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Could You Be a Cybertrainer?

Find out how to use Internet tools to add value to your business.

If you’re considering expanding your services into cyberspace or adding to your current online offerings, now’s the time. On an average day, 113 million adults look for health information online. More than 57% of Americans watch or download videos from the Internet, and 12% of Internet users have downloaded audio files known as podcasts. Prospective clients are virtually everywhere! Given that the masses are surfing the Web for credible health and fitness resources, it’s clear that the World Wide Web is an effective vehicle for inspiring the world to fitness, as well as fishing for new prospects.

But why stop there? Consider, also, the Internet’s role in helping you strengthen relationships with clients you see every day.

In today’s computer-driven, Web-savvy culture, chances are that many of your face-to-face clients would appreciate a little cybersupport, as well. After all, the notion of “personal” is changing. People are connecting and interacting with each other entirely online, using media such as e-mail, blogs (i.e., interactive Web-based journals), online forums, audio and video downloads and social networking. (Checked out the IDEA group on Facebook yet?)

Join us as we explore cyberfitness: what it means, how you and your clients can benefit from it and why you should plan on integrating Internet technology into your current health and fitness services. Read on and discover a new WWWorld of possibilities.

Online Personal Training: Friend or Foe?

Judging from the growing number of ways that the public is accessing health and fitness information on the Web—from YouTube clips to Facebook groups to downloadable audio files such as podcasts—it’s clear that Web-based health, nutrition and fitness guidance is here to stay. The trick is to make it your ally (i.e., complementary to your business), not your competitor. To do this, you must be aware of the online tools that currently exist and how you and/or your clients can benefit from them.

When most fitness pros hear about fitness support through the Internet, they think of “online personal training”—a Web-based system of fitness/nutrition instruction (i.e., program design, implementation, feedback, progression), where the onus of accountability may fall largely or entirely on clients. (Note that online personal training is only one way that fitness professionals can use cyberspace to their advantage. We discuss more on the broader cyber approach later.) As technology evolves, so will the definition of “online personal training.” For the purposes of this article, we’ve funneled online personal training into three main categories, each with its pros and cons, to help you understand what’s available to clients and trainers.

#1: Sites Using Software-Generated Programming
In this type of online training, computer software generates a client’s program.

How It Works. The client answers a series of online questions to determine his personal profile. (The profile might include information about the client’s fitness experience, health goals, intended exercise schedule, available equipment, etc.) Computer software uses algorithms and formulas to customize a program for the client, complete with written exercise descriptions and visual demonstrations in the form of still graphics/
photos and/or animated clips. The client may also have the option of selecting additional or alternative moves from the exercise database.

Pros/Cons. Software-based training makes customized fitness affordable and convenient for a client who might not need or want face-to-face interaction with a trainer. It is most effective for someone with kinesthetic awareness and basic exercise knowledge. However, the client isn’t nearly as accountable as he would be with a “live” fitness pro.

How You Can Use This System. Peruse a site’s exercise inventory to garner ideas for designing your own client programs and/or use it as a resource for reminding a client how to perform exercises when the two of you aren’t face to face.

#2: Sites Using Trainer-Generated Programming
In this kind of training, one or more trainers employed in the online training business create a client’s program.

How It Works. In a manner similar to system #1, the client receives a customized diet plan and/or fitness program (with access to an exercise database) based on the profile she provides. What’s different is that the eating and/or exercise guidelines are developed by a “live” team of experts or a single trainer/dietitian. Depending on the website, the client may be assigned to a specific expert, select a trainer herself from a set list or receive instructions from an undisclosed professional.

Pros/Cons. With this approach, the client receives the comfort of knowing that her program was designed by a person versus a computer, which makes the process more personalized and client-specific. However, in some instances, the client may not know who her trainer is—or what his exact qualifications are.

How You Can Use This System. If you offer online training (or plan to), consider enrolling in this type of program as a client to “test” which online procedures and tools work well and which ones don’t—from the perspective of a client. Use your conclusions to strengthen your own online services.

