How to Set and Keep Healthy Professional Boundaries

Don't let an inappropriate comment or interaction negatively affect your career.

By Cathie Ericson
Jan 19, 2015

Personal trainer Carolyn Maul will never forget her “Dunkin’ Donuts” client. As she was helping a male client with facilitated stretching after his workout, he started talking about something in his sock. “He asked me to reach in and see what was in there, and when I refused, he pulled out a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card! It was so horribly inappropriate,” she says.

Most fitness professionals have seen and heard it all when it comes to boundaries. The very nature of the profession can lend itself to an intimacy you don’t see in other industries. Besides the physical closeness, personal trainers who approach wellness from a holistic viewpoint often fill an emotional need for clients. However, for everyone’s sake, it’s vital to balance a friendly relationship with healthy distance. Here are some ways to seek equilibrium.

Professional Boundary Overview

The term boundary is thrown around so much in pop psychology circles that many people really do not understand what it truly means. In a nutshell, personal boundaries can be defined as guidelines or limits that we create to identify what are safe and permissible ways for others to behave around us. For example, you may set a boundary with your spouse that it’s not okay to start a heated conversation right before bedtime. When it comes to professional boundaries, the landscape changes in that the limits may be more varied and, in many ways, can be important to the integrity of the relationship. Consider these scenarios:

The Healthcare Perspective Approach

Would you hit happy hour with your doctor? Or follow your therapist on Instagram? Of course not! As a fitness and wellness professional, it’s your responsibility to reinforce to clients that you are a health professional. “If we want to be respected as part of the continuum of healthcare, we have to position ourselves as a professional, not a buddy,” says Joanne Blackerby, owner of Spirit Fitness in Austin, Texas.

Establish Business Boundaries Early

Make it clear you are running a business. “Create the professional relationship from the start,” says Sherry Shamrock, founder of Fit 2 Cheer™, who has trained personnel in health clubs across the United States. “Stick to your contractual obligations up front; for example, if clients miss an appointment, they will be charged.”

Maul says she is very clear with clients regarding her “office hours” and the times of day they can contact her. “It’s easier in the long run if you don’t make exceptions. People will contact you all the time if you let them.”

Steer the Conversation

During any workout, there are lulls that allow for chatter, and this is an area where fitness professionals should be extra cautious. It’s a fine line though, Shamrock says, because mental health affects physical health, and clients may find that it eases their minds to talk about their personal lives. The key is in how you respond.

Blackerby suggests using empathetic and active listening, responding with phrases like, “Sorry to hear that” or “Wow, that’s tough!” rather than asking additional questions. If you do hear stories that make you uncomfortable, try a casual “TMI!” or “Wow, that was personal!” to let clients know they might be crossing a line. And if you’re hearing about a personal struggle that is beyond your scope of practice, she suggests gently recommending that the client talk to a counselor.

What if people ask questions about you? Shamrock says you should avoid discussing your own personal life and counter their inquiry with questions about them.

Getting Social

As if the physical boundaries weren’t enough to manage, social media has introduced a whole new way for clients to get personal. Trainers advise setting up a professional account and proactively offering it to clients. Maul says she realized she needed to purge her Facebook account and sent out a message saying she was paring her personal page down to just family and close friends, but she hoped others would follow her on her professional page. “You just have to give them another avenue.” It may go without saying to be careful what you post. “If a trainer is modeling oversharing, the client is going to reciprocate, so just don’t go there,” Blackerby said.

Watch Your Behavior

Trainers need to think through their behavior on the floor and the signals they may be sending. For example, offer assisted stretching rather than partner stretching, says Blackerby. “Be cognizant that if you are getting odd looks, you might be making someone uncomfortable. And watch anything that could be misinterpreted, like a casual arm around the shoulder.”

Of course, heed the basics: Always ask permission to touch a client, and never be alone with someone in the gym. “It only takes one misstep or misinterpretation. Don’t put yourself in that situation.”

Considerations for Group Fitness

The dynamic can be different in group fitness, with more leeway for your personality to shine through. Says Shamrock: “You are trying to connect with the whole room rather than one person, so you can let your guard down a little more. I find that people really want to know more about their instructor as a person, and it’s easier to share that information when you aren’t one-on-one.”

She adds that there is less risk in crossing lines because your income is not directly dependent on the people taking class. “When someone is paying you directly, it adds a different element into the equation, and that’s where personal boundaries can get stickier.”

Interested in socializing with students from a class? Shamrock also thinks that’s more acceptable for a group exercise instructor than it is for a personal trainer. “But remember, the personality they want to ‘hang out with’ is the one you show in class, so you have to stay in that mindset.”

Firing a Client

Unfortunately, there may come a point when you realize a professional relationship is not going to work. Blackerby recommends being up front and telling the client you think another trainer might be better at helping him meet his goals. “Remind clients that it’s great for their program to have cross-training and diversity,” she says.

Maul says that’s one of the benefits of training at a gym. “Your manager can tell [a client] your schedule changed or otherwise give you an out,” she says.

The bottom line is that personal trainers and their clients do get to know each other really well as they pursue the clients’ goals. “It’s actually a compliment,” Maul says. “Working out makes your clients feel better about themselves, and they associate that with you.” The key is to make sure that you’re not sending mixed signals. “Always remember to behave at a higher level,” Blackerby says.

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Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a Portland, OregonÔÇôbased writer and fitness enthusiast. You can find her running, boot camping or kickboxing when sheÔÇÖs not protecting her online reputation @cathieericson.

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