Personal Best? : Finding the Right Private Trainer Is the New Challenge in Physical Fitness

WORKOUT books, videos and celebrity-endorsed health clubs apparently aren't enough to keep the national fitness trend going strong. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a plunge since 1984 in the number of aerobic exercisers. The reason? Family and job pressures mean less time for workouts. But many ex-exercisers are getting back on track with trainers who tailor programs to both a client's body and his schedule.

Once only for the rich and famous (physique guru Jake Steinfeld is said to charge clients such as Harrison Ford $200 for 30 minutes), trainers now charge as little as $25 an hour, according to Susan Levy, a West L.A. trainer who recently left her job as an aerobics director at Sports Club / L.A. Levy says the age of personal training for the masses has arrived. "It's great for working people because it means better use of time," she says. "Someone is checking your form, making sure your movements are effective." She adds that fitness professionals gear programs to specific needs, assuring that cardiovascular, strength and flexibility components are covered. "With a trainer," she continues, "clients have injury prevention that doesn't exist when they are alone with a book or video."

But as their ranks grow, there is a danger that some so-called trainers don't have "the knowledge or experience to work with individuals," says Beth Rothenberg, a teacher in UCLA's two-year fitness-instructor certificate program. She adds that leading an aerobics class doesn't equate with designing and guiding a one-on-one program.

"No one knows how many people work as trainers, let alone who is qualified," says Kymberly Williams of the International Dance-Exercise Assn. (IDEA). A survey in April of 1,000 of IDEA's 18,000 members showed that 40% call themselves personal trainers. San Diego-based IDEA Foundation, which certifies aerobics instructors, does not yet offer comparable certification for trainers. "Many trainers use aerobics group-leader certification as personal-training credentials," Williams says. In contrast, the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis offers certification as a health / fitness instructor, which qualifies a person for class leadership or one-on-one training, says spokesperson Paula Elliott. Thus far, only 2,500 people have earned it.

Douglas Brooks, a West L.A. exercise physiologist, recommends that clients carefully examine a trainer's background and "be sure that his technique is consistent with your goals. A good trainer will suggest a consultation and should present a list of fees and a written cancellation policy. Be wary if he tries to get you to commit to a dozen workouts right off."

Levy, whose background includes a UCLA master's degree in dance, says clients should screen for trainers qualified to deal with problems such as heart disease or bad backs. "Some have expertise that others do not," she says. "This should come out in the evaluation.

"The things that a good trainer provides are motivation and immediate feedback," Levy says. "It keeps you going. I have a personal trainer."

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