Online Personal Trainer
by Ken McAlpine
For two months now, our chummy exchanges, clacked off at all hours and viewed via the humming glow of computer screen, have gone something like this:
Brad: I have a question about the nutrition information you sent me.
Brad: What are these Mother's Cookies?
Me: Oatmeal cookies with a yummy cream glaze.
Brad: Oh, boy.
That anyone would give such detailed thought to what I eat (until recently, I certainly didn't) would normally be a surprise. So, too, would the fact that I can feel Brad's dismay. I know he cares, and I know he's disappointed. But I also know he won't be showing up anytime soon to twist me into a pretzel - though, given his own physique, he is supremely capable of doing so.
The future of fitness has many benefits, not the least of which are certain personal safeguards.
Brad, you see, is my personal trainer. That he lives in Colorado and I live in California would once have been an obstacle. It's not anymore, not now that the world is connected via satellites and well-placed clicks.
Welcome to the world of Internet training. You and your personal trainer, exchanging information via computer to sculpt a new you.
As Brad told me the first time we spoke, Internet training is not only an exciting new forum for fitness, it's also an avenue to life change. "Not only are we going to improve your fitness," he said, "we're going to improve your health, too. This is a pivotal lifestyle change we're talking about."
Personally, I had reservations. Training over the computer seemed too weirdly futuristic. Frankly, I didn't know if it would work. Certainly the Internet has thrust us into a revolutionary Information Age, but I had seen a lot of that information and wasn't overly impressed. And, though I liked the idea of a personal trainer pushing me to pivotal change, I wasn't sure someone in Colorado would be able to push hard enough.
Brad points out that Internet training offered several advantages over conventional personal training. For the shyer among us, training via computer offers privacy. With a minimal investment in the proper equipment (your Internet trainer could help here, too), you can train at home and so avoid strangers and spandex at the gym (not to mention the commute). You don't have to invite a personal trainer into your home, either.
The Internet doesn't sleep - so, assuming you've signed on with a qualified trainer genuinely interested in you, the two of you can trade information anytime, anywhere - a real boon in an age of schizophrenic schedules.
Internet training is often cheaper, too. Depending on where you live (trainers in major metropolitan areas usually charge more) and your personal trainer's level of experience, an in-the-flesh trainer might cost from $30 to $130 an hour. Though still sorting themselves out, prices for Internet training can go as low as $10-$40 a week (Brad's own fees range from $25 to $75 a week, depending on the level of service).
Internet training, according to Brad, could also offer more. Most personal trainers simply march you through an exercise routine, making sure you do the exercises right. Because information is easily pooled in cyberspace, however, a good Internet training site could use experts in various fields - nutrition, psychology, physiology - to give you a total health hit.
"What good is a 30-minute run if you follow it up with a jelly donut?" asks Brad. Was this a rhetorical question? I don't know. As our relationship progressed, Brad proved to have an eerie, near-telepathic sense of my inclinations.
Me: "I'll be going to Texas for three days."
Him: "Find a gym. Understand that barbecued ribs are not a food group. And NO candy corn while you're gone!"
Brad isn't the only one who believes Internet training could work. "Internet training is an exciting area that's really growing," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA, the world's largest membership organization for health and fitness professionals. "There are some real benefits to training on the Internet. The potential here is really exciting."
Davis has some reservations, too, reservations shared by some of the other fitness experts I talked to. Folks need to be careful, they say. Anyone can set up a web site, but that doesn't mean they are qualified to give training advice. Too, an Internet trainer might not be best for a raw beginner, especially when it comes to weight training, where having someone show you proper lifting form is essential to getting results - and avoiding injury.
On the first point, the experts were certainly right. Poking around the Web, I found at least one site that couldn't offer much sane exercise advice, much less counsel to contestants in a Third Grade spelling bee ("My Personel Training Program Will Get You Ripped Qiuck"). But there were good sites, too, including Brad's where, among other offerings, he outlines weight training programs complete with pictures and detailed "how to" advice for each lift.
Brad is well versed in physiology, biomechanics and nutrition, but he knows what his real job is. "As kids, we have plenty of people who keep us in line," he says. "But as adults we're on our own, and many of us rationalize our health away. We have no one there to keep us on the straight and narrow. That's what a personal trainer does."
