The call girl conundrum

One of my clients works as a professional escort.  I’m not going into too much detail here about her specifically, for the sake of her privacy, but most of my fitness-related thoughts these past couple weeks have found themselves returning to her situation—and, perhaps more surprisingly, how the obstacles against her health that her job creates aren’t all that different from those that many of my clients face.

The first time we meet with new clients at my gym, we sit down with them in a small glass cubby smack dab in the middle of the fitness floor.  The Fitness Director and Assistant Fitness Director, my bosses, sit about three feet away at their own desk; it’s cozy and homey like one of those mini-terrariums baby turtles come in when you buy them from a kiosk in the mall rather than a more reputable pet emporium.  Much like a terrarium, there isn’t a whole lot of privacy, although we try to obscure the view with photos and promotional materials. 

We ask the new client a series of questions that, I assume, most people would want someone who’s about to take them through a series of strenuous exercises to ask:  What brings you to the gym?  What are your goals? Have you belonged to a gym in the past?  How active are you currently?  Any injuries or other health concerns?  Etc.  Depending on the answers to these questions, we’ll often freestyle with some related questions, to help us build a bigger picture of what we’re working with.

This girl in particular wants to lose weight.  Ten to twenty pounds—significant, but not extreme.  A common enough number we hear during these sessions.  So, as with most clients in her situation, I asked, “Are you doing anything with diet and nutrition at this point?”

Yes, she was cleaning up her diet at home.  Because she’d lost a large amount of weight in the past, she knew about eating whole foods rather than processed, lean meat, vegetables, etc.  She knew, too, that she did better when she drank less and didn’t smoke pot, because both habits made her more inclined to reach for a frozen burrito in a post-midnight snack.  So if she knew all that, if she’d done it and maintained it before, what was her obstacle at this point?

“My job,” she explained.  “You’ve got these guys, and they’re taking you out to dinner every night at these fancy restaurants, and they’re expecting you to live their fantasies.  And you can’t drink just one glass of wine, because then they’ll think you’re waiting until they’re drunk to take advantage of them.”

Valid point.  So I gave the only advice that I could think of, “So do you know where you’re going ahead of time?  Maybe you could look at the menu online for healthier options?” It seemed ridiculously inadequate as a response.

“Yeah, I try to do that.  Like, last night, we went to this place with this amazing risotto on the menu, and god, I love risotto, but it’s so full of cream and fat.  So I got this Mediterranean fish with tomatoes and olives instead.”  She paused.  “But then we went back to his room, and we’re hanging out and having a great time and we end up getting Mexican food and all this other crap and—” She laughed at the memory. “The amount I ate was vulgar.”

Thus, the question I’ve been toying with in my head since our first meeting: When you’ve made a career out of giving up your own agency to please others, how do you put yourself first in the way that you need to when making healthy changes?  How does the regular advice even apply to you?

Oftentimes, advice about making healthy habits boils down to the simple idea of learning to put yourself first and others second: not so much in the sense of look out only for number one, but in that to get into healthy habits, you have to get past the idea that you’re letting others down when you make room in your life for your goals.  In other words, you have to feel like you can tell your friends that you’re sticking to one cocktail when you socialize without risk of them judging you or feeling like they think you’re not fun; you have to feel like you can ask your partner to take the kids to school three days a week so you can get to that morning spin class; you have to tell Mom that you’re going to lighten up some of the Thanksgiving favorites so you can stick to healthier eating through the holidays.

When I asked the call girl how likely it was she felt she could tell her clients that she’s trying to live healthier and therefore needs to watch her food and wine intake, she said she felt she could ask her regulars to help support the changes she’s making to her lifestyle.  Still, how much support can she expect? (And nevermind the question of whether the unhealthy habits are necessary to make the subjugation involved in the job bearable, if only because the subject of the rights of professional escorts is too large a topic for a fitness blog.)

