The Lighter Side of Fitness

By Janet Weller, RN
Jun 30, 2005

The sun was shining as the Alaska cruise ship sailed past a calving glacier. The scenery was spectacular, with views of seals, seagulls, all kinds of wildlife and incredible crashing ice. Nick Nilsson, ACE-certified personal trainer from Grayslake, Illinois, and author of The Best Exercises You’ve Never Heard Of, was working as a personal trainer on the ship. On this particularly beautiful day, Nilsson noted an extremely tall, well-known national basketball player stepping onto a treadmill, which was arranged for the user to take full advantage of the view.

“I came by to see how [the player] was doing and chat a bit,” Nick says. “He mentions that the blind is a little low. Being so tall, he’s having a hard time enjoying the view. I start to pull the blind up. Well, one side starts to get lower instead of higher. The blind seems to be malfunctioning. I go to the other side and pull. That side drops even lower than the first! In the meantime, everybody on the treadmills is missing the view. This NBA player is now walking hunched over, almost bent in half, trying to see out the window as I’m messing with the blinds. So I go back to the first side and give it a good hard pull. Well, the whole blind rips off the wall—it’s about 15 feet long—and falls to the floor with a huge crash. Keep in mind that this is a five-star cruise line. Naturally, everybody is staring at me and I’m beet red. The NBA player looks at me, smiles and says loudly, ‘Thanks, that’s much better.’”

Maybe an incident like this has happened to you. Or perhaps you were just cruising along with an enthusiastic class when suddenly you tripped (over your words or your feet). Professionals in every line of work fall into amusing and embarrassing situations, and people in the fitness industry are no exception. Read on for a look at some humorous events that have happened to your fellow professionals. In addition to a few laughs, you’ll find some great advice on how to make the most of a bad situation, plus suggestions on what to do when something embarrassing happens to a client.

Physical Missteps

Even though fitness professionals are known for their gracefulness and coordination, no one is perfect all the time! Here, two instructors share what happened when they lost control.

ON THE CUTTING EDGE

Keli Roberts, IDEA’s 2003 Fitness Instructor of the Year, who teaches in Los Angeles, won’t forget this awkward moment: While presenting at a conference in Canada, she fell backward off the stage into the front row of participants—who caught her.

Handling the Situation. Despite gashing her shin, Roberts managed to continue her verbal cuing while mopping up the blood. Throughout the rest of the convention, attendees came up to her and offered to catch her during other classes! She views the incident as humorous and treats the scar on her leg as a reminder. In retrospect, she realizes she should have cleaned up the soda spill she noticed before the class started. She now checks the stage area before each presentation and tries to make sure her step is not too close to the edge.

STICKING THE LANDING

Sarah Sleeper, ACE- and AFAA-certified instructor and trainer from San Diego, relates a great story from the “old days” of aerobics: “I was teaching a super high-impact class, lots of high knees, jumping jacks, hitch kicks and so on,” she says. “I was leading the class in a knee-up segment. Right in the middle of the highest-intensity cardio, I tripped on my own feet and fell flat on my gluteus maximus. I was uninjured, except for my pride.”

Handling the Situation. What came next? “The funny thing was that the 30 or so students didn’t miss a beat,” says Sleeper. “They just continued doing the exercise without even pausing as I scrambled back to my feet. I know if I had stayed down they would have come to my assistance, but instead they just laughed with me as I got up. I had trained them so well to follow my own class rule: ‘No matter what I say or do, don’t stop moving.’ They didn’t!”

Verbal Gaffes

Sometimes what comes out of the mouths of fitness professionals is not what they mean or is misinterpreted by clients. Here are three stories that show how tricky language can be!

EASY FOR YOU TO SAY!

Ken Alan, IDEA’s 1989 Fitness Instructor of the Year, who teaches in Los Angeles, considers himself a master of the verbal miscue. One of his favorite bloopers came during a warm-up spiel. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s get going,’” says Alan. “‘Everyone open your feet up, leg distance apart, make sure your ankles are above the feet, your knees slightly below your thighs and your head between your ears. Deep inhalation . . . and . . . ’”

Handling the Situation. Alan says, “I have no idea where that came from. What was weird was no one noticed; I figured they were more spaced out than I was! I don’t know what lesson you can learn from that. It was a group of regulars; they sometimes seem to tune out what you say, and, obviously, they had tuned me out. So I guess you need to change your cuing around periodically to spice things up.”

Alan adds, “I’ve had my words transposed many times. Instead of saying, ‘Reach and stretch,’ I’ve said, ‘Streach and retch.’ Not a very good way to start a class. I do usually correct myself, but [why these words] come out of my mouth, I have no idea. I think humor is the best way to handle such blunders. I sometimes follow Josie Gardiner’s lead and yell out, ‘What, you didn’t anticipate my mistake?’”

IN HOT WATER?

Kathy Conant, MS, an IDEA Elite Personal Fitness Trainer in Brookfield, Connecticut, recalls this story from her first formal job out of graduate school. She was conducting underwater weighings for body composition analysis. Gym members interested in learning their body fat percentage were told to schedule an appointment and to bring a bathing suit to get tested in. After 2 years and hundreds of underwater weighings, she met with a very handsome young man for his scheduled appointment. After the introduction, she instructed him to undress and said she would begin the test when he was ready. Conant entered the room to find the young man “buck naked” and ready for testing. She mumbled an excuse about the equipment needing calibration and fled the room, asking a male counterpart to finish the test.

Handling the Situation. Conant recommends, in retrospect, finishing the test with “100% professionalism and no less.” She says she might even have shared the “joke” with the client at some point down the road.

EAT THOSE WORDS

Rita Termote, an ACE-certified instructor from