The death of personal training

Originally written for, published 10 January 2017

The health and fitness industry is changing.

We have more personal trainers than ever, more gyms and fitness studios, and more apps to help us get fit, tone up and lose weight. Presumably this means we should all be a picture of health. The thing is, we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in health across the population.

The New Zealand Health Survey 2015/16 results from the Ministry of Health back this up. The reveal 32 per cent of adults are obese compared to 27 per cent in 2006/7 and a further 35 per cent of adults are overweight (but not obese). Rates of physical activity are also dropping – less than half (48 per cent) of New Zealand adults are physically active (defined as 30 minutes of physical activity at least  five days a week) compared to 52 per cent in 2006/7 and more (15 per cent) are physically inactive (defined as less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week including housework, work-related activity and walking) than in 2006/7 (10 per cent).  personal-trainer-1877212_640

Since around the 1980s you may have been fortunate enough to hire a personal trainer (PT) to help you in your quest to get active. A PT guides you through your workout, tells you what exercise to do, how to do it, how many times and how much rest to take between sets. You might see them once a week, or maybe more often.

Traditionally, a PT would advocate for a particular idea of a healthy lifestyle and encourages clients to strive for perfection. This kind of PT – the rep counting, smash out a workout, we all love fitness – type is slowly but surely becoming obsolete. It’s not just about workouts anymore.

Personal training is still a relatively new profession, and the last 30 years have seen the role adapt to suit the market. Initially PTs focused on helping people lose weight and look good or improve strength, power and endurance. Tools of the trade were circuits, weights and cardio. Soon after, helping people to improve their quality of movement was added in as ‘functional fitness’ came into the spotlight.

Now, the role of the PT is evolving once more. We now know health is more than what we look like, and we need more than someone to just take us through a weekly sweat session.

The new generation of PT is ready to step into a broader role, becoming a lifestyle manager or health coach and advising on more than just exercise.

Instead of advocating for a one-size-fits-all idea of health and fitness and pushing everyone towards perfection, a health coach meets you where you’re at, and collaborates to make changes that fit your life, that you can sustain, to make you better than before. They consider things like food choices, eating behaviour, self-care and self-management. PTs are now supplementing exercise science backgrounds with qualifications in nutrition, behavioural change and coaching techniques.

We all have an idea of what a healthy diet looks like, even if details differ. However, most would agree the basics centre on staying away from processed foods, getting lots of vegetables, some fruit, choosing good quality meat and good fats. Somehow there’s a massive gap between knowing this and implementing it.

A health coach can help navigate through food choices, assist in examining eating behaviours and the reasons behind them and help develop strategies to make better choices. Food sensitivities and the interplay between food choices, hormones, mood and energy are more commonly discussed and more PTs have access food sensitivity testing protocols.

Just like we all sort of know what we should eat, we all sort of know what we need to do to look after ourselves but fall down in the implementation. Not getting enough sleep, working too much and not prioritising what’s important impacts on our health and more often we’re seeing symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Excessive, high intensity or high volume exercise in these circumstances can hinder rather than help.

A health coach can help bring perspective to your lifestyle, advise on appropriate exercise and meet you where you are at as opposed to pushing for an inflexible ideal. The focus is on implementing new behaviours in a sustainable way to make you better than before.

If you’re seeing a PT who disapproves week in week out as you confess your ‘bad’ behaviour then puts you through a punishing routine to ‘make up’ for those nights out, imperfect food choices and skipped workouts because you’re busy, exhausted or stressed, rest assured this type of PT will be gone soon and more holistic health coaches and lifestyle managers will be there to take their place.