What's the Purpose of a Personal Trainer?

Every few months the New York Times publishes an article about exercise that gets my clients and students buzzing. My inbox fills with links to articles like The Scientific 7-Minute Workout, Can You Get Too Much Exercise? and How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body along with lots of questions and comments.

I enjoy these times, even when ~ maybe especially when ~ I disagree with the slant of the article and the conclusions my clients draw from it. These discussions and debates force me to educate myself further, to clarify my opinion on the matter at hand and to communicate my stance with greater eloquence.

Most importantly, I am delighted by any opportunity to get people thinking about their bodies, their movement patterns, their breathing patterns, their motivations for exercise, their eating habits, their physical responses to stress, heartbreak, joy, their physical responses to life in general, really. Anything that sparks people's curiosity about their bodies is a good thing in my mind.

Last week The New York Times published a snarky opinion piece by Frank Bruni that painted personal training as a frivolous profession of superficial, uneducated crooks. Several of my clients wanted to know my opinion of the article. I am sorry to say that I can't entirely disagree. There are many, many ridiculous things that go on in the fitness industry. There are terrible personal trainers. But there are also terrible doctors. And terrible accountants. And terrible electricians. And terrible hair stylists. And terrible journalists. And terrible people in general earning a whole lot of money doing tremendously uneducated and immoral things.

But as Mr. Bruni himself pointed out, there are huge discrepancies in levels of education and competency amongst individuals working as personal trainers. So it is worth mentioning that there are also incredible people doing inspired, informed, tremendously helpful work, personal trainers with vast knowledge and upstanding motivations for a career in this field. I count myself as one.

I do wish Mr. Bruni had been a little less committed to his snide stance and given a little more time to genuine inquiry, because there is a question worth asking: What is the point of a personal trainer? If we are not just status symbols for the rich and famous, if we are not just screaming drill sergeant cheerleader monsters, if we are not just brainless leaders on an obsessive quest for "a better body," if we are not just superficial spokespeople for an "ideal" homogenous physical form, then what are we?

I cannot, of course, answer this question for all trainers, but I can answer it for myself.

As a personal trainer, I am an advocate for the body. Not an advocate for six pack abs or skinniness. I am not an advocate for ass kicking simply for ass kicking's sake.

I advocate for curiosity and exploration and the thrill of discovering a new ability of the body. I have watched people shout joyfully upon finally mastering a dance move and burst into tears the first time they found themselves upside down in a handstand. I have taught adults how to ride bicycles. I have seen people's personalities shift from fearful, angry and nervous to confident, light-hearted and calm simply by committing to a few days a week to dead lifts, lunges, push ups and pull ups.

I advocate for having experiences of the body that aren't about weight loss or tracking strength gains, experiences that are about focus and connecting to our physical forms rather than disassociating because the workload is too much or because the movements are painful.

I advocate for helping people find movement that they enjoy.

I advocate that every person know the difference between spinal flexion and spinal extension and the effects these movements have on the spine. Speaking of the spine: Do you know how to keep yours in neutral while simultaneously hinging at your hips? Being able this has meant the difference between pain and no pain in the knees and low back for many of my clients.

Over my years of work as a personal trainer I have had several clients tell me that I have helped them in recovering from various injuries more than their doctor-prescribed, insurance-paid physical therapists. I don't claim to treat injuries or even attempt to do so, but I do find it interesting that simply taking the time clearly educate my clients about proper movement patterns, they often get better. I'm not knocking the discipline of physical therapy. There are many amazing physical therapists whose work has taught and continues to inform the work I do with my clients. But it is worth noting that sometimes an ambitious, knowledge-hungry personal trainer can be more effective than a lazy, uninterested physical therapist.

I advocate for strength and flexibility and agility and coordination and a feeling of springy suppleness. I advocate for muscles and tendons and ligaments and fascia and joints. I advocate for lungs and for the heart. I advocate that you be reasonable in your exercise, that you think kind thoughts about your body, that you be amazed by all the incredible things your body can do.

I advocate that you move your body EVERY DAY in ways that FEEL GOOD. I advocate that you eat well.

I advocate that you remember this simple truth: Your body is your home. It is the only thing you are guaranteed for lifetime. Your body has been with you since your birth and it will be with you until you die. Not even your house or your closest loved ones are promised to you in this way.

Be well, sweet friends. And keep moving!