The most inspiring client I’ve ever trained gave me a very blunt assessment of his abilities when we first met.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he told me during our initial session. “I would do anything to look good.”
He fixed me with a stare and let the words sink in. I shrugged. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Anything except diet and exercise.”
I had to laugh. That was pretty funny stuff.
“Well, I appreciate your candor,” I said.
“I thought we needed to start from a honest place,” he replied. “I used to see people working out, and I always thought it was a huge waste of time. Why expend all that energy? It just didn’t seem to make sense.”
That was my introduction to Phil Clevenger. When I went home that night, my partner Meirav asked me how it went with the new client.
“Well, he’s pretty funny,” I said. “Seems like a nice guy.”
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Nope. That’s it,” I said. “He signed up for a handful of sessions. I doubt I’ll see him after that.”
Ordinarily, pessimism is not the best quality in a personal trainer. But, with a decade of experience as a personal trainer under my belt, I didn’t consider that assessment pessimistic. I considered it realistic.
The late, great Jazz musician Charles Mingus wrote a famous composition called “Better Git It In Your Soul.” That’s how I feel about movement.
If it’s not in your “soul,” if, in other words, you don’t come from a background where movement is pleasurable (such as sports or salsa dancing or hiking), you are in very deep doo-doo. Absent that, you have no body memory to tap into — nothing that allows you to soak up the sweat and pain and say “Damn, I remember this! This feels good…”
Phil Clevenger had no body memory to tap into. Furthermore, he had a very sentient take on some key evolutionary principles: we are biologically programmed to conserve energy, not expend it. And, today’s mechanized and automated society makes it very easy to sit on your butt and do nothing.
So, why fight it? Phil actually had a very good point.
I had a couple of people interested in Phil’s time slot. I told them to check back in a month. But that time slot never opened up. Month after month, Phil showed up. A year and a half later, Phil is still training with me.
The transformation was both mystifying and astonishing. Fifty-five pounds of fat loss. Over ten pounds of muscle gain. A thirty-second plank turned into three sets of three-minute planks. Once barely capable of executing a push-up, he cranked out thirty in a row. (With good form, I might add.)
He progressed from hardly being able to support his own body weight to knocking out almost a dozen pull-ups — more than twice as many as his trainer.
The accomplishments were singular in their own right, but what made Phil’s progress so impressive was that it was almost without precedent. In ten years of training, I’d never seen a client with no exercise history succeed long-term. It had never happened.
Again, this sounds vaguely pessimistic. But it’s a scenario that holds true for many people. One need look no further than the contestants of “The Biggest Loser.”
According to a recent NY Times article, contestants from a recent episode of “TBL” had regained 90 pounds, on average, since the show’s conclusion.
The ensuing firestorm of controversy was predictable – with blame assigned almost everywhere. Shoddy and sensationalistic journalism! Lack of willpower! Ratings-crazed trainers with no concern for the long-term well-being of their clients!
Perhaps each of these allegations contains a kernel of truth. The article, by its very nature, was sensationalistic. That egregious amount of fat gain was shocking. And, surely, some of the contestants, no longer manacled to their arduous regimens, reverted to bad habits.
But it’s the third allegation – a cadre of trainers who neglected the long-term health of their clients – that resonates most clearly with me as a Certified Personal Trainer. On a very fundamental level, those trainers failed their clients.
What the article said.
The article posited a very clear scientific reason behind the fat gain: the contestants’ resting metabolic rate (RMR) had failed to recalibrate when they had reached the targeted goal. In other words, an individual who weighs 280 pounds burns a sufficient amount of energy to maintain that weight. When the individual lost 100 pounds, the RMR didn’t’ adjust accordingly, and burned energy at a much slower rate. Hence, the contestants were unable to sustain their success.
I can’t speak to the science involved, but I do believe there was a much more fundamental reason for the contestants’ fat gain: the trainers had adjusted their bodies while failing to recalibrate their minds.
Why We Move. Or Not…
Historically, the impetus for movement has been two-fold: for necessity and pleasure. In the Paleolithic times, if humans wanted to eat (or avoid being eaten) they had to migrate long distances, and, upon occasion, run very fast. Later, as we evolved as a species, we lived in rural and agrarian environments where movement was still essential for survival.
The advent of the Industrial Age changed everything. Liberated from the need for movement, ‘movement for pleasure’
became an option. The period of time between roughly 1850-1900 saw the development of many leisure activities, including baseball, football, basketball, cycling, and rowing.
Fast-forward another century, and we have become a nation of spectators. Clearly, the vast majority of us no longer need to hunt for our food. And, ironically, enough, when many people self-identify as a “sports fan” it indicates they enjoy watching other people move.
In short, all motivation for movement in modern society has been eliminated. That was the fundamental problem that almost every contestant on the show faced – a set of circumstances almost certainly not addressed by the trainers of “The Biggest Loser.”
Fitness is a Journey. Not a Destination.
There are so many inherent flaws to the “Biggest Loser” that it’s difficult to enumerate all of them. So let’s focus on two.
First and foremost, most people do not experience physical changes with the intense public scrutiny that accompanied the contestants of the “Biggest Loser.” They do not have daily supervision of their eating habits and movement habits. They don’t have people yelling at them calling them “weak” “whimpy” or exhorting them to “puke in the corner.”
Most Americans suffer – or succeed – in private. Their progress is slow, incremental, and painful. The rapid changes observed by the contestants of the TV show are the stuff of pure fantasy. No one loses that amount of fat so drastically because most people (unless they’re extremely affluent) don’t have an armada of ‘experts’ vested in their daily success. Or, more realistically, in boosting the Nielsen ratings.
So, when the contestants leave the show, they join the millions of other people subjected to the vagaries of the “battle to stay fit. They had been subjected to humiliation for the viewing pleasure of millions. Once finished with that spectacle, what would they do? Would they continue on the road to health and fitness?
Doubtful. If a set of exquisite triceps or extreme fat loss is the product of drudgery, mindless repetition, or some rating-obsessed blowhard shrieking at you, the odds are very much against you staying in shape.
In short, the trainers of TBL had failed on a very fundamental level: while they may have changed the contestants’ physiques, they failed to alter their mental perceptions of movement. You cannot change one without the other and expect success.
Instead of focusing on the shallowest manifestations of fitness (triceps, abs, etc…) the trainers of the show should’ve asked a very simple question: “How do you feel?” Not “Do you like the way you look?”
One is sustainable. The other isn’t, because there’s nothing undergirding it. It’s like building a house with a majestic veranda…on stilts.
Phil Clevenger discovered that movement was liberating. It was about the journey. Not the destination.
And missing that connection was the tragic downfall of the contestants on The Biggest Loser.