October 1, 2001. That was when my career officially started at The Woodbury Life Time Fitness (thanks Dan Kelly).
I had a pre-med biology degree from St. Scholastica, most of which actually focused on exercise physiology. Soon after, I got certified through ACE and NASM, and then got my Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
I thought I knew all I needed, to save the world from obesity, and to help people regain the strength, stamina, and balance of their youth.
I mean, what 24-year-old doesn’t think he’s got it all figured out?
Today, just shy of my 40th birthday, I’d like to knock my younger self upside the head. What an ego!
As Albert Einstein said,
The only source of knowledge is experience.
Fifteen years after getting started, I’d have to agree.
Here are five of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
1. Managing emotions helps you make good decisions.
Emotions hijack the brain, and often shut down any logical thought or action.
It’s why you might curse the woman that cuts you off as you turn into the drop-off area at the school, while your young and innocent child sits in the back seat.
It’s why I choose to eat pizza and ice cream (gluten-free and dairy-free of course) when I’m in a bad mood, rather than a salad.
It’s why many of my clients had a hard time choosing to follow their programs.
I didn’t fully appreciate how difficult it was for my clients to make healthy decisions. I knew they often had emotional issues they were dealing with, but didn’t understand the impact they really had.
And I certainly wasn’t equipped to understand them.
So, I did what I know a lot of other trainers do. I patted my clients on the back and said, it’ll work out. Just try harder.
I’d offer tips on how they make better choices when dining out. I’d give them a pedometer to hold them accountable to moving, even when they were too tired to do so.
I’m even ashamed to say that I’d make them do extra lunges if they didn’t log their food.
I can only imagine how much more stress I added to my clients minds.
I know better now. If I were starting over, I’d make two things a regular recommendation in my programs.
- Counseling or coaching
I have a counselor of my own. Vanessa and I also have a life and business coach. They have different roles in our lives and relationship.
I’ve even told my counselor that she would be a fitness professionals greatest asset.
Personal trainers are not equipped to work with their clients’ emotional issues or disempowering beliefs. They’re not equipped to help them handle the mental and emotional challenges we have from the past, from careers, or from marriages.
I believe that when people change their beliefs about themselves and their situations, it opens a world of possibility. It also makes them more capable of handling the changes in their lifestyle and nutrition necessary to get healthy and lean.
I also mention essential oils because their effects on supporting a good mood are well-researched.
The oils won’t resolve the emotional turmoil that’s going on. But they can provide some temporary relief.
In my opinion, people don’t make poor nutrition and exercise choices from a deficit of knowledge. They make the poor choices because that’s what makes the most sense in their emotional state.
Before moving on, this point isn’t just for health and fitness. When we get our emotional state under control, we become more productive, we treat others better, we have more fun, and we’re more fun to be around.
2. Losing weight shouldn’t require a degree in nutrition.
I love reading nutrition research. I mean, I really LOVE it. However, a PubMed research paper doesn’t entertain most people the way an episode of Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder does.
And yet, I can reflect back on countless conversations with clients where I talked about the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, or the importance of training at just the right zone to maximize heart rate.
Some of my clients really enjoyed learning about metabolism, exercise and nutrition. Most did not.
And yet I’d excitedly share with them how the proteins in genetically-modified crops are different than those found in organic crops, and humans had never been exposed to these proteins before so that’s where part of the problem with GMOs could come from…
All they really wanted to know was, “Do I really have to give up my favorite breakfast cereal?”
We’ve way-overcomplicated nutrition.
The average person still eats at McDonald’s (even if they might not admit it).
The average person still grabs one of those soft cookies at the gas station.
The average person knows there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, or if they like to keep their hands clean, they opt for M&Ms because they melt in your mouth, not in your hands.
I talked to clients about biochemistry, when I should have simply encouraged them to grab a Kind bar instead of a candy bar.
All that said, if you’re interested in the nerdy part of nutrition, you’ll find plenty of that on this website.
3. Programs should be planned for at least six months longer than it takes to reach the goal.
The fitness world is full of six and 12-week programs. Even 30 day challenges.
There is a major flaw in this kind of thinking.
As soon as we begin a program with a deadline, we tell ourselves that we only have to eat and exercise a certain way until it’s over.
I’ve overheard people talk about what they were going to eat after their program was over, on the first day of their program!
We’re all like this, though. We might not even be consciously aware, but we tell ourselves that we only need to alter our lives for a finite period of time.
For 30 days, six weeks, or a few months, we deprive ourselves of the foods we’d most like to eat. We force ourselves to exercise more than we’d like to, knowing it won’t last forever. And that is the problem.
The lifestyle that leads us to optimal health is something we should be able to do forever.
If I were working with clients today, and the had time-dependent goals in mind – a wedding, a trip, a reunion – I would have them commit to working with me for at least six months past the date.
They’d come back from their honeymoon, and we’d get right back to the program. That way, it would be more likely the program would become their pattern.
And if the program becomes their pattern, they’d fit in their wedding dress for their 10th anniversary. How cool would that be?
By extending the timeframe of a program, it allows you to maintain your fitness level long enough that your choices become habits, and those habits form a lifestyle.
4. I’ll never be an expert.
There’s something deeply satisfying if I’m the one in the room with the most answers. It’s also extremely stressful.
I always wanted to have all the answers for my clients. As I grew in my career, I wanted to have all the answers for the trainers who were asking questions about their clients.
It’s impossible, though.
I believe the best thing a fitness professional can do is to be a connector. Be a great trainer, instructor, or coach. After that, just know where to find the answers. You don’t have have all the answers.
Connect people to the right resources.
Another reality of nutrition and exercise is that what we “know” today, we’ll know was wrong five years from now. Our only hope is to be less wrong every year.
I’d likely be more effective by not trying to be an expert, because I wouldn’t care as much when I did find out I was wrong. And if I keep my ego out of the way, I can be more valuable to others.
5. No one has the “perfect” diet or exercise program figured out.
There is as much friction and polarizing opinions about nutrition and exercise as there is about politics and religion, especially online.
I actually had to get away from some online personalities, blogs and forums because the opinions flying around were just too angry.
Nobody has it all figured out. While I have an opinion about what constitutes a good diet, somebody else might do exactly the opposite and be healthier than ever.
Some people bash long-duration cardio, while others have plenty of evidence to show how it not only helps burn fat, but also helps in the growth of new brain cells and the management of stress hormones.
Here’s what I’m certain of: We should never confuse what’s “comfortable” with what “works.” You might be “comfortable” with your opinions, but if what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s might be worth a change. Even if it flies in the face of what you once believed.
You might like to eat a vegan diet because eating meat makes you feel bad, but that doesn’t mean avoiding all animal products is best for your body type. You also might be hellbent on eating steak every night because that’s what you’re comfortable with, or what you want to believe is best. But if you opted for fish instead, you might feel better and get healthier.
I used to dig my heals in about what I thought was right for diet. I’d tune out anyone who thought differently than me, kind of like people do when they’re set on their preferred politician.
Now I realize how much learning I missed out on from, from tuning out anything someone said who had a different perspective.
Each of us is unique, and I have no doubt that the ideal diet and exercise program for you will be different than for me. There might be some commonalities, but there will also be differences.
We can learn a lot from discussing the commonalities as well as the differences. There’s no need to bash the differences of opinion, provided there is good reasoning behind it.
There you have it. Five lessons I’ve learned from these 15 years. I’m sure as soon as this post goes live, I’ll think of six, seven, and eight, but those will be for another day.