not be punitive in order to be effective. Perhaps she might enjoy a class (the gym offered many), use some of equipment like the rowing machine, which she never used with the trainer, or join a group that ran together on treadmills.  The summer weather filled the nearby river with kayakers, and the streets with bicyclists and runners, so exercising outside was another alternative.   She looked unconvinced and soon left.

Exercise physiologists and physical therapists, those professionals with knowledge and experience of how best to exercise without injury, can be extremely helpful for the exercise beginner, for those with special needs such as balance problems, recovery from orthopedic surgery, or someone training for a competitive event like a long-distance bike ride or road race. Yoga and Pilates instructors strengthen our bodies, improve our posture, breathing and balance, and are also important in a comprehensive exercise program. A friend recovering from a minor stroke dedicated two years to working with a personal trainer to improve her stamina, a Pilates instructor to improve her balance, and a water aerobics instructor to strengthen her muscles without risking injury.  These professionals restored what she had lost from her stroke and she met her goal of exercising, finally without their supervision.

But the woman in the locker room had no such goal. She made her trainer responsible for seeing that she exercised, and if the trainer didn’t show up or was unable to work, she didn’t.  Her attitude is not unique. I have many weight-loss clients who told me that they used to work out when they had a trainer, but since they don’t have one anymore, they haven’t been exercising at all.  It is as if all the exercise routines they went through, sometimes for months or even years, had no lasting impact on their desire to exercise to engage in any kind of physical activity.

Is it possible that one reason someone seems unable or unwilling to exercise without supervision is that he or she can’t make the transition from being trained to exercising independently?   Does it occur to the individual walking on a treadmill under the watchful eye of a trainer that he or she could also walk outside? Does the trainer suggest ways in which the client might incorporate more walking rather than driving into a daily routine, or use it as alternate form of exercise on the days training doesn’t occur?  Would the woman in the gym be willing to apply her many hours of doing balance exercises to bike ride, rollerblade, ride a scooter, or participate in a yoga or ballet (barre) class?  Might the arm and back exercises she does in the gym make it easy for her to go kayaking, swim or play tennis or golf?  Would she consider entering running races, or going on walks to raise money for charities since her training has increased her stamina?

There is a saying among athletes: use it or lose it. When exercise stops for whatever reason, muscle mass, stamina, and skill decreases. If the woman in the locker room stops her exercise, she loses something else as well, namely a body fit enough, with sufficient stamina and coordination, to enjoy whatever physical activities she might want to do.  And that is a loss that should be prevented.

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