Every Sunday morning, I savor a cup of coffee (or five) while I sift through my weekly dose of fitness articles. Lately, I’ve noticed a recurring theme: “Wanting to be fit without hiring a trainer is like wanting to fly somewhere without a pilot.” There is apparent indignation toward anyone who’d dream of moving without the employ of a qualified trainer.
I do encourage people to hire trainers. Your health is your greatest asset, and improving it will positively affect every arena of life. Its worth investing in a qualified professional who can teach you to execute proper movement patterns, organize your efforts, hold you accountable, and guide your transition to healthier lifestyle habits. However, I object to the notion that getting healthier is so complex and technical that you have no chance unless guided by the wisdom of a fitness shaman.
Exercise is too important for this nonsense. We should not be mystifying it or setting up barriers to starting. We should not complicate fitness or create excuses for people to abdicate their responsibility to maintain their own health. Rather, we should be pushing to increase access and lower the barriers to entry.
Why We All Need Fitness
Fitness is for all. It’s who you were made to be and how you were made to live. Through most of human history, structured exercise didn’t exist. Humans expressed vibrant strength, stamina, and movement literacy simply because they lived in environments that promoted natural human behavior.
Fitness is only complicated because of our current industrialized, urbanized, and increasingly sedentary society. As we sit all day, lean in towards screens, walk on mattress-like shoes, and eat a diet of chemically engineered “foods,” our natural inclination and love for moving wanes. It is replaced by chronic stress, physical pains, movement compensations, and a general malaise that makes lifestyle change very challenging.
This is the environment that creates jobs for us in the fitness industry. There is a tremendous opportunity to help people. Some people’s movement challenges are significant enough that they really must start with the help of an expert. But for the majority, it doesn’t have to be so hard. Step one is to just start hiking or walking on a regular basis, eat more fruits and vegetables, and drink more water. Not so tricky, huh? That’s a pretty mild prescription, but it’s a vast improvement for most.
Do We Need a License to Move?
Every field and every arena of life is drawn toward regulation, quantification, and rigid authority. Currently, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is pushing for cities to require “fees, permits, and particular certifications just to lead fitness classes in public parks.”
This trend toward greater regulation shouldn’t surprise us. Ironically, much of the inactivity killing Americans is the consequence of our societal obsession with safety and avoiding risk. In our world of rampant obesity and sedentary habits, do we really need to require permits to conduct organized exercise? Is fitness something we have to legislate now? Should we be telling people that moving their body is only safe at the hands of a certified professional?
If you favor this sort of regulation because you believe in the value of your own certification, then go attract those clients. Don’t bitterly demand that we create a client base for you through legislation that favors your certification. Perhaps you have something to learn from the interpersonal skills of those “lesser” trainers that are generating such great compliance and consistency.
The Frustrations of the Professionals
I understand the issue of the rampant misunderstandings about good training. As someone in the sports performance industry, I have experienced my fair share of frustration watching novice coaches with no understanding of physiology or training principles market themselves as experts.
Social media and pop culture have only made this more of a challenge. Our society puts forward some pretty warped concepts of fitness and training on the internet and on reality TV. Is it any wonder most people aren’t attracted to the idea of paying a fitness professional? All they expect to see is a meathead yelling at them while they are slamming ropes to the point of throwing up.
Furthermore, I understand that there are others far more qualified than I who have worked their entire lives getting advanced degrees, licenses, and a billion certifications. They’ve committed their lives to improving people’s movement patterns so that they can live pain-free lives. We all benefit on a daily basis from their research, insight, and guidance. Imagine having that level of mastery, and being lumped into the same category as the 22-year-old former frat boy who partied his college years away, and now just wants to make some money. The two are lightyears apart in knowledge, but the latter steals dozens of clients because he tweets a lot and played a couple years of JUCO football.
These frustrations are entirely valid. But they do not justify propagating this myth that fitness improvement is only possible under the guidance of a member of the fitness elite. This self-importance only creates a barrier for people considering positive lifestyle changes.