#3: Independent Trainer Using Web-Based Programming
In this last type of training, a trainer purchases programming software and customizes a program for her own clients.

How It Works. The client chooses a personal trainer based on the trainer’s independent website and online offerings. The trainer develops individual plans for each client, as in a face-to-face scenario, and delivers programming through electronic means, often with software designed for this purpose.

Pros/Cons. The client receives personalized, client-specific programming guidance, motivation and attention from a “live” person (albeit in electronic form). However, as with all forms of online training, there’s nothing to ensure that the client will demonstrate proper technique, even when written and visual exercise cues are provided.

How You Can Use This System. Integrate Web-based training into your current offerings as a value-added service for clients you also see in person, as an option for clients who don’t wish to meet face to face and as a way to expand your business and skill set.

Tailoring the Cyber Approach to Your Business

Regardless of the stats and explanations cited so far, you might not have much of an interest in taking your services exclusively to the Net. Like many trainers, perhaps you feel that online personal training (in any of its forms) just isn’t for you. You’ve built your business on interacting with your clients and personally holding them accountable. Sure, you do your best to stay on top of new technology, but you certainly don’t want it to replace your in-person services! Good news: Today’s cyber approach isn’t about choosing between a face-to-face business and a virtual one (unless you want it to be).

The practice of personal training on the Web can be tailored to suit a variety of service approaches. The next section explains how integrating online tools into your existing services can give your fitness business a boost in 2008 and help you guide and support your clients in more effective ways. Analyze the options below, considering what makes the most sense for you, your business and, ultimately, your clients.

What Others Are Doing

If you’re curious about integrating features of the Internet into your services but not interested in turning your business into full-fledged online personal training, consider a happy medium. Why should clients be made to choose exclusively between online training and face-to-face sessions? Why not integrate the best of both methods into their programs? If fitness instructors can fuse different disciplines (e.g., Yogalates™, hydrocycling), why can’t personal trainers turn the Internet into the next variable in the fusion principle?

The idea of using Internet technology to supplement personal training services is not a new concept in the fitness industry. Since the 1990s, fitness professionals have been integrating the Web into their services. For example:

  • using e-mails or e-cards to send motivational messages to a client between training sessions
  • maintaining professional websites that include new training techniques and workout suggestions
  • providing clients with links to informative online resources
  • creating listservs and online groups to build community among clients, trainers and fitness enthusiasts
  • producing digital newsletters to feature client accomplishments and current events

However, today’s Internet technology is more dynamic, all-inclusive and interactive—a trend that has fueled online personal training companies, allowing them to enter the market competitively. The Web delivers more than just e-mails and static websites. Technological advancements have allowed personal trainers to use the Internet in ways that are comparable to their services in the kinesthetic world. But the fact that the technology exists doesn’t mean all clients and/or trainers are interested in adopting it 100% (yet).

The opportunities to blend online and face-to-face training are at our fingertips (and keyboards). The Internet now has the Web applications to make face-to-face training multidimensional. And face-to-face training has the advantages of turning online training into a warmer, guided experience. Keep in mind that clients are online consumers too. If they are not already supplementing their training and increasing their knowledge from online resources, they are certainly exploring the possibilities of doing so. In fact, it’s not uncommon for trainers to first hear about online health services from their clients!

The examples below highlight how fitness professionals are currently using the Web to enhance features of face-to-face training (see “Internet Tools to Help Your Training Business” sidebar for more ideas and details). Trainers are

  • providing exercise and choreography breakdowns on YouTube.com, a website that broadcasts videos—for free;
  • complementing in-person services with free online diet analysis programs;
  • offering free websites that track progress for participants of group running/walking programs;
  • maintaining trainer-created online journals called blogs that encourage clients to stay in touch, learn about health and fitness and/or interact with their own comments; and
  • recommending that clients do additional cardio workouts while listening to fitness podcasts (i.e., audio downloads in MP3 format).

