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Why do we make people dread fitness training?

This one goes out to all the trainers… is your trainer nudging you in the right direction?

Dom Cadden

When I met up with a colleague, she noted that I had lost a little weight. I told her it wasn’t intentional, just a reluctant by-product of training for a trail ultramarathon. Then she fixed me with the stare of a hostage making a desperate plea with her eyes and whispered that her trainer was trying to get her to do a 10km run. She said it like he or she had told her that she’d have to have her wisdom teeth removed… through her nostrils.

Then she flat out said, “I hate running,” with the same despairing look of someone fresh from a pancreatic cancer diagnosis has when she says, “I don’t want to die.”

I could kind of understand. I’d have a similar reaction if someone told me I had to do a 1.5km open water swim. At least last time I did that it was because there was some cycling and running that came after it, and I was being paid good money to write about my experience. Since then, I’ve only covered that distance of open water in a kayak or canoe.

Their diet was much like Kim Kardashian’s choice in men – completely lacking in taste.

The part I couldn’t understand was, why was this woman’s trainer haranguing her to do a 10km run when she clearly hated running so much? Here we are trying to make people healthier and encouraging them to form good habits. Surely making them dread the things that are supposed to improve their health won’t help?

This trainer reminded me of fitness instructors I worked with many years ago. They were bodybuilders, so they tended to eat a total of about eight different foods. Their diet was much like Kim Kardashian’s choice in men – completely lacking in taste. Of course, they didn’t allow for the fact that other people weren’t like them, so they dished out diets that bored people silly until they broke them. (On a side note, the bodybuilder instructors also dined on restricted pharmaceutical drugs, steroids and party drugs, all of which helped enhance their size and leanness – it wasn’t all about the brown rice and steamed chicken breasts and broccoli!)

My point – and I do have one – is that there are a lot of activities in the world, just like there are a lot of different foods in the world, and if we want people to develop good habits, then we need to take an interest in finding out what they will actually enjoy.

A hungry drop bear waits for prey – just RUN!

Don’t get me wrong, I like running and I think everyone should be taught to run properly. After all, it’s fundamentally a useful skill. At some point, you will probably need or want to run, whether it’s to chase a child, get to a train need to catch, beat the hordes at the Boxing Day sales or to escape an angry drop bear. What I expect happened in this case, however, is that the trainer selected a goal for the client to drive her to work harder. But don’t you think she would be more likely to work harder if she had a goal that had something to do with an activity she actually enjoys?

You’ll notice that I said “activity” instead of “sport”. People who come from a sports or fitness background often tend to think in a framework of competition. A goal doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, there are people for whom a competitive environment sucks all the enjoyment out of an activity. So for example, if you like playing tennis but hate playing matches, you could go out with a partner and see how many balls you can hit in half an hour. That way longer rallies and shorter pauses between rallies means that you hit more balls, and when you hit more balls, then it’s highly likely that you’re testing your fitness more. Other people may like running, but they want to run like Phoebe in Friends, they don’t want to race in a crowd.   

Work backwards – find something the person likes to do, then they might be encouraged to do the fitness and strength training that will let them get more enjoyment out of the activity because they can do it for longer or more often or they do it better.

I think what has happened is that many trainers have been encouraged to have a goal-based activity for their clients. However, if the client abhors the activity as much as they detest an airport cavity search, then the whole training risks going the same way as an unendurable diet – once they reach the finish point, they revert back towards how they were.

There is a big difference in training for fitness and training for a sport. In most cases, we would hope that people are doing a sport that, for the most part, they enjoy. If you’re mildly serious about a sport, however, there will always be some aspect that you don’t enjoy, or at least you don’t enjoy them as much as other bits. These bits we enjoy least are often the part of the sport’s training we need to do most. So we do it, because doing these less pleasant aspects are integral to our ability to perform in the sport, which ultimately brings us satisfaction and enjoyment.

Training for fitness doesn’t need to be as complex nor as disciplinarian as sports training is often required to be. In fact, if you truly stumble on an activity that the client enjoys (as opposed to an end point they like to picture in their head, such as finishing a race), then it may even be difficult to pinpoint a goal. That’s what happens when the joy is in the activity rather than an achievement.

Why would you encourage a person who doesn’t have a sport or fitness ‘habit’ to do one set thing anyway? An issue such people often have is that they get bored with doing the same activity – and it might not matter what activity you give them, they may always get bored.

We tend to enjoy what we’re good at – but that’s not always the case. How often have we seen kids shunted into sports that they feel obliged to keep on with because they are good at them, when all along they would rather do something else?

My wife has a colleague who just fell in love with axe-throwing. For argument’s sake, let’s say this person didn’t do any activity and needed to get fitter and stronger. Now she has an activity that she is interested in, she could probably be enticed to do exercises so that she can throw the axes better, with more force, and throw them for longer. She might even get into some medieval re-enactment stuff, which probably requires some fitness work, along with downing buckets of ale and falling about in mud. In other words, we work backwards – find something the person likes to do, then they might be encouraged to do the fitness and strength training that will let them get more enjoyment out of the activity because they can do it for longer or more often or they do it better.

The most beneficial thing the trainer can do is help their client develop a passion for activity that will connect with them in the long term.

Unless a trainer is working with the client three or more times a week, then the client’s progress becomes more about what they are doing without the trainer, rather than what they are doing with him or her for an hour or two a week. Obviously, people will work at their training / do their activity by themselves if they enjoy what they are doing.

So if a trainer has someone who is hell-bent on training for a sport or activity, the path to working out their training program can often be quite clear, with factors such as physical attributes, mental preparedness, age, fitness, strength, injury history and sex all generating the need for some variations. When you have someone who simply needs to train for better fitness or weight loss, the trainer’s role should become more creative, not less. The most beneficial thing the trainer can do is help their client develop a passion for activity that will connect with them in the long term. The trainer can do this by helping to identify what activities the client may enjoy and giving them options, introducing them to a range of activities, just as the junk-food junkie who thinks good nutrition is boring old brown rice, steamed chicken and broccoli would benefit from being introduced to a myriad of healthy food choices and recipes.

Personally, I like to be generally fit and strong enough so that I know if there’s any sport or activity I want to give a go, then I can have a crack at it with a little specific training. I’ve been good at some of the many sports and activities I’ve tried, garbage at others, I’ve excelled at a couple and some I simply don’t know or care how I compare because they were just plain ol’ fun. It’s a philosophy that has kept me in shape for many years. I truly believe that if more people training for general fitness and health find an activity they enjoy, then they might just work backwards and understand that they can get their body in shape to do other activities that they might enjoy. In this way, fitness and health becomes intrinsically motivated. But don’t worry, trainers – there will probably still be a role for you when these people want to get specific and they want climb that mountain or go in that goanna wrestling* competition.

* goanna wrestling does not involve any harm to goannas – just humans. Here is a link. Let’s just say it was fun, but it wasn’t for me.

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