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Getting Personal 

As more people expect health clubs to provide access to personal trainers, the fitness industry wrestles with issues of staffing and accreditation.

Most people would rather be shopping. But on this Saturday, one week before Christmas, Tara, a 41-year-old mother and software engineer, is pumping iron at Franco's Gym in Lakeview. This modern health club -- complete with the latest exercise devices and various cardio machines, each with its own television screen -- isn't too crowded. Tara, however, isn't alone. Shadowing her every step of the way, shouting encouragement and monitoring her exercises, is Tara's personal trainer, Celeste Turner.

With current estimates by the Centers for Disease Control indicating that 65 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese, many of us are searching for a way to battle the bulge without turning to the extreme measures of surgery or starvation dieting. Most know that there is no instant solution. The most effective method remains a lifestyle change in diet and exercise: putting down the cookies and getting on the treadmill. But not everyone is quite that self-motivated, and as Tara puts it, sometimes we take it easier on ourselves than a professional trainer might.

"Celeste pushes me," says Tara, who asked that her last name not be used in this story. "You tend to not to push yourself as hard when you're not working out with a personal trainer. I would have stopped earlier today with my workout had I not been with Celeste. So it's beyond motivation -- it's an extra kick in the ass."

That extra kick isn't the only reason to use a personal trainer. Throughout Tara's one-hour session, Turner is forever vigilant that Tara not stop for too long, but she also makes sure that she is doing the exercises correctly, doesn't overdo it, stays hydrated and stretches her muscles. Often, Turner will put one of her hands on Tara to ensure the proper muscle is being worked in a particular exercise. She also confirms that her client is inhaling and exhaling with each movement. And, yes, when Tara hits that point where she'd like to quit, Turner is there: "Five more, just five more, give me five."

Yet there is very little in this personal training session that resembles boot camp. The women chat amiably about the upcoming holidays, their children, and how Tara can stay on schedule with her exercise regimen while she is out of town for a couple of weeks. They are working together toward satisfying Tara's goals of a stronger and more defined body.

MUCH LIKE A PHYSICAL THERAPIST is concerned with rehabilitating an injured patient with therapeutic exercise, a personal trainer focuses on taking an already healthy client and guiding him or her, through exercise, toward a fit and healthier lifestyle. It's one of the reasons that health clubs, which employ the most personal trainers, consider a number of factors before hiring a personal trainer.

Tavis Piatolly is the director of performance enhancement and sports nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation's Elmwood Fitness Center, and holds a master's degree in exercise science. He oversees the personal training department and is in charge of hiring. Because personal trainers aren't currently licensed and a vast number of organizations offer personal training certificates, which can be acquired through varying degrees of study and effort, Piatolly pays close attention to applicants' formal education and where they received their certification.

"We'd like to have a trainer with at least a bachelor's degree in exercise science or a related field such as kinesiology, nutrition, and has taken at least 12 hours of course credits in exercise science-related courses," Piatolly says. "They should understand the body. If they don't have a degree, they have to at least have a certification from ACE (American Council on Exercise), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), or NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). We feel that these three are the gold standard -- they offer continuing education, and they encourage their trainers to get re-certified every couple of years.

"Additionally, we've looked at their training manuals and educational materials, which not only support regular personal training, but suggest students acquire a clinical background in the subject."

Many skilled personal trainers work without health-related college degrees, but possess a number of years of experience in the field. For Piatolly, that can make a difference in deciding between applicants.

"Experience is really, I feel, the most important factor. I'd rather take someone who has experience training and only a certification over someone who hasn't even picked up a weight but has a degree. They may have the knowledge, but they haven't applied it yet. If you have the combination in a person -- they know how to apply the knowledge, have done the research, and gone ahead and got the certification -- then these are the people you want on your staff."

PIATOLLY ISN'T ALONE. Nationwide, many health clubs are looking at how to build a competent training staff. Hiring a personal trainer isn't cheap: the average cost is $35-$50 per session, and the public should expect trained professionals. However, there currently are no set standards for what qualifies someone to be a personal trainer. Recently, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade association that serves the health and fitness industry and has more than 4,500 member clubs across the United States, has made a push toward establishing a standard. The association has recommended that by 2006, all of its member clubs hire only personal trainers who are certified by an organization whose certification process has been accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body.

Piatolly agrees with IHRSA's efforts and points out that there are other reasons, besides public confidence, for the move. "There is so much injury occurring in health clubs, and one of the biggest reasons clubs are closing down is because of the rising costs of their insurance policies. It's the number of claims for injuries, whether it's personal training or just injuries that happen when people are working out by themselves. Many of these happen because of poor training techniques. The fact that IHRSA is going to accredit certain organizations may minimize the number of injuries occurring."

Since the proposed change hasn't gone into effect yet, Celeste Turner -- who has a master's degree in exercise physiology and serves as the fitness director at Franco's -- suggests that clients should take it upon themselves to make sure they are getting a qualified trainer. That means asking questions: What are the trainer's credentials? Are they trained in CPR? What kind of background do they have in personal training? How much experience do they have? Plus, you should ask other clients what they think of the trainer you're considering. And it's all right to be blunt when you meet with the potential trainer, says Turner.

"If I was looking for a personal trainer, I'd say, ŒI'm paying you x amount of dollars, so what are you going to do to help me reach my goals?'"

In order to provide a proper answer, a trainer has to see what he or she is working with. Clients are given an initial assessment to determine their current fitness level. The assessment should include taking the client's body measurements and determining body fat percentage and blood pressure. With these results, the trainer should then find out specifically just what are the client's goals, and how a trainer can help.

Turner describes the process: "The trainer should sit down with the person to determine what their goals are. Do you have a date in mind to lose weight, or do you have problems with your cholesterol and you'd like to lower it? Whatever their goals are, you want to understand where they're coming from and why they're here to see you. Then the personal trainer will talk to them to see how they can reach those goals. That's when I give them a schedule. For instance, I might say, ŒWe're going to meet two days a week, but on those alternate days, I need you to do 30 minutes of cardio, stretch and do abdominal work. And put the schedule on your refrigerator door.' So basically, I assess their current fitness, discuss their goals with them, and tailor an exercise program to fit their needs."

Motivation, Turner and Piatolly agree, is one the biggest reasons why people seek out personal trainers. The cost of each session and the fact that someone will be with them every step of the way also help many people stick with the oft-repeated New Year's resolution of getting in better shape. It doesn't have to be a permanent relationship. "This should be a stepping stone," Turner says.

Some clients hope to generally increase motivation and obtain instruction on how to do the exercises correctly. Others have specific dates in mind for getting into shape. Renee Kutcher, 53, hadn't worked out in five years and had gained some weight after quitting smoking. When she came to Turner, she was looking for motivation, but in the short term, she had an even bigger catalyst: her son's upcoming wedding. It was already October and the wedding was taking place in late December. Kutcher started working with Turner three times a week, doing cardio workouts on her off days. Two days before the wedding, a very pleased Kutcher reported on the results of her hard work and her experience with a personal trainer: "Awesome. I've dropped 12 pounds and I've lost a lot of inches. My dress for the wedding is off the shoulders, and my back and shoulders are incredible."


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