Fitness Without Fear

I found something to keep me busy these past several months and I’m happy to say I may actually have something to show for it. Today, I got the green light from my publisher to continue with the development of my book, Fitness without Fear. (Well, maybe that won’tbe the final title, but we’ll work with it.)

Outside of my training and coaching practice, I’ve been working as a trainer educator for years. I am an adjunct professor and course writer for the International Sports Sciences Association and also worked with a group of colleagues to develop and teach a seminar for gym owners and trainers on practical approaches to training.

However, I have always enjoyed working with those new to fitness and athletics and so they are the focus of this book. I think we have gone the wrong way in how we educate people about fitness. Everyone knows that physical activity is good for their health, but every year we become more and more sedentary. I think we need a reset, a different way of thinking about fitness, and a more approachable way for everyone to improve their health through movement.

“My philosophical struggles with fitness began in high school gym class. It became very apparent to me that I was not only out of shape, but I was also terribly uncoordinated compared to a lot of the other kids. I was always small for my age, but I had dreams about athletic excellence. I was especially excited about track and field, specifically hurdles. After several spectacular crashes and a few dead last finishes however, I was disappointingly never tapped to try out for the team. I can’t really blame the coach, I imagine it was frightening to behold. Unfortunately, it showed me that my desire to be an athlete just wasn’t enough to get me there. I was not fast, or strong, and I figured that was my lot in life.

Fortunately it wasn’t.

Through high school and into college I spent a lot of time at a local horse farm riding, caring for, and training horses. Despite being small, I found that carrying hay bales and water buckets and cleaning stalls made me quite strong over the years. I also learned a lot about observing movement in both the horses and riders I was training and teaching. Observation and teaching was the cornerstone of success for both of them. Patience and consistent practice did the rest. Despite the fact that the purpose of the farm was to train and rehab “lost cause” horses who were deemed untrainable, we were very successful at turning the majority of these horses into competitive show horses and pleasure riding horses. Clearly, formerly dangerous animals could be turned into top notch athletes if you were patient enough to teach them. I figured the same must be true for people.

In my early adulthood I moved to Washington, DC and horses were no longer a part of my life. However, I was determined to get into the gym and become the athlete I always wanted to be. I was working as a research scientist at the time and my lab experience had taught me a lot about problem solving. If you have a goal you want to accomplish, there is always a way. You just have to figure out what steps you need to take to get there and then learn the techniques necessary to complete them. Its the same way people learn to read, to dance, to race stock cars, and practice medicine. I read everything I could get my hands on and worked with as many people as I could. This approach worked well for a while, but when I tried to take things to the next level, I started to see some deficits in the system. It was hard to find good information and even harder to find good trainers who were interested in teaching me rather than just making me tired. They often tried to fit me into a cookie cutter version of exercises rather than teaching me how to move based on my strengths, weaknesses, and my individual differences.

But, I was not going to be deterred. I got my training certification, took classes, and learned what voices I should be listening to. I put that education into practice and not only trained average folks from every walk of life, but became the coach of several national and world level athletes in weightlifting and powerlifting. I have also coached a number of youth teams and activities including track and field, weightlifting, cross country, and even lacrosse. In my own training, I was able to overcome some chronic back and hip pain and got much stronger over the years. Eventually, I took up the sport of Highland Games (throwing heavy things in a kilt) at the age of 40. I have competed at some of the top games in the country. I have also completed several obstacle course races and a half marathon. In a nutshell, that uncoordinated, broken kid who couldn’t make the track team in high school became a top notch coach and athlete in her 40’s.

In my practice as a trainer and coach I have found that many people are afraid to take on the challenge of changing their lives because, quite frankly, fitness is scary. Going to the gym often involves hard sales pitches, dozens of torture devices called “exercise machines”, and some amazing physiques that make the best of us feel like we’ll never stack up. If you don’t know what to do once you are in the gym, which many people don’t, you can join the all-too-common high intensity workout classes which can be rather unpleasant, especially for beginners. Fear of failure or looking stupid prevents many people from going to the gym even when they know the health benefits of exericse.

Many of my clients have come to me because they had a bad experience with a trainer or a commercial gym, they are embarassed to be in a gym not knowing what to do, or they have a goal they want to reach and just don’t know how to get there. The fears that have been expressed to me from my clients range from fear of failure to fear of fitting in to literal fear of the sensation of raising their heart rate as it feels just like anxiety or a medical issue they had in the past. So how do I help my clients conquer their fears? I start by giving them back control. Time and time again, I have found that people empowered with knowledge feel better about their exercise plans.

As a scientist, I know that most things that can be learned can also be taught, but fitness is rarely taught. Instead, there is a tendency when designing workouts to focus on the unpleasant sensations that result as this is what most people equate with a “good workout”. I think this is best summed up by exercise physiologist, Stephen Seiler:

Good intentions to add exercise to a healthy lifestyle have often been derailed by overexuberant fitness instructors, personal trainers, and super fit neighbors who take people from the sofa, to the red zone. And the result is that they often return to the sofa and stay there. ” (From Stephen Seiler’s Ted Talk on “The Green Zone”,

I think if we are going to get more people training for their healthy, longevity, and quality of life, we need to remove the fear from fitness. I have effectively taught hundreds of people to add fitness to their lives, take their fitness to the next level, and even compete in a number of sports and competitions. And this is all because I learned the hard way that no pain, no gain, is simply no way to train if you want it to be a permanent part of your life. Once I figured out the right path for myself, I was able to conquer a lot of my own fear and perform far beyond any of my previous expectations.

The key to my success was treating my own training as learning and practice. Everything you do in the gym, on the road, or on the field is a skill that first you learn, and then you practice. When I trained for a 12 mile obstacle course race, I had to teach my body to adapt to being able to run 12 miles so I learned better running form and practiced running. When I was trying to increase the amount of weight I could squat, I learned how to maintain good form as I slowly added more weight to the bar and practiced doing more reps without that form breaking down. When I train my clients to develop basic fitness, I first teach them how to move correctly and then they practice doing that for longer periods of time and with more resistance. No pain, all gain. We practice what we learn. And we learn what we practice.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s