These are not professional-escort-specific concerns, though.  Many careers require business lunches and dinners, long days of travel that mean sleeping fewer than six hours at night, and, of course, the motivation to keep doing these things because it’s the best way to pay one’s bills at the moment.  How many women struggle with putting together meals for their families that will please the picky palates of their partners and/or kids?  How many women feel that getting involved in the singles scene means needing to be able to drink a bottle of wine with the latest prospect once or twice a week?

Oftentimes, however, even though the general concept is the same, the behavioral modification needed similar in all situations, individuals have a hard time translating advice to their own lives—whether in seeing how it applies in the first place, or simply in execution. Many women can chirp back on command, “I know that I need to take care of myself and put myself first!” when asked about getting started on a fitness routine, but when pressed about how much time they’re spending on work commitments to the ill-effect on their health, they argue, “ You don’t want me to lose my job, do you? How do you expect me to pay my bills?”

In personal training, we often talk about “cueing” exercises: how do you explain a movement or correction to a person in a way that she’ll be able to reproduce it?  Good cuers have an arsenal of ways to describe a single movement, from visual demonstrations to verbal metaphors to tactile prodding.  Different people respond best to different types of cues. 

Lifestyle modification advice, though, is also a form of cueing.  A new exerciser might respond to the instruction, “Okay, so you’ll feel your scapula travelling down your back,” with, “Sure,” but then quickly realize she has no clue what a scapula is but she feels the front of her arms burning. With lifestyle modification, we say, “Put yourself first,” but, hey, isn’t making sure you have something to hand your landlord at the beginning of the month looking out for your own well-being?

Read fitness magazines or listen to trainers advising their clients, and most of what you’ll hear are the healthy facts we know: Try to get your heart rate up three to five days a week for a minimum of thirty minutes.  Lift weights two to three days a week.  Drink x ounces of water per day.  Fiber and protein usually help people stay fuller, longer.  Fancy Starbucks coffee beverages have a shit-ton of calories and sugar. 

These are the things we discuss because, in part, they are the things that don’t step us outside of our professional bounds into the lands of therapist or doctor or even registered dietician.  But many times fitness professionals repeat these morsels ad nauseam, and wonder why the advice still doesn’t stick.  They’re pretty straight  forward facts, aren’t they?

Unfortunately, if we don’t consider the whole picture—the job restrictions, the family obligations, etc—then we simply can’t give cues that will help the person modify her lifestyle for the better.  In essence, we will continue to talk about scapular movement when the client only knows that she has the back fat that pokes out of her bra and the wobbly bits on her arms and she doesn’t terribly give a crap about the only thing she does feel, which are the front of her arms.  If we talk about it, though, she knows it might be important, so she nods and agrees and continues to overcompensate in the movement with muscles that really should only play a supporting role. If the trainer figures out something’s not right with her movement, then maybe the trainer can tell the client to focus on driving her elbows downwards or patting on the part of the ribcage where the lattisimus dorsi should be working or any number of cues. 
Some will make equally little sense, but one may help.

And no, the question of cueing lifestyle modification isn’t limited to simply rewording advice in a manner that seems applicable to a given client’s life—be she call-girl, corporate exec, or full-time mom—although that plays one part.  The cues need to take into account the individual’s priorities, without judgment.  To get back to the idea of cueing physical exercises, one of my coworkers commented once that trainers will tend to explain exercises based on how our bodies work or compensate—so if usually let my knees cave when I squat, and I have to think about pushing my knees out to keep them properly aligned, my initial explanation for the exercise will include that same cueing to keep the knees aligned, even if the client has other problems related with, say, her body leaning too far forward. Thus, rather than tell a client who spends a third of her work-week on a plane to cut back on the travel so she has more time to exercise, nor can we tell her to simply make exercise a priority and set time aside every day for the gym; we have to work with her to figure out how to translate the advice into tools she can use given her lifestyle.

Of course, I’m still trying to figure out ways to help my call girl, but it does lead me to question whether health and fitness professionals should focus less on the particulars of the advice we give and more on how we give it.

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