Probably one of the biggest blows to the ego of a young personal trainer starting a new training gig is the realization that the first months of the job only sometimes includes those inspiring moments you see on television of a trainer pushing her client to new limits with grueling strength routines or cardio intervals. Just as rare before you build up your client-base, are those dreams of helping a retiree overcome some hip dysfunction that’s been preventing her from taking advantage of her favorite step aerobics class or motivating a girl with fifty-plus pounds to lose to get started with a routine and to feel like a bad-ass at the gym, just like the thinner girls.
No, those first few months include a lot of crawling through rows of sweaty, dusty treadmills with bottles of orange-scented cleaner, hoping an exercising member doesn’t chew you out for aggravating her asthma with the aerosol. You realize, among other things, that it’s a miracle Spiderman hasn’t gotten knee pain from his favorite web crawling position, because it’s really not that different from what you’re doing as you swing under the arms of one piece of cardio equipment to the next, and, within a matter of two weeks, your joints have started to make you feel like a grandma.
Don’t get me wrong—you do actually train and work with other people quite a bit: introductory sessions for new members looking to get acclimated, complimentary workshops to show off your skills to potential clients, walking the floor to answer questions about equipment or exercise form. But, in the process of pulling together a full set of clients to see week in and week out, the new trainer also does a lot of other stuff around the gym in order to have a paycheck until the training commission is enough. Thus, orange-scented cleaner and visions of Spiderman.
The more grueling aspect of the position is that during this period, you open and close the club. In other words, you wake up when the college students next door are stumbling in from the bars so that you can get to the gym at 5 to make sure the BOSUs are lined up in something resembling order and that the jumbo TVs overlooking the cardio floor have the appropriate chick flick and/or strange artsy film playing for the bright-and-early exercisers. Or, on other days, you wander the hollow shell of the gym at 9.45, internally wondering if the girl doing that strange leg exercise on the stretching mat really is going to stay until The Very Last Minute on a Friday night. Sometimes, you do both, back-to-back. (Confession time, because I feel I should mention it here: I never opened my gym, because the train system didn’t start until 5.15 and, at the time, I lived an hour away. This reduced my stress a boatload. On the other hand, I lived an hour away, so there was no hope of going home between morning and evening clients. Still, I got it easy, relatively speaking). Some maintain second jobs, to pad their budget a bit, resulting in working 16- to 20-hour days, six or seven days a week.
On the positive side, you get to know the guys at the local coffee shop pretty well, and they slide you free drinks as you discuss the merits of barefoot shoes or tai chi.
To be perfectly honest, these conditions are actually fairly light compared to what the managers at the gym are going through, who also open and close the club, clean equipment, etc., when the club’s short-staffed, and, when there are enough newbee trainers to help out, spend ridiculously long days at the club doing all that other magical stuff that keeps the company running (the magical stuff seems to include a lot of spreadsheets). Note, also, that this is not a company-specific problem—from what I’ve heard about other gyms, we have one of the best support systems for our staff, the most checks and balances to keep a person from going crazy during the challenging period of, essentially, starting a personal business.
But, to get to the point, that stress takes its toll on every new trainer. You, a person who never gets sick, fight cold after cold. You start craving sugar like nobody’s business, and hit up the Easter candy aisle at CVS or one of the many local frozen treat establishments on a daily basis. Exercising, previously one of your favorite activities (you made a career out of it, didn’t you?), becomes a chore. Despite being on your feet all the time, you gain weight, even if you were previously a person who struggled to keep weight on. I’ve heard various iterations of the same story from multiple (if not most) other trainers getting started with their new career.
We see even more extreme cases of this same situation in the medical industry: One study showed that doctors “working traditional 30-hour shifts who stayed with patients all day and night made 5.6 times as many serious diagnostic mistakes as those scheduled to work no more than 16 consecutive hours.” Then, exhausted, they’re at higher risk for getting into car accidents on the commute home or becoming ill themselves. Proponents of the long shifts argue that residents and doctors need to be able to see new patients through the first 12 to 24 hours of care to best judge the treatment plans taken. Additionally, longer shifts means patients are passed between fewer hands, so they feel better acquainted with their care team. To uphold the Hippocratic oath, it seems, a doctor has to be willing to sacrifice everything.
I don’t mean to say that personal trainers undergo anywhere near the stress levels that medical personnel do. But both situations raise a similar question, and that is what is the ideal of health we’re trying to achieve, and at what point is the patient or client’s well-being coming before that of their caretaker/trainer?
I can’t even count the times that I’ve had a doctor, nurse, midwife, psychologist, etc. tell me she feels like a hypocrite because she lectures her patients on proper self-care, but then never takes the time to do it or herself. Meanwhile, pretty much every day I watch myself or another coworker snarf down a meal in five or ten minutes between a long string of clients, at least one of whom we’ve probably discussed the merits of proper nutrition and eating slowly to better register satiation. (In one of my past blogging brainstorms, I considered starting a blog about meals that could be gulped down in under five minutes. Then I realized that plan was probably sign of a larger problem with my lifestyle.)
One of my coworkers recently posted a link to this article on Facebook, discussing the inherent problems with the split-shift, the standard morning-break-evening double shift that trainers work because most clients don’t have time to exercise between 9 and 5. The author writes, “NOT taking care of yourself and NOT being there for your family and fulfilling those very important roles you signed on to play in your life BESIDES being a business owner, coach, etc. IS the root cause of negative symptoms like burnout, unhappiness, and general dissatisfaction.” The paradoxical result? Putting care of others first, and not care of oneself, prevents one from being as productive or helpful as intended. On the same thread, The New York Times published an article last year about the trend in doctors choosing positions that don’t require such ludicrous hours. Think of it like those safety procedures you hear on airlines: in case of a drop of cabin pressure, secure your oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.
The interesting point, however, is not the debate, but that there is a debate at all.
What drives us to perpetuate the belief that a person must put her well-being second to those whose health is under her care, whether in treatment (for doctors) or in preventative lifestyle modification (for trainers)? The most apparent reason, of course, is obviously that the patient/client is not as well off as the caretaker/trainer—perhaps dying, in the extreme situations of the medical world, or perhaps just unable to navigate the weight room sufficiently to exercise routinely on her own. In a sense, the rich of health give to the poor of health. Even ignoring the whole issue that individuals cause more harm than good when fatigued, our systems function under the assumption that it’s okay to negate one person’s health in order to increase another’s. Is it a genuine belief in altruism that drives us? Is it more capitalistic reasoning, trying to the make the most money out of limited resources? Most importantly, how much are our efforts to build up health for everyone actually chipping away at the base of support instead?