The Doctor and the Soft Sell

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When I met Dr. Ian Smith this morning, I was taken off guard by his shyness and his seeming desire to sink into the woodwork rather than stand out in the crowd. Several people approached him as he walked into the room and asked him to look at the book they'd written or the program they'd designed. He politely agreed to do each and amiably chatted with them, but he was not gregarious and overwhelming with his personality. I wondered how he would do as our keynote speaker. However, my concerns were unfounded as he seemed to come to life on the stage as he spoke. And man, did he hit hard.

If you aren't familiar with Dr. Smith, he's the medical contributor on "The View" and the medical expert on VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club." He's also authored five books, including his most recent one, "The Fat Smash Diet," which he signed at the back of the room after his keynote address.

He began his talk with a provocative statement: "I don't let my celebrities lift weights for the first six weeks." In fact, he said that the problem that he has with health clubs and personal trainers is that they have their clients lift weights too early in their programs.

People join a gym for three reasons, he said, the first of which is to lose weight (the other two are to look good and to socialize). He receives letters from health club members who say that they joined a gym and went down in dress size but they haven't lost any weight. When he asks about their training, they invariably tell him that they are strength training. He tells them that that is the problem because as we all know, muscle weighs more than fat. However, people expect not to just decrease their dress or pants size; they also expect to decrease their weight.

That's why he has his celebrities on "Celebrity Fit Club" do six weeks of cardio and then after they've seen the weight loss that they so desperately want to see (and get motivated from it), he has them add weight training--with low weights and high reps.

"I believe cardio is the biggest payoff for what you want to do in the short term," he said. "Have them change their diet and do cardio for six weeks."

He said that trainers may incorporate strength training into a client's workout too early so that the client sees a reason to keep the trainer on. After all, who needs a trainer to stand next to them as they walk on the treadmill or use the cross trainer?

"I think trainers feel substantiated if they give people something they can't do on their own," Smith said.

He suggested that trainers have a dialogue with their clients at the start of the training to see what stressors they are dealing with in their daily lives. He compared trainers to a bartender who must listen to their clients' problems and think about how that might be affecting their fitness goals. He said that during that first dialogue, trainers must set the clients' expectations about their training--and must make those expectations realistic or risk disappointment and the possibility of decreasing motivation.

Smith also spoke about the 50 Million Pound Challenge, an initiative that he created, to reach the African-American population and get them moving. He is trying to get across the point that exercise can be preventive, a message that is being hurt by a few trainers who have come out with weight loss theories that say that exercise is optional, he said.

"I tell people that you don't have to belong to a gym to lose weight, but you can get optimal benefit by going to a gym," Smith said.

He said that tremendous opportunity exists for fitness facility owners in the African-American population since 80 percent of black women are overweight, 67 percent of black men are overweight and less than 5 percent of the black population are gym members.

To attract any market, he suggested that health club owners stop featuring very fit people in their ads and instead feature people who look more like the people that they are trying to attract. He also suggested that club owners approach the pastors at local churches and offer to start a group walking program with their members for one day a week. Don't try to sell memberships--just try to get this group moving. At some point, you can invite them into the club and give them a tour and show them how to use the equipment. He then suggested giving them a month's free membership. However, he said not to try to sell memberships to them. Just get them familiar with you so that you build a trust with them and then get them familiar with your club so that it no longer seems like an intimidating place. Then, they might be willing to join.

A soft sell works, he said. Hmmm. Although Dr. Smith seemed like he might be a soft sell himself, he ended up hitting pretty hard with his comments. I guess that sometimes this industry needs the hard sell. --Pam

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