Getting personal; Health: Fitness trainers aren't just for the rich anymore. More and more, they're providing therapy for all kinds of problems.; Health & Fitness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This time, you're really going to get in shape.

You want to improve your tennis game, lose those post-pregnancy pounds, develop a healthy lifestyle after a heart attack, control your diabetes, or have the body shape you dimly remember from an earlier decade.

Whatever the reason, you're serious -- even if you don't know how to go about it. The idea of dragging out the dust-covered exercise bike from the far corners of the basement just doesn't appeal to you.

That's where a personal trainer comes in, or as they often prefer to be called, a fitness consultant. Once thought of as an extravagance for only the rich and glittery, personal trainers are taking on thousands of aging baby boomers.

"There's a perception that personal training is for the elite and the wealthy, and it's not," says Paul Kennedy, assistant vice president of personal training services for Bally Total Fitness, a national company with several fitness centers in the Baltimore area.

It's not exactly cheap, either, but with sessions in the Baltimore area ranging from $35 to $70 an hour, and a variety of introductory packages available, the cost can be about the same as filling the tank of the Suburban.

"Your health is the most important thing you have," says Michael Kelly, corporate fitness director for Sinai WellBridge Health and Fitness. "If you lose your health, the new house means nothing."

Personal trainers increasingly are helping patients regain health, too. "Personal training is really heading in a direction that is post-rehabilitative in nature," says Kelly. While anyone can join Sinai's fitness center, it has components for people with strokes, Parkinson's disease, weight management needs, or cardiac rehabilitation. The center is starting programs for diabetes management, osteoporosis prevention and rehabilitation for patients suffering from cancer.

When the HMO won't pay for any more visits with a physical therapist, a gym -- with the same type of equipment -- can be the person's next stop. "Trainers represent the ultimate after-care," says Kennedy. "You've been released from therapy -- now what?"

That change in focus is represented in Bally's membership. Kennedy notes that people ages 40 to 49 are the fastest growing group of new members.

But personal trainers aren't physical therapists, although the initials can be confusing. Physical therapists, who undergo extensive post-graduate training, are licensed by the state.

There are no licensing or certification requirements for personal trainers -- pretty much anyone can assemble a weight bench and declare themselves a personal trainer. The result can be an ineffective workout for the client, or even worse, a serious injury.

So how do you make sure you get a qualified personal trainer?

Look for a national certification -- and the more certifications, the better.

"Nobody should have just one certification; that means they're limited," says Michael Sallustio, who runs Good Health Inc. of Annapolis with his wife, Lee Michelle Sallustio. A former lawyer, Michael is a certified medical exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine; a certified nutrition consultant through the American Council on Exercise; and a member of the American Association of Fitness Consultants. Lee Michelle, who has an undergraduate degree in health fitness management and a master's in exercise science, is certified through ACE, NASM and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Some other national certifications to look for include: the National Strength and Conditioning Association; the National Strength Professionals Association; International Sports Science Association; Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and certification obtained through the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas.

Trainers interviewed named the American College of Sports Medicine certification as the best.

Ask about any continuing education, signaled by memberships in organizations like Focus on Fitness, or pursuing additional degrees. The Dundalk Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, offers a program that prepares students for ACSM and ACE certification and awards its own trainer certification as well.

Ask, too, how long the person has been training others. You want someone with experience.

Once credentials have been established, then the choosing a trainer comes down to chemistry.

"You need to make sure it's a good relationship because you're going to be seeing that trainer for a period of time," says Daniel Schmidt, a senior fitness consultant and owner of Body Style Health and Fitness. He recommends getting a referral from someone who uses a trainer, and then asking that trainer for an interview. Most trainers will give a free initial consultation, he says.

"The most important thing is that you have a rapport with that person," Kelly says, "If you do not have a good rapport, then they won't be able to motivate you."

Motivation is precisely what you're paying for.

"A trainer gets to know you well, and what your limits are, and they can push you to a higher level than what you can do yourself," Kelly says. "Every professional team has a strength and conditioning coach -- why? If these athletes are so motivated, why have a coach? Every great athlete has a coach behind them, and you are hiring a personal coach, a coach who knows your body and what you can do."

Tracey McGraw, who lives near York, Pa., has worked with several personal trainers. "I learned a lot about the ways I should exercise, and things that are safe to do," she says. "It's great to have somebody there with you who can say, 'You can do five more; you can do 10 more. You can do it.' "

As a woman, she appreciated having someone to work with, since she found other women were more interested in aerobics classes then working with weights. Her last trainer, she says, "was able to hook me up with other women who had the same interest as I did. When I worked with him, I really improved."

Trainers know how to vary exercise routines to keep them interesting. And a huge motivation is just knowing that someone is at the gym, waiting for you to keep your appointment.

Going to the gym on your own doesn't necessarily equal a workout, as Kennedy well knows. "In most cases, when people say they lift weights for an hour and a half, what that means is they were in there for an hour and a half and they lift for maybe 15 minutes. And they say, 'I want to do light weights; I want to tone.' What that means is they don't want to work hard. A personal trainer gets you to the next level with proper intensity so that it's safe but challenging."

Nor should a trainer focus exclusively on weightlifting.

A personal trainer, says Lee Michelle Sallustio, "is like a life coach, a lifestyle manager. It's all about health. People come in just to lift weights, and that's not what we're all about." She'll take clients grocery shopping and even go to their homes to show them how to cook in a healthy manner.

Some personal trainers will work with you at your house, but experts caution that you may be limited by not having the variety of equipment available at a fitness center. If you belong to a fitness club, they usually have trainers available, and other trainers will travel to your gym.

There are some red flags that indicate a trainer is in over his head.

If a trainer doesn't ask for a complete health history, find another one.

Nor should you experience pain while working with a trainer. "If there's pain involved, there's a red flag," says Lee Michelle Sallustio. You will, of course, feel your muscles working and be a bit sore, but you should not feel joint pain or severe discomfort.

A trainer should focus on flexibility, range of motion, and cardiovascular training, as well as strength training. "If you feel they're treating you like a weightlifter, you've probably picked the wrong trainer," Kennedy says.

How often should you see a personal trainer? Initially, says Kennedy, the 2,000 personal trainers he oversees for Bally prefer to see people three to four times a week for six to eight weeks.

"Many people who come to us have been sedentary for years," he says. "We suggest they train with us three to four times a week. We can make significant gains beyond the third or fourth week."

A highly motivated individual may need to see a trainer only once a week or so. But look in the mirror and be honest you didn't get that way because you were highly motivated to exercise.

The payoff will come when you realize you've grabbed several bags of groceries and toted them to the car without once stopping to rest.

Getting on track

Tips on getting started with a personal trainer:

* Be honest about your goals. If you want to lose weight, say so.

* Make sure the trainer knows your complete medical history. While in the midst of a workout, no trainer likes to hear, "I haven't done this since my heart attack."

* Be realistic about your goals. Weightlifting increases muscle mass, but it's not going to turn a 6-foot-2 ectomorph into an NFL linebacker.

* Make a commitment to yourself. If you tell the trainer you want to work out four times a week, be prepared to show up and do it.

* Be consistent. The goal is a healthier lifestyle, and that means adopting what they teach you, such as stretching for flexibility and drinking plenty of water, every day, not just on the days you work out.

* Attempt only small changes at first. To try to do too much is discouraging.

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