Health News Digest

December 19, 2011

Physical Training Made Personal

Personal trainer

By  Michael D. Shaw

History—or at least mythology—credits the centaur (a man with the body of a horse) Chiron with being the first personal trainer. Among his clients were the Greek heroes Heracles and Achilles. Certainly, physical training has been practiced since antiquity, and by definition, there had to be a trainer involved.

Governments have always had an interest in physical fitness, especially as it would affect military operations. It is only since 1956, and President Eisenhower’s establishment of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness that this concern would be applied to the civilian population, as well. Five years later, though, fitness would be given a more direct national security spin.

Readers of a certain age might remember a TV special broadcast on May 30, 1961—the very height of the Cold War—entitled “The Flabby American.” One undeniable theme of the show was that unfit Americans (mostly male) would be more susceptible to the lures of Communism, and —somehow—our muscle gap would lead to a missile gap.

This Flabby American notion drove improvements in public school physical education classes, and eventually led to the fitness craze jump-started in 1968 with Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics. Personal trainers—not just for celebrities or professional athletes—would soon follow.

Many people wonder why they should use the services of a personal trainer. Oft-cited reasons include:

  • Establishment of a workout plan, purpose-designed for the client
  • An increase in the client’s personal accountability to an exercise program
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • More efficient use of the time you have allotted to working out
  • The trainer is a powerful source of motivation

I recently spoke with longtime fitness industry guru Glenn Dickstein. Glenn is based in Manhattan, and runs the popular Neighborhood Trainers website. The site brings potential clients and trainers together, with its advanced search facility. Location, price range, the trainer’s instructional style, medical conditions, special capabilities the trainer might have—and a host of other parameters—can be keyed into the search, which will return a list of appropriate trainers.

I asked Glenn about the appearance of some of the trainers I have seen. While they may well be knowledgeable, they certainly do not look like they’re unusually fit. Is their selling point that they are less intimidating to a potential client? To answer, Glenn related a story from the days he worked for a health club chain.

One of the trainers there did not have a particularly firm mid-section, he didn’t exactly have rock-hard abs. But when I got to know him I found out that his inspiration for getting certified as a trainer was that he had lost 100 pounds, and wanted other people to experience what he had experienced.

So, if the potential client is 100 pounds overweight and reads this trainer’s bio, even if the trainer may not have the perfect appearance, he probably would be best suited to the client’s needs because he’s already gone through what that client must endure—on his road to fitness.

The argument is sometimes made that personal trainers tend to go for gimmicks, rather than put their clients onto traditional weight machines. The thought is that the elastic bands, chains, ropes, physio balls, and such items require specialized knowledge, and that anyone could figure out how to use a machine by himself.

Trainers point out that this so-called functional training helps their clients prepare for real-world activities, whether athletic or doing household chores. While this is true, authorities also contend that machines can build strength faster, and may be more effective in weight loss programs.

Strength training has unique importance for clients with type 2 diabetes. Alan Sidransky, owner of Focused Fitness NYC, has been a type 2 diabetic for nearly 20 years. He told me that…

As we increase in age, resistance exercise becomes more important. Beyond age 50, loss of muscle mass—especially in men—becomes dramatic, in both diabetics and non-diabetics. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories (read sugar) you consume. It is easier to maintain a balanced level of blood sugar with an workout program that contains resistance exercise. For my diabetic clients, I generally recommend 30 percent cardio, 60 percent resistance, and 10 percent “other.”

For many people, using a personal trainer is the right choice. Just get a good handle on your specific goals and individual needs before you begin the search for your own Chiron.