Getting Started: You're in Charge

Starting an exercise program is easier than ever. There are health clubs and personal trainers opening up businesses in every town.

The vast majority of trainers are well-trained, certified fitness experts dedicating to helping you improve your health. Do a web search or check the local yellow pages for a club or trainer. Ask your friends where they go for fitness and if they are using a local fitness expert to guide them through their routines. Then go out and start interviewing the local experts. Ask about their ages, certifications, education and experience. Do not wait: the fitness industry is here to help you live a better life.

Many universities offer degrees in the exercise sciences in fields such as Exercise Physiology, Kinesiology, Biomechanics, Exercise Science, etc. For those of us who have been around a bit longer, our undergraduate and masters degrees are in Physical Education. An individual with a BS or MS in physical education will have completed the same science courses as those students with the aforementioned degrees. Again, ask questions and do not assume that anyone, even the holder of a degree, should have carte blanche with your body and your life.

There are a plethora of certifications that exist in this field. Some are better than others, just like some college degrees are better than others. However, everyone who holds a degree in the exercise sciences commands a base level of knowledge and understanding of how the body responds to stress. With certifications, you can assume that in most cases, the individual has at least read about the body and its various systems and their responses to stress and has passed a test - some more rigorous than others. It is hard to compare a college degree to a certification course. Years of reflection, debate and practice can't be taught or condensed in a weekend or even a week-long course, although the higher-level certification workshops and courses featured the latest, most refined findings and practices in everything from nutrition to stretching routines to new methods and tools.

Thus the importance of asking questions. Make no assumptions. There is no guarantee that an individual with a college degree is any better at guiding you through an exercise program than an individual with a degree in Political Science, an athletic background, and a handful of certifications.

About 10 years ago, the field as a whole begin to shift towards a fitness approach called "Functional Training." Functional training gets you moving and physically fit without using machines. They are movement based. An example, yoga, is the oldest in the book - 5,000 years. A small number of us had been using that aptly named approach to fitness and sports conditioning for years prior, some even for decades and were getting fantastic results, but we were a clear minority among the many practicing fitness and coaching professionals.

Fortunately for the field and all of its customers, a well-known conditioning coach, Vern Gambetta, and a physical therapist, Juan Carlos Santana (not to be confused with the legendary guitarist), teamed up and started giving seminars on this concept of functional training. I developed my functional training knowledge under Igor Burdenko, PhD.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the general personal training customer or health club member finally started to receive a product that more closely mirrored the needs of daily life. Even athletes finally started to receive better and more appropriate training programs. Yet, even with the field making this full-scale shift in its approach to fitness, do not assume that every professional understands this concept of functional training and how to lead an exercise class.

In general, the tendency with many trainers is to focus on frequency, intensity and duration of exercise - all critical for administering an effective and safe exercise program. These three areas are backed up and thoroughly researched in the exercise sciences. Any fitness professional must understand these concepts. The problem, which too often occurs, relates to how they are calibrated within a specific exercise program. For example, if you are riding a bike, it is very easy to design a program based on these concepts, but what if you are getting a "Functional" or movement-based program and your fitness professional wants to increase your exercise intensity before you understand the movement and before your body is capable of making the movement safely? The answer is simple: A greater likelihood of injury.

It is very hard to get injured riding a bike, but while standing and moving your body with either a directive to increase your speed or to add resistance (small hand weights), you open yourself to injury. It is very important that your exercise teacher understand that crawling before standing, crawling and standing before walking, and finally walking before running are all critical concepts for a safe and effective exercise program. Does you trainer or gym specialist understand that until your movement skills have been developed and improved that you should not attempt to increase the intensity of your workout? For example, the addition of small hand weights might seem like nothing, but as soon as you push your arms straight out in front of your body, the stress on your lower back increases threefold. The stress on your shoulders also increases. Best to not add intensity to your Functional program until you can move your body in a fully coordinated fashion. Does your trainer have a test or understanding of when to increase the intensity of a functional or movement based fitness program?

In addition to learning about the background of your potential personal trainer or gym specialist, it is incumbent on you to fully understand your goals. Are you after weight loss? Weight gain? Improving your blood profile and your cardiovascular fitness? Do you want to prepare for a sport or some weekend activity that is taking place in 6 months?

Walk into a gym or the office of a personal trainer understanding your goals. Then ask numerous questions about the background, education and experience of the personal trainer, get a feel of his or her personality. Ask if they have ever been injured - Why? How? What was his or her recovery period like?

I cannot say that you should only choose an individual with at least an undergraduate degree in the field. There are many good and talented trainers and fitness experts with diverse backgrounds.

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