Developing Your Own Approach

The fitness industry is on the cusp of new technology, and personal trainers are exploring ways to integrate these cyber features. It’s time to explore how you can complement face-to-face fitness programming with blogs, podcasts, online communities (like Facebook) and live streaming video (as found on YouTube). The opportunities are endless and exciting! However, you mustn’t lose sight of your clients’ priorities, techno-abilities and interests. For example, how many of your clients own MP3 players to listen to podcasts? How many feel comfortable navigating the Net? Also, if clients are already paying for face-to-face personal training, they may not want to shell out for additional services online (at least not initially). Luckily, there are plenty of free online products and services. While many freebies are limited in function, they are a cost-effective way to explore different services prior to committing to something more comprehensive and pricey. In addition to your clients’ priorities, you must take into account your own time and energies before adopting these features.

Once you have decided how you want to integrate Web tools into your own services, consider the following two cyber approaches to marrying face-to-face programs with Internet training.

Option #1: The Integrative Approach. If you don’t have the time to design Web-based content or create additional resources online, you might want to use available online products and services (such as an online diet program or a downloadable fitness podcast) to complement your training. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel—simply use it to move forward. Being aware and informed about online features is essential for making appropriate recommendations to your clients. This approach is meant to synchronize client experience with prepackaged content on the Web.

What is an example of the integrative approach? You encourage a client to add extra cardio routines outside of his face-to-face sessions. Instead of designing an independent cardio routine or suggesting a group fitness class, you have the additional option of suggesting a fitness podcast, downloadable directly into the client’s iPod or MP3 player. Once you know the kinds of workouts available online, you can guide the client in the right direction by choosing a podcast that best complements his fitness program. (Refer to “Internet Tools to Help Your Training Business” sidebar to get started.)

Option #2: The Customized Approach. If you would rather design and control the Internet content you recommend to clients, you might favor the customized approach. Creating and managing online content once required an understanding of Web design (or an Internet-savvy friend). Nowadays, Web interfaces are far more user-friendly and capable of many functions. Although this do-it-yourself approach is tedious at first, it may end up meeting the individual needs of your clients more effectively.

What is an example of the customized approach? You encourage a client to add additional cardio routines to her program. With guerrilla-style production (using a computer microphone and free voice-recording software, such as Audacity), you design and record a specific treadmill routine in an MP3 format. The audio file is then made available to the appropriate clients to listen to on their iPods or MP3 players. Believe it or not, these production tools are free (or very cheap) and at our disposal.

With a customized approach, you create client-specific content just as before, but you enhance the training experience by delivering it through a different technological medium. Consider this: YouTube members upload approximately 65,000 videos per day. Just think, if the average person can create and upload a video online, so can you. Trainers are already developing their own YouTube channels to upload training tips, exercise ideas and motivational messages on the Web.

Don’t Log Off Just Yet . . .

Overwhelmed by the realm of possibilities? Don’t be. The beauty of the cyber approach is that you can integrate as much or as little of it as you like. This year, start by experimenting with the features you read about in this article. Although there’s no way to know for sure what fitness services and products will look like in the future, you can make the most of what’s available today. Decide which approaches best meet your and your clients’ needs, and which ones fall short of your expectations. Technology is not going away, so let’s use it to actively shape the fitness world we’d like to see tomorrow.

SIDEBAR: Internet Tools to Help Your Training Business

This table gives a selection of the online tools personal trainers can use based on the goals you want to achieve. Most of the listed products and services are free. While many of the freebies are limited in features, they can be a cost-effective way to explore different services before committing to a coordinated or customized cyber approach.

*Numerous websites provide a more comprehensive range of products and/or services than the sites shown here. We have focused mostly on those that are free.
**Paid service.

Goal #1: Educate Clients
Having a database of research studies, fitness articles and health-related news is essential for addressing client questions, nutrition inquiries and other relevant issues.

