In Defense of Personal Trainers

True story. A friend of mine, new to exercise, began working out with a personal trainer. After a few sessions, she felt that the trainer was pushing her too hard. Wanting a second opinion, she asked me to come along for her next session.

I accompanied my friend to the gym. Her trainer agreed to put us through the same routine.

It was brutal. I'm not in phenomenal shape, but as a regular exerciser, I thought I could handle a routine supposedly designed for a new exerciser. However, the workout was too much for a beginner. Heck, it was too much for me. I was sore for days after the session. I told my friend she was right: The routine was inappropriate for a novice. She stopped going to the trainer.

Months later, my friend bumped into her ex-personal trainer. Not at the gym. At a restaurant. He wasn't eating there; he was working there. He was her waiter. Turns out his training business was so bad, he had to get another job to make ends meet.

What a surprise.

As much as we hate to admit it, we can all relate similar stories, tales of personal trainers and instructors who hurt the clients they are trying to help. The sad fact is that some people don't belong in this business. Still, I would never dismiss fitness professionals as a threat to public safety. Why? Because of all the talented trainers I've met over the years, men and women whose advice have helped me reach my fitness goals.

Unfortunately, these talented trainers rarely grab headlines. The bad fitness professionals get the most attention. And when the bad professionals are used to exemplify the industry, the good ones suffer.

An article in the L.A. Times drove this point home. Trumpeting the headline Are You Being Led Down the Fitness Path by a Model of Perfection?, it declared, "Weight- and muscle-obsessed people, attracted to training, may be putting clients at risk, studies find."

The article dripped with insinuation and accusation, making it seem like many fitness instructors belong in therapy instead of a health club. "A small but growing body of research suggests that thin-obsessed females and muscle-driven males may be drawn to fitness careers and may unconsciously transmit their own distorted perceptions to clients," the article read.

What research? For starters, the article cited an IDEA survey of 368 group fitness instructors, 21 percent of whom reported having a previous eating disorder. I admit that that number is unsettling, but do 368 women fairly represent every female trainer?

The article also noted - with just the slightest air of horror - that 43 percent of the survey respondents wanted to be thinner, even though they were underweight or average weight. Women wanting to be thinner? Boy, that's a shock. Pardon me for sounding sexist, but have you ever heard a woman say, "I could stand to put on a few pounds"? I believe the women's responses are more a sad reflection of a society that prizes thinness above health than a reflection of the fitness industry. Would 368 women of a healthy weight from other professions have responded differently?

And what about all of those "muscle-driven males" we need to beware of? The article referred to a new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that explores muscle dysmorphia (also known as reverse anorexia or bigorexia), a relatively new disorder in which fit, muscular men see themselves as scrawny. Steroid usage, excessive exercise and anxiety problems are common among these men.

The article does a great job of explaining bigorexia, but it never mentions how many male trainers actually suffer from this disorder. I mean, why turn to facts when you can simply rely on sinister hints? Rather than provide some hard evidence, the article quotes an L.A. trainer, a recovering bulimic who explained that "eating disorders and body-image problems are rampant among fitness professionals."

Rampant? I'm not making light of eating disorders, but I find it hard to believe that the majority of female instructors are purging in between classes while their male counterpoints are taking steroids. And I resent the implication that many trainers are projecting the unhealthy habits of neuroses onto unsuspecting clients.

Granted, it makes sense that people who suffer from poor body image would gravitate toward a career which would allow them to work out as much as they wanted. However, it makes equal sense that people who are interested in the well-being of others would chose a career in fitness. In fact, I know more trainers who belong in the latter category than the former.

I'm not denying that our industry could use improvement - that's why I opened with the anecdote about my friend's trainer. But improvement won't come by vilifying fitness professionals, as this newspaper article did. It will come through the re-examination of credentials and staffing practices. That way the bad trainers will become even rarer.