One February day in 2009, I stopped at the gym on my way home from work and hopped on an elliptical. It felt good to work out, and I had been trying—unsuccessfully—for years to get into a steady routine of getting to the gym. But the results just weren’t happening. I didn’t know enough about strength training and cardio, and my eating habits were dismal. At 5’2” and 220 pounds, I needed to make a change…and I couldn’t do it on my own.
So I bravely approached the desk of one of the gym’s trainers—you know the type: huge muscles, incredibly fit, walking around like the gym was his kingdom. Pushing aside my considerable Leo pride, I said three very difficult words to him:
“I need help.”
So began my Odyssey. Homer had Cyclops to attend with; I had B. the Sadist, my gum-smacking, power-lifting, no-excuses trainer who seemed to enjoy my pain and finding new ways to prolong the torture with every session. He ruthlessly critiqued my food journal, and I gamely gave up Dr. Pepper and the Mac ‘n Cheese that had sustained me through years of depression.
Fast-forward three-and-a-half years, through another three trainers (C. the Sweetie, G. the Meanie, and M. the Reasonable), and I am now 85 pounds lighter and staring down my goal weight of 130. All of my trainers helped me get here—especially G. and M.—as I’ve completely changed my lifestyle and my physique.
Here are the top five lessons I’ve learned from my trainers.
1. Your body needs fat.
B. the Sadist made me give up a lot of healthy fats, like avocado, in favor of quickly slimming down, and I quickly learned that this was unsustainable. When he moved and I switched to C. the Sweetie, she taught me that healthy fats— found in avocado, olive oil, nuts, and other foods—are necessary to the body. Healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help provide energy for the body to function. The key to eating them is using moderation.
2. There’s quitting (giving up) and knowing when to quit.
Embarking on a fitness routine comes with a risk of injury and, of course, soreness. The day after my first workout with B. the Sadist was spent shuffling around, whimpering and vowing never to go back after my paid-for sessions had expired. Instead of quitting, I kept pushing through the sore muscles, and I learned that if you just keep going, the soreness becomes less painful and more a badge of honor.
G. the Meanie in particular never let me quit, and constantly told me to “push through the pain.” Paranoid about injuring myself as I gamely tried to become a runner, I would often get mad at his ex-military way of commanding me. But I learned that quitting gets you nowhere, and persistence pays off.
That said, there is also a point where the pain is not a simple sore muscle, but an injury that needs rest and care. Venting my frustration one morning about my inability to complete my strength training workout due to a fall while I was out running, I was reminded by M. the Reasonable that taking a day off to let my body heal from smacking into the pavement is not quitting—it’s being smart.
3. No one part of a fitness program is more important than another.
I see tons of articles get posted on my social networking sites, each one claiming that this diet is better than that diet, or that cardio is the only way to burn fat, or that strength training is the only way. There are literally thousands of articles a day, each promoting someone’s great new workout or fabulous diet. I watch trends flash across my Twitter feed—endorsed by fellow runners and people working on losing weight—and I just shake my head and smile.
Here’s the truth—it’s pretty simple, really: If you eat healthy foods, in the proper portion sizes, and do both cardiovascular exercise and a good strength training program, you will lose weight. To keep your body from getting too complacent, it’s best to switch things up every few weeks, especially with strength training.
Food doesn’t have to be boring, either. Herbs and spices jazz up any vegetable and make butter and cheese unnecessary. Salads actually taste better when they’re not drowned in dressing. Favorite recipes can be modified and adapted to include healthier ingredients.
Even better: chocolate is not the enemy. I eat a little bit of dark chocolate every couple of days and it does not hurt my weight loss at all.
4. The number on the scale isn’t as important as…
I weigh in weekly, and of course, I love seeing the number go down. I sigh in frustration when it goes up or stays the same. But there’s one important thing to remember—the number on the scale doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ve had whole months where my weight loss has hit a plateau, while my clothes got looser and my body got leaner.
It’s not because muscle weighs more than fat—that’s a myth of course! One pound of muscle weighs exactly the same as one pound of fat—however, it takes up less space.
The important thing to remember is that even when the scale isn’t showing success, there are so many other changes happening. Muscles are getting stronger and burning more fat. The body is growing used to its new lifestyle. Clothes start to hang. While overall body weight is an important calculation, it’s not the only one…not to mention, it can fluctuate with menstruation, eating a little too much sodium, and many other reasons.
5. Yes, I can.
By far the most important lesson I’ve learned from all of my trainers is to change my attitude from, “I can’t do this!” to “Bring it on.” In my six months of working with M. the Reasonable, I noticed a certain trend. When a particular exercise would frustrate me, I would stop and sternly tell myself, “I can do this!” M. always responded with a smile and a simple, “Yes, you can.” Always encouraging, always believing that I was capable of everything he set in front of me.
A few months ago, he made the suggestion that I could be a triathlete. My knee-jerk response was an emphatic, “Oh no I can’t!” But when I went home that day, I started thinking about it—M. honestly believes that I am capable of doing a triathlon. Why not go for it, and give myself a new goal now that I’m so close to goal weight?
The next time I saw him, I said, “You just had to use the word ‘triathlete,’ didn’t you?” His face lit up in a grin. “I got to thinking about it, and…you know, maybe it is something I could do.”
“Yes, you can,” was M.’s reply.
And so I can.
If you’ve been thinking about getting a trainer, I whole-heartedly encourage you to go for it. It doesn’t come cheap, but the benefits—learning proper form, having someone to encourage you, and having a new motivation to get to the gym—far outweigh the cost concerns.
My trainers helped me to change my life. What could a trainer do for you?