It also may be costing you clients. Regardless of your feelings about the approach of places like Planet Fitness, they’re the most popular fitness enterprise in the country for a reason. They are striking a chord with the average American, and at least getting people through the front door of the fitness world.
Surprisingly, these sentiments were echoed in my discussion with Bobby Maximus, who is best know for his insane workouts. He feels there is too much jealousy and criticism amongst those in the fitness industry. He’s taken pros and average Joes to heights they’d have never imagined, and his only degrees are in English, psychology, and education. Sure, he’s a former professional fighter, but he still asserts there tends to be too much emphasis on advanced anatomy, and too little on whether you can train and help people.
What Communities Should Be Doing
The need for more healthy lifestyles and movement is as pressing as any societal concern. Humans simply cannot thrive mentally, physically, or spiritually without respecting the needs of their bodies. We should not be creating more anxiety and difficulty along the path to fitness improvement. On the contrary, we should be promoting steps towards fitness in every arena of life.
There is a park that just opened near my house that is a phenomenal example of what communities can do to promote fitness for their residents. It has two playgrounds, one for very young kids, and one that has steep slides, monkey bars, and a variety of contraptions for older kids. There are swings, a splash pad, tennis courts, sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, and a fenced-in skate park, and that’s just the play area. The bulk of the park is wide-open grass with room for multiple games of two-hand touch or frisbee football.
Surrounding all this is a walking/running path complete with workout stations every couple hundred feet. There are adult monkey bars, pull up bars, and even a Roman chair station. As I walk the trail in the evenings, I’m impressed to see the park full of people enjoying activity, where they were once probably just Netflixing.
Is this the sort of thing we should be regulating? Should I go to the city council and insist that they pay qualified trainers to be hon hand at all times to instruct people? Of course not. It’s not financially viable, and would probably just scare people away.
We’ve convinced ourselves that everything and everywhere is dangerous, and the result is that we’ve radically reduced areas to enjoy the outdoors and move. We should want bike lanes on our streets that make people more likely to bike to work. The more we can do to make it easier to start moving and living more actively, the better.
Society must encourage humans to get up and just start to move. You’re pretty safe with a few Tabata circuits of jump ropes, glute bridges, lunges, and push-ups. BJ Gaddour has made a career out of helping inexperienced people online with programs that emphasize easy, low-risk bodyweight movements. If the traditional sets and reps aren’t for you, maybe you will like objective-based activities and games like racquetball and rowing. As Phil White, co-author of Unplugged, asserts:
“Go and introduce a little adversity. If you can be outside instead of being indoors… just go away and play and make it fun again. When did fitness and movement become this chore? Like one more thing to do and one more mile to get; 10 more reps to get; 10,000 more steps to get… Go out and find something. Either rediscover a sport that you used to find fun earlier in life, or, heaven forbid try a new one.”
The opportunities are endless, and the important thing is that we promote a willingness to reconnect with your biology’s innate desire to move.
The Goal Is Fitness Autonomy
The root of this cultural shift will be values and education. I believe all Americans should be exposed to health and training early and often, and spend far more time in a deep, immersive physical literacy system. I’d love to live in a world where the only adults who need trainers are professional athletes. Instead, fitness professionals would be staffed at public schools, creating graduates who understand how to move freely, confidently, and passionately.
The ideal is to create fitness autonomy in the population. You’d probably see a vast improvement in participation in CrossFit, kettlebell clubs, martial arts, and all manner of active hobbies that people felt physically capable of starting. If we had a foundation of movement offered to all, everyone would feel empowered to chase its joys in whatever way they liked.
The secret is just to get started. While I do believe people should be inclined to invest in learning about their health and training, the reality is that it’s better to have a free market where competition drives better coaching and training methods. Plenty of coaches have tremendous book knowledge, but no ability to drive the most important factor: compliance in a training program. While poor coaching is a problem, the far scarier threat is our general lack of fitness and health. We cannot allow for these to become an elitist concern. We should not mystify them to the point where people are afraid to try anything.