A boon, certainly, for the less disciplined. Personally, I was anxious to get started with my own cyber training, but I had many important demands on my time. Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about Brad. What was the guy going to do, show up at my door?
Worse. As soon as I signed on, e-mails began arriving in floods. First, there was a lengthy medical and family history, inquiries as to my own fitness goals (build a bit more muscle, shed a few extra pounds) and a detailed explanation of the four-pronged attack Brad would use to sculpt a new me (aerobic conditioning, weight training, good nutrition and proper supplementation).
I was given a password so I could log onto Brad's site. Stuff began arriving in the mail, tubs of Protein Power, jars of vitamins and other supplements, a pair of natty-looking weight training gloves. More e-mails followed right on their heels, explaining what the items were for and how they should be ingested - even a recipe for a protein powder shake ("You'll swear it's an 800-calorie milkshake!").
Mirroring what would become our established pattern, we talked occasionally by phone, but mostly by e-mail. On one occasion, I noticed that Brad had typed a nutritional missive at two in the morning ("You don't worry about the time of the day or night. If you're inspired, you go ahead!").
The man's enthusiasm reverberated through cyberspace. But he got down to business, too. "I need to know what and when you eat," he wrote.
To design the right fitness program and get me the results I wanted, he had to know all about me. I had to be straight with him, he said, and hold nothing back.
Fine. I sent him a list of the food I typically eat. The response was immediate. "C'mon. You're just trying to make me feel smug about my own nutrition, right? You don't REALLY ingest that stuff, do you?"
According to Brad, my eating habits were producing a daily roller coaster of energy spikes and crashes that led to both physical and mental fatigue.
Blip, in came a nutritional guidelines primer and some specific recommendations. Eat smaller meals, 5-6 times a day. Select complex carbohydrates. Increase my protein intake. Choose the right kind of fats. Take the right supplements. Stop eating candy corn by the pound. Watch my waistline melt and my energy soar.
I would need to measure out the amount of food I ate, too - every bit of it.
Mostly, I did what I was told, pouring milk and cereal into measuring cups before it went into the bowl, examining the labels on containers for calories and fat, dutifully logging what I ate, then blipping it off to Brad, so that he might perform a detailed nutritional analysis.
Even then, I didn't lie enough. A few weeks into our program, my first analysis came back, six faxed pages of lists and graphs that laid everything bare. Each food item in a week's worth of meals had been broken down - calories, fat content, cholesterol, iron content and other categories. Brad followed that up with a phone call. "There were certain meals I would look at and just burst out laughing," he said, "where the fat content was up to 70%. That fried chicken stuff will just murder you."
Had I really logged everything I ate in my submissions to Brad, he might have done the job first. As it was, Brad was upbeat. I could learn from this, he said. "We always look at meals after the fact. Now that you know what's in the stuff you're eating, you'll be able to say 'No way!' BEFORE you sit down and eat it."
Exercise was my other main prong of attack. Since I had been running, swimming and bicycling for most of a lifetime, Brad left the aerobic end largely up to me - asking that I do something aerobic three times a week, for 30-60 minutes (factoring in how long and how hard I exercised, he would later calculate the calories I burned).
Having succinctly analyzed the success of my own weight training program ("My, you ARE an ectomorph"), Brad created a three-day a week regimen designed to beef me up. Logging onto his web site with my password, I would find his recommendations on how much weight I should lift and how many repetitions I should do. Point and click easy, I would download that information, print it up and take it with me to the gym. After each workout, I would log back onto Brad's site, notching the weights and repetitions I did in tiny boxes. I also notched how hard each exercise was, then blipped it all back to him.
Brad, it turns out, was able to push me plenty hard enough. Sitting in a comfortable chair, perhaps enjoying a protein shake, he would peruse my exercise efforts, tell me where I was slacking off ("You call that pitiful log a leg routine?"), decide what additional pain to inflict on me, then blip the updated recommendations back .
Is it working? Yes. Already I have more energy, and I've developed some ectomorphic muscle definition. Is training via computer strange? Yes.
But viewing Internet training as futuristic might be a mistake. Because, when it comes to your health, the future has always been rooted in the here and now.