ESSA, Michelle Bridges, and Why You Shouldn’t Say That Exercise is “Fun”.

English: Michelle Bridges at the film premiere...

Michelle Bridges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Media Article

Back in August, Michelle Bridges, a personal trainer popularised by the Australian hit tv-series “The Biggest Loser“, came out with this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on why personal trainers should stop calling fitness “fun”. Let me say straight up I’m inclined to agree with her, at least to an extent.

Her views are well balanced and seem to be in line with managing clients expectations about what exercise entails. While exercise certainly can be fun, particularly in the case of team sports and aerobics, activities such as high intensity training, sprinting, jogging, and weight lifting – all those that probably carry a majority of the benefits seen from exercise – probably aren’t best encapsulated with the noun “fun”.

My Thoughts

Challenging? Yes. Life altering? Yep. Healthy? Of course. Self-esteem building? You bet. But fun?
Ummm, no, no not really, not the first concept I would be using to introduce exercise to a newcomer. With that said I think it’s important to have an element of fun in all of the workouts we participate in, but to white-wash exercise in general as “fun” is definitely misleading for the average customer.

Now I’m neither a fan nor an opposition of Michelle Bridges, and I’ve probably seen a total of 10 accumulated minutes of The Biggest Loser over it’s entire duration, but I think it should be clear from her article that she’s targeting personal trainers who are using the “fun” concept as a way to draw in new customers, regardless of their expectations as to what exercise may actually entail. This could potentially destroy their motivation to exercise when they discover that it’s really not as fun as they were lead to believe.

The Plot Thickens with ESSA’s Response

Now to the crux of the matter. How did ESSA (Exercise & Sports Science Australia), the registration and organisational body for exercise physiologists and scientists respond to Michelle’s article via their Facebook page? Well yes, I’ll tell you because if you’ve read this far you’re probably keen to find out. The response was along the lines of:

“Dear Michelle, we here at ESSA believe that exercise is not only good for your health, but that it’s also fun!”

Isn’t that trite? A nice one sentence sound-byte for the masses.  And why did I say “along the lines of” instead of quoting them directly? Well they removed their quoted response from their FB page after I criticised their reaction, though I assume it was still sent in some public form as a Tweet, article response or message to Michelle Bridges (My Googling skills failed me on this instance, sorry I can’t provide the exact phrasing).

English: A senior citizen while practicing his...

A senior citizen while practicing his fitness exercise. Is this ‘exercise’, and is it ‘fun’?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This response came from the registration body who we’d hope have a better and more complex understanding of the issues surrounding the psychological and physiological complexities of exercise compared to the average professional provider, but nope, Michelle’s article was passively denegrated without truly understanding her message.

Tensions Between Personal Trainers and Exercise Physiologists

Why? I have a theory. I’ve noticed a lot of tension between personal trainers and exercise physiologists – if you’re in the field, tell me why you think I’m wrong. I’ve noticed two primary characteristics of the tension that exists between PT’s and EP’s:

  1. Many PT’s believe they already possess the knowledge and expertise of an EP, while being unaware of the complexities involved in training chronically ill clients
  2. Many EP’s continually denegrate the role of PT’s, while being unaware of the valuable role that PT’s play in exercise delivery to healthy populations
  3. The fields overlap to some extent, and although EP’s are more highly qualified they may not possess as much hands-on experience (due to EP being a relatively new profession) as PT’s in the field, some of which may have 20+ years of experience.

These observations come from both my experience as a professional personal trainer and the views espoused by my lecturers and peers (eg ESSA) while studying exercise physiology. I won’t lie, I’ve denegrated personal trainers on countless occasions myself – the degree of appalling quality exercise delivery and outright commercialism for every fad exercise modality that comes to my attention is overwhelming, but there are certainly good PT’s out there who are experienced and know what they’re doing, they’re just hard to find.

I’m at a loss for a solution to this divide between the two professions, but I will say this – I was disappointed with ESSA’s trite response.

In Summary

Nobody’s perfect, but let’s be humble, and to the PT’s out there – let’s stop telling clients that “exercise is fun” and make more of an effort to manage their expectations. That doesn’t mean there can’t be fun aspects to exercise, nor does it mean we should torture clients in the way that Michelle Bridges does on TV, but let’s try to find a happy middle ground where benefits are seen while managing expectations and avoiding making exercise a chore.

Exercise should be for life, not for the term of the contract.

What are your thoughts? Should fitness be advertised as “fun”, or is the term overused?

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Who Needs a Personal Trainer?

”Who would pay somebody to torture them for an hour? I know how to jog and lift a weight, why would I pay somebody?!”

These are rhetorical questions I have heard people posit for years, both before I was a qualified personal trainer & fitness specialist (yes that latter is a qualification, not something I just made up) and after I had completed my Diploma. In order to answer these questions I’m going to take a half dozen steps backward…

Exercise. Everybody has goals and an ideal body type, even if they have no idea when or how to achieve it. On the one hand it seems intuitive: eat less, exercise more – do this for long enough, and with enough intensity, and you will achieve your goals. On the other hand there is chronic illness, acute exercise injuries, lack of motivation, lack of time, lack of skill and knowledge, lack of equipment access.

There is an over-abundance of information on the internet, but only a fraction of that information is reliable or what I like to call “reality based”. In other words, some people just like to make stuff up, to hell with all of that science stuff (after all, what does some middle aged, white-coated scientist know about what’s going on in the real world?).

I’m a science kinda guy, I think that the techniques and methodology which I use to train my clients should be solidly reality/science based, and I like to think that *most* of you out there are also reality (and science) based, whether you realise this or not. In short, we want what works, and what we know works. That is where science comes in. It gives us the most reliable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable, and best controlled technique for evaluating what works and what doesn’t. It’s by no means perfect, it by no means provides all of the answers (nor does it pretend to), it *is* however self-correcting, peer-reviewed, and more reliable than any other reality-testing methodology we know of.

All very well and good, but how does a *client* know that their PT is implementing training methodology that works or is evidence/reality/science based? How do we know the difference between a PT who even has a methodology vs one who is simply regurgitating the routines they learnt from a 4 week online course provided by a questionable means and questionable testing criteria? (and does that even matter if they are actually training clients and getting results?).

As a holiday project for my end of year break I decided to sign up with the local gym – (although it’s been contrary to my personal ethos for the past 7 years to step foot into a gym in the role of client/member). It’s obvious to me that a large majority of the clients at this gym who engage in resistance training, and I would wager at any gym, fall into three distinct categories:

  • Having no real idea what they’re doing, but knowing that they don’t know (the majority of the weight machine users)
  • Having no real idea what they’re doing, but thinking they do (the majority of the free weights users)
  • Knowing what they’re doing, and doing it quietly and methodically (an extreme minority)

You might argue that another PT has a different opinion from me, that I think (and write) one thing, they think another. So who’s right?

It comes back to the science – who is more up to date with the latest research? And how relevant and applicable is that to the field of exercise? Is the PT even *aware* of the scientific research, or at least somehow tapping into the results that the latest scientific research is discovering, perhaps through reputable online journals or other official channels (ie Fitness Australia newsletter and updates).

There are many biomechanical reasons why exercise technique exists, why the shoulders, knees and hips should not be placed in certain positions in high risk exercises which make them more vulnerable to injury. This is an important example where a PT is valuable, directing a client in the appropriate technique and execution of an exercise so as to avoid injury and gain maximum benefit from their exercise routine. Of course many other reasons exist, such as motivation, exercise programming, fitness testing and goal assessment.

Who needs a PT? Most people, if not for technique correction and injury prevention, then for motivational direction and goal achievement. A good PT will help you to discern truth from nonsense, after all – there’s a lot of information out there, and most of it’s worth the amount you’ve paid for it.

What are your experiences with personal trainers? If you’ve never hired one, would you consider doing so? Comment below!

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