It’s Time To Widen The Perception Of Personal Training

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I truly believe it’s time to place greater emphasis on delivering a more holistic, lifestyle-based service to our clients, and, subsequently, widen the public’s perception of personal training.

By Liz Shaw, Health and Fitness Tutor at The Training Room | Dec 2019

We all know that the role of a personal trainer (PT) encompasses many different aspects of health, fitness and wellbeing – stretching far beyond just exercise and nutrition. However, many people – through no fault of their own – continue to view our profession in a fairly simplistic way, not realising the full range of services and benefits that we offer. We need to change this narrative, especially now that so many people (particularly Millennials and Gen Z) are placing much emphasis on their all-round wellbeing.

When I first started as a PT, I thought my clients would talk to me purely about exercise and nutrition; instead, I found they also wanted to discuss their stress levels and other matters related to their wider wellbeing. I soon realised my role extended much further than the general public’s traditional perception of a PT, and, in fact, I could perhaps be better described as a lifestyle coach.

Since then, I’ve come to look holistically at exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress management, all of which can be drawn together to create a much broader picture of a person’s health and how best to assist them.

I believe the title PT tends to make people think of either losing weight or building muscle in the gym; clients pumping iron or hitting the treadmill whilst a professional provides instruction, motivation, support and accountability. Even if a client’s focus is knocking pounds off the scales or making some serious gains, we can still address wellbeing too. By focusing our conversations with prospects around health and fitness in this more holistic sense, we’ll also be opening the door to a whole new realm of people – those who may otherwise have been put off by the ‘stereotypical’ idea of personal training, involving killer gym sessions and not much else! This approach not only helps us reduce ‘gymtimidation,’ but it also allows us to start chipping away at the misguided view of our profession – building something new and more representative in its place.

If we break personal training down and consider what it really means, it’s about how the client personally needs to be trained in body AND mind. Just as our physical health can be good or bad, so too can our mental health. To provide some context, in the UK, approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year, according to mental health charity, Mind, so it’s vital we consider both aspects of our clients’ health, trying to open relevant conversations wherever possible.

Thanks to numerous healthy eating initiatives, from Jamie’s School Dinners and the government’s 5-a-day campaign to Change4Life and ITV’s Veg Power campaign, most people nowadays are conscious of what they’re eating and how this affects their physical health. Even if they still make unhealthier nutritional choices, at least they’re aware of it. However, many people don’t fully understand the connection between mental health and lifestyle habits. For example, in today’s society – with many of us fighting against the rat race – it’s easy to neglect sleep and exercise. The question is, do people really know the true impact this has on their body, both physically and mentally?

To improve my understanding of mental health, I took the Mental Health First Aid Instructor Training through MHFA, and it’s a direction I hope our whole profession will start to move in. From individual PTs to education providers, we all need to get a better handle on mental health and integrate it into our practice if we’re to make a real difference to people’s lives.

Stress, in particular, is a massive epidemic in today’s society; something which, I believe, PTs can help to tackle. To highlight the scale of this issue, “In 2018/19 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health,” according to the Health and Safety Executive. This poses other questions around workplace wellbeing, which is another conversation entirely (and perhaps one for another time!)

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics may also startle you, showing that there has been no improvement in personal wellbeing among the UK population in the 12 months leading up to March 2019.

While these statistics might sound all doom and gloom, they present a real opportunity for us to show the true extent of the value we can add to people’s lives in terms of supporting mental health and all-round wellbeing.

With this in mind, the next time a client attends an initial consultation, try taking that extra step. Talk to them about exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress and even their poo… yes, that’s right! The colour, shape, size, consistency, and length of time (how long it takes) will provide clues to the state of their health. I’d suggest researching the Bristol Stool Scale which makes this easy to understand. Talking about poo may feel a little uncomfortable initially, but your clients will soon conquer the initial embarrassment when they realise it’s all part of the bigger picture regarding their health; ultimately meaning they’ll receive a far more personalised and effective service. Additionally, talking about poo is much more “real life” for your average client than discussing VO2 Max, and, therefore, may be much easier to comprehend as a health indicator/metric.

When it comes to consultations, I always try to remain fluid, allowing conversations to naturally progress in their own directions. This often leads to other topics being discussed, such as stress and sleep, and is the point at which a PT becomes more of a lifestyle coach. Of course, we always cover the staple ingredients of a consultation, including any underlying health issues/injury history, but if we’re too rigid in our approach, we could be missing out on important information that might have a significant impact on their goals, experience and progress moving forward. Ultimately, the client decides how much they wish to divulge about their personal health and lifestyle; the PT creates a forum where people feel they’re able to share as much or as little about their current wellbeing as they like. It’s about opening conversations.

From my experience, so many people appreciate the opportunity to discuss themselves in more depth. In our ‘one-click society’ we all constantly have too many tabs open – both in our minds and on smart devices. It’s rare that we actually stop to ‘connect’ on a more human level; simply talking to someone can be so valuable to our mental health. And while it’s often said that men are less likely to talk about their feelings and seek help, men I’ve worked with have, in general, been just as willing to engage in conversations about mental health as women.

There is a real push going on within the health service towards prevention over cure, looking at how the physical activity sector can contribute towards this. This was a major topic of discussion at this year’s ukactive National Summit, suggesting another important and relevant point concerning how we position ourselves as PTs. Singling out autoimmune conditions (irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), coeliac disease and such like), which have seen a huge increase in recent years, in my own experience, these are frequently stress-related. Such diseases can often be prevented – or at least the symptoms relieved – through exercise, diet, lifestyle, sleep and other activities like meditation and mindfulness; again, underpinned by a holistic approach to personal training.

I have huge respect for our health service, but, with increasing pressures and demands on today’s GPs, they often have limited time to spend with individual patients. Frequently you’re handed a “cure” (i.e. prescription) for your ailment, rather than preventative measures to take away with you. This is where we, the PTs, can enter!

If we promote ourselves in ways that position us more as lifestyle coaches, people will start to realise two things. Firstly, PTs have more time to listen, and, therefore, can offer a more personal relationship and true human connection that’s important for mental health. Secondly, PTs can produce lifestyle plans that provide long-term health solutions, rather than more immediate fixes which might not help prevent the beginnings of more serious problems. And, as PTs, we can hold our clients’ hands throughout the process (i.e. nag!) which – obviously – GPs aren’t in a position to do.

By changing people’s perception of the PT, we’ll have the ability to assist GPs with prevention, making a real difference to the health and wellbeing of our society – becoming all the more valuable in the process. And if more people visit PTs before GPs, it could help lighten the load on the health service.

To summarise, I truly believe it’s time to place greater emphasis on delivering a more holistic, lifestyle-based service to our clients, and, subsequently, widen the public’s perception of personal training. This will not only appeal to (and support) the new, wellbeing-focused generations coming through, but it will also have a very positive impact on our society as a whole. Meanwhile, it will provide more opportunities for PTs in terms of client attraction, retention, revenue (expanding their offering) and supporting the NHS’s preventative agenda.

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