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How to Be an 
Empathetic Personal Trainer

by Ryan Halvorson on May 14, 2015

Client Success Story

Relying on intuition can often provide more insight than physical assessments and checklists.

New beginnings. When Patty Shoaf first met Barbara 19 years ago, she realized quickly that this would be a client like no other. “I arrived for a consult at her house and a classy, high-heeled, 67-year-old woman wearing a skirt walked in,” Shoaf recalls.

The two developed an immediate connection and began to discuss Barbara’s health history and her level of interest in and experience with exercise. “I learned that she was blind in her left eye and that she had peripheral neuropathy. At the time, I was a new trainer and this was a new term to me.”

Shoaf also discovered that Barbara had never exercised a day in her life. The client was admittedly apprehensive because she didn’t like the thought of exercise, but knew that she needed to move more. Shoaf assured Barbara that she was in for a fun experience.

Observations. At the outset of the program—which took place in Barbara’s home—Shoaf eschewed formal assessments. She decided that a battery of tests would only create more anxiety. “I simply put together a set program, starting with a general warm-up on a NordicTrack® skier machine,” she says. “Once we warmed up, we went into a variety of moves, using a Swiss ball—she has been a superstar with this from the beginning—some light hand weights and a chair.”

Eventually, the two decided to move the training sessions into the gym.

Hidden problems. During one session, Barbara told Shoaf that she had experienced some chest pain and had undergone a variety of tests but none revealed any problems. Despite the medical assessments and test results, Shoaf couldn’t shake her concern and became even more watchful of her client. “One day the chest pain became so intense that I told Barbara I would take her home, but she insisted on driving herself,” says Shoaf. “A few hours later, I received a phone call saying she needed quadruple bypass surgery.”

Shoaf believes this is a prime example of why personal trainers need to rely on gut feelings when working with clients. “Sometimes being intuitive with your training can be a better answer to long-term success when training individuals with many ailments,” states Shoaf.

Victories. Barbara recovered from the surgery, and the duo continue to train together.

“We still follow a similar exercise order, but now things move a little slower,” notes Shoaf. “We’ve learned how to walk with a cane; we’ve learned how to walk properly with a walker. We continue to work on simply getting up and down out of a chair. We do balance exercises, but based on the day, these don’t always work.”

Shoaf recalls one of Barbara’s most inspiring moments. “In January 2012, she handed me a brochure for the Great Human Race—a local 5K—and said, ‘I want to train for this.’”

Shoaf consented and augmented training sessions to include walking around the building using a walker or, if Barbara’s feet were willing, exercising on the treadmill.

“When race day came, we had a large support group to help Barbara through the event,” Shoaf says. “With the rain coming down, her family and myself at her side and her walker in front of her, we completed the 5K.” They didn’t complete the course in the allotted time, but the race facilitators kept the banner up until they passed the finish line. “Again, the ‘Can-Do’ belief was present, and Barbara took this and literally ran with it!”

Pushing past challenges. “Our biggest issue today is Barbara’s lack of mobility. Working with clients like Barbara requires patience, humility, caring and a true listening ear. Sometimes just hearing a cheerful voice and seeing a smiling face is enough to keep the body and spirit moving.”

Despite Barbara’s slowed pace, Shoaf insists that her spirit remains vibrant. “She has many ailments that would make most people stay in bed—but not Barbara. She gets up each day, puts a smile on her face and tries to create a beautiful picture.” n

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About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.