Using a personal trainer is no longer the private luxury of movie stars, supermodels, and the ultrawealthy. More and more down-to-earth folk are hiring trainers to improve their fitness, keep their weight down, or train for sports. "My clients range from 13-year-old boys who want to stay in shape for hockey, to single businesswomen in their 30s, to older men who have had heart attacks and want to get in shape," says Kimberly Yost, a trainer who works with private clients in the Washington area and also manages Elite Physique in Rockville, Md.
Trainers can help clients reduce stress, recover from injuries, and even pursue special programs devised for pregnancy or orthopedic problems. And they can help you motivate yourself. "I would never willingly go to the gym," says Nancy Goldstein, a commercial furniture consultant in New York who has had four personal trainers in the past 10 years. "So I need a trainer to push me more than I would push myself."
Finding a personal trainer shouldn't be difficult, as their ranks have swelled enormously in recent years. The American Council on Exercise (ACE), one of dozens of groups that certify personal trainers, reports that 7,535 people passed its personal trainer exam in 1999, more than six times as many as in 1990. According to IDEA, an organization of health and fitness professionals in San Diego (www.ideafit.com), there are now more than 62,000 personal trainers in the U.S. But be wary: Anyone can claim to be a trainer, so don't be shy about asking about credentials and experience.
No regulatory or licensing agency governs the industry, and no law requires trainers to be certified--though most gyms require it. Besides ACE, the most reputable groups that certify trainers include the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Strength & Conditioning Assn. (NSCA), and the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America (AFAA). A trainer's cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification should be current; it normally must be renewed every year or two. And ask a trainer if he or she carries personal liability insurance in case you get injured. If not, go elsewhere.
Personal trainers typically charge $30 to $60 an hour at a gym or studio, and as much as $100 an hour if one comes to your home. Having a trainer at home, of course, means you can't make excuses for not getting to the gym. Yost, for instance, will show up as early as 5:30 a.m. But there are advantages to going to a studio or gym: It gets you out of your everyday environment, and a gym usually has better equipment than a home. Seeing others sweat can also be a powerful motivator.
RISK FACTORS. Some companies now provide personal trainers as perks. One is the New York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Marco Caffuzzi, 32, a fourth-year associate at the firm, puts in about 70 hours a week at his desk but still works out with a personal trainer three times a week at the firm's gym for a nominal fee. "It's easy and painless," says Caffuzzi. "An hour or two at the gym breaks up the monotony of the long hours and helps me get rid of stress and frustration."
Before you use any equipment, make sure your trainer screens you for risk factors, such as cardiovascular disease, or such medical limitations as a back or knee injury that might preclude certain exercises. The trainer should assess your body fat, flexibility, and strength to help you determine realistic exercise goals. "The client should set the goals," says Robin Foss, vice-president of educational administration at AFAA. "They shouldn't be dictated by the trainer, but the trainer should help." Indeed, "some of my clients want a lot of cardiovascular work, while others are more into stretching or yoga," says Bethesda (Md.) trainer Pamela Morris, who trains 25 clients a week and is finishing a master's degree in health and fitness management.
Often, clients set goals that are too specific, such as "losing five pounds in their thighs," says trainer Brian Pfeufer, who runs the Skadden Arps gym. "But it doesn't work that way. We can do 8,000 leg curls, and they're not going to lose weight only in their legs." But if his assessment shows his client needs to improve his flexibility, Pfeufer will design a workout that takes that into account.
REFERENCES. Fitness programs, like fashion, are subject to fads. These days, exercises for enhancing mind-body balance, such as yoga and stretching, are in. Pilates, a method of strength training and flexibility work that focuses on the abdominal and lower back muscles, is increasingly popular, as are karate and kickboxing. High-intensity aerobics, such as step classes with lots of bouncing and jumping, have fallen out of favor, mostly because of the joint damage that they can cause.
Individual trainers usually bring some equipment to the workout. Among them are huge, inflatable colored balls for lower back and abdominal strengthening, plastic tubing to increase strength and flexibility, or circular wooden balance boards for stepping exercises to maintain balance and coordination.
Before hiring anyone, it makes sense to work out for a trial session to see if you're a good match. Trainers should be happy to provide a potential client with names and phone numbers of former and current customers for references. "If someone is touching your body to help you stretch or spot you, you need to feel comfortable with them," says Goldstein. No matter how friendly the relationship becomes, though, a level of professionalism should be maintained. According to Tony Ordas, ACE's director of certification, trainers shouldn't show up in revealing tank tops or jogging bras. They should be punctual. And you should have a written agreement with your trainer regarding cancellation fees, late fees, and billing procedures.
Using a trainer, like any other investment, requires some periodic monitoring. After, say, six months, ask yourself: Are you losing weight? Feeling more energetic? Is your workout varied enough, or boring? If your goals aren't being met, don't hesitate: Switch trainers.