Cyber Approach

Integrative Approach. Turning to the Web for information is advantageous and convenient for both you and your clients. Plenty of fitness articles and health-related research studies exist in databases on the Web. Sites ending in .edu, .org and .gov are good starting places for health-related searches. Of course, always check the date, author and source of any Web publication. (You might start with Google Scholar to pull
information specifically from scholarly journals and research studies.)

Customized Approach. When you spend countless hours on the Web reading through health-related content, it’s not uncommon to bookmark a good resource or article for future reference. Bookmarks are your personal database of information. Now social bookmarking sites allow users to share their bookmarks with other people, such as clients or fellow trainers. No more sending links via e-mail—just share your bookmarks!

If you prefer writing your own articles, you can contribute to a fitness wiki or create your own personal health wiki. A wiki is defined on wikipedia.org as “a collaborative website, which can be edited by anyone with access to it . . . it is essentially a database for creating, browsing and searching information.”

Online Tools*

Sites offering useful resources:

Popular social bookmarking websites:

Sites where you can create your own wiki pages:
www.wikia.com (Check out an example of a fitness wiki at http://fitness.wikia.com.)

Goal #2: Track Progress and Calculate Assessments
Fitness assessment tools and diet trackers are key to showing your clients their progress. Measurements or evaluations can establish psychological and physiological markers in a training program.

Cyber Approach

Integrative Approach. Fitness calculators, health assessment tools and diet trackers are freely available on the Web. They make computing your client information easy! A client’s body mass index (BMI), percent body fat, resting metabolic rate, target heart rate, energy expenditure, caloric intake and nutrition/diet analysis can all be inputted and retrieved online. Both you and your clients can access, calculate and track progress.

Customized Approach. Personal trainers who want a creative approach to tracking client progress can use pre- and post-training photos. With the conveniences of digital cameras and photo-sharing websites, a trainer can post comments on individual photos. Point out and discuss client form or technique, document client races and events, and mark measurements directly on the photos!

What’s even better, Web-based photo-editing tools are available to create photo flipbooks and musical slideshows. Why not create your client’s 3-month transformation in a 1-minute photo montage?

Just for fun, get client feedback by generating your own simple online polls and surveys.

Online Tools*

Fitness calculators:
www.healthstatus.com (Click on “calculators” tab.)

Diet and exercise trackers:

Popular photo-sharing sites:

Photo-editing tools:
(Jumpcut allows user to pull photos directly from Flickr and Facebook accounts, thus avoiding double uploads.)

Sites offering online surveys:

Goal #3: Enhance Client Support
Social support and workout buddies are also important for increasing adherence in a fitness program. The more co-workers, friends and family encourage a healthy behavior, the less likely clients are to quit.

Cyber Approach

Integrative Approach. People are reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones online much more frequently. Health- and fitness-related support networks and online communities are available for anyone who is looking to experience behavior change together. Joining these online networks can keep clients and others motivated outside the gym. Clients can meet potential workout buddies and train together. (Think match.com meets the health community.)

These communities are also great for clients who travel for vacation or business. If a client is going on a trip somewhere, she can connect with a person in that area to find out what exercise and activity options are available.

Customized Approach. More people are getting MySpace and Facebook accounts. Why not create a health and fitness group within these existing social communities? Invite members of a fitness facility or your clientele to your Facebook group. Make membership open to anyone or keep it exclusive.

You can also create health groups or fitness forums independent of popular social networks by using Google Groups or Yahoo! Groups. Trainers and group fitness instructors have been creating groups for their clients and/or classes.

Online Tools*

Sites where clients can find friends in their area who enjoy similar interests:
www.craigslist.com (People post on it for exercise buddies.)

Existing networks/communities with health and fitness groups:
www.facebook.com (more than 500 groups for fitness and exercise, including an IDEA group)
www.myspace.com (over 26,000 groups created just on health, wellness and fitness)

Do-it-yourself groups and forums:

Goal #4: Provide Supplemental Resources to Clients
Since you can’t be with your clients 24/7, you may want to couple programming with multimedia alternatives, such as shows on FitTV or at-home DVD workouts. Increased Internet broadband has made these workouts available online and on demand.

Cyber Approach

Integrative Approach. Companies and fitness professionals have expanded their product lines to cater to the iPod–YouTube generation. Everything from cardio workouts, muscular conditioning exercises and yoga to sport-specific training, wellness seminars and business coaching is now available for download (both audio and video). Check out these products to see which can be integrated into your clients’ workout programs and price ranges.

Customized Approach. Create your own online podcast, YouTube channel or downloadable workout. You can do this with simple audio editing software (such as Audacity, which can be downloaded for free at http://audacity.sourceforge.net). Digital camcorders have also made uploading visual programming on the Web time-efficient and cost-effective. (Fitness professionals no longer have to spend thousands of dollars on preproduced fitness DVDs if they don’t want to.)

Blogs have also become popular Internet phenomena. A blog is a multimedia platform that allows you to embed photos, videos and podcasts, directly in a post, along with text-based content. (Refer to “The Client-Trainer Blog” in the January 2008 issue for more information on customizing a fitness blog.)

Online Tools*

Product sites:
(With preproduced services, it’s challenging to find products for free—but you can check out sites for free demos.)

Streaming video:
(With Netflix’s “instant play” feature, your clients can now watch
fitness DVDs live from their computers.)

Sites where fitness enthusiasts are using YouTube to educate,
connect and share training tips and exercise ideas:
(You can use its network to submit your own fitness podcasts.)

*Numerous websites provide a more comprehensive range of products and/or services than the sites shown here. We have focused mostly on those that are free.
**Paid service.

SIDEBAR: Benefits and Drawbacks of Online Personal Training

Cyber approaches to accessing health, nutrition and fitness information are here to stay. Still, some fitness pros might wonder why in the world clients would choose to pay for virtual personal training when they could have the real thing. Here are some major benefits and drawbacks associated with online personal training.

Efficient Use of Workout Time.
Meeting face to face is social by nature. Online training and other electronic communication tend to focus on just the details of a workout, thus saving time.

Efficient Use of Resources on One Platform. Many online personal training sites take an all-in-one approach to training by providing a wide range of resources, from articles to assessments to diet plans. This convenient, immediate and easy-to-access information is available 24/7.

Cost-Effective. Online training is a viable option for people who can’t afford an in-person trainer or for exercisers looking to enhance their current fitness routine.

Basic Fitness Knowledge Assumed.
End-users are expected to have some fundamental kinesthetic awareness and an understanding of key exercise terminology, equipment and/or postures. This assumption could deter or overwhelm beginners.

May Be Free Elsewhere. Many of the features and tools embedded within online training programs are free elsewhere on the Web! For example, nutrition/diet analysis, BMI/body fat calculators, fitness assessments, sample workouts and tracking mechanisms can all be found at no cost. Clients pay, in part, for the convenience of having it all on one website.

No Measurements for Accountability. Workouts are confirmed by clients’ “word of honor.” With current technology, few programs offer a built-in mechanism for tracking workout completion or effectiveness.


Biray Alsac, MS, is the owner and director of FITTmaxx Institute, a company teaching health and fitness professionals how to navigate effectively through Web-based technologies and interactive video games. She is an ACE-certified fitness presenter and an adjunct faculty member in the exercise science department of Mesa Community College in Phoenix. Read her fitness and technology blog at www.befitwithbiray.com.

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional, presenter and writer in Vancouver, British Columbia. She’s the author of 51 Need-to-Know Writing & Marketing Tips for Fitness Pros, a free downloadable e-book available through her website, www.activevoice.ca. You can find her on YouTube and in social communities such as Facebook and LinkedIn.


Biray Alsac, MS

Biray Alsac, MS, is the owner of FITTmaxx Institute, a consulting company for health organizations and fitness/wellness professionals interested in learning how to integrate Web-based tools and interactive technologies (exergames) into their programming. She holds a masterÔÇÖs degree in exercise and wellness.
Certification: ACE
Education provider for: ACE

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