Last month, a long time client and I made the mutual decision that she should stop coming to my class. I could no longer, in good conscience, support her participation in an activity that I felt was hurting her more than it was helping her.
The class in question is described by the “big box” gym where I work as “a lightweight dumbbell workout.” It promises improvements in “muscle tone, balance, posture and strength.” I teach it as it was designed but informed through my work in Restorative Exercise™. But even with all the extra training and care I was taking to provide her with a positive experience, we were constrained by the group exercise model. She needed one-on-one attention. She needed bolstering and modifications that I couldn’t provide. I had neither the equipment for the ability to interrupt class to help her.
We were both sad as we said our goodbyes but, as I’ve thought more about the experience, I’ve started to get a little mad. The righteous indignation is starting to well up in my chest.
A few months ago, a friend posted to Facebook with a request for recommendations for a personal trainer. “I don’t want to be an athlete,” she explained, “I just want to be healthy.”
At the time I thought, “Well, that’s kind of sucky that she has to work so hard to find that kind of a trainer,” but then I moved on to the next post and that was the end of it.
Except it really wasn’t the end of it. That post keeps coming back to me in conversation after conversation and I saw it flashing in bright neon lights as I was telling my client goodbye last month.
After observing thousands of people at the big box gym and having been in the “fitness” industry for a decade and a half, working with this particular client was like sticking the pan of gelatin in the fridge for me. It solidified everything that’s been sloshing around in my brain and my heart.
Our culture around wellness is really profoundly broken. We equate “fitness” with health and that’s because the only model of moving that we have anymore is the athletic model(1).
I’ve thought of a more elegant way to convey what I mean but I can’t come up with one so I am choosing to be blunt:
I’m tired of having clients who are in their late 70s and early 80s come into my weight training classes at my big box gym because they’ve been told they need to do weight-bearing exercise to stay healthy.
Make no mistake, though, I am not upset with them. In a perfect world I would take each one of them individually and work with them for an hour and a half a week giving them the gentle, restorative, crucially important range-of-motion and weight-bearing work that their bodies deserve.
But that’s not our model. Our model is, “I’ve got osteoporosis and the doctor said I need to do weight-bearing exercise, so here I am in a weight training class twice a week.”
Here’s the thing – my friend shouldn’t have needed to make a special plea on Facebook to find a trainer who would help her move better and live better. That should be the big, inclusive circle in the Venn diagram of trainers. The people who train athletes should be a small, super-specialized subset of that larger whole. The athletes should be the ones making the request on social media!
We live in an inverted world where produce that is sprayed with pesticides and the like is deemed “conventional” but the produce that is grown without the extras is super fancy “organic.” Similarly, my clients can’t walk into their affordable, local gym and get much beyond the athletic paradigm. They have to be able to pay extra to find someone who can just help them move better, which has largely been the province of physical therapists.
This isn’t going away for me, folks. I’ll come back to it sooner or later and, lest you think you’re too young to be thinking this way, bear in mind that you twenty-somethings may be hurting yourselves just as much with the pursuit of the athletic, the harm only manifests itself differently. But I’ll have to save that for next time.
(1) Katy Bowman, M.S. outlines the evolution of our progression from a society that moves to a society that exercises in her blog post “My Manifesto” here and as it appears in her book Alignment Matters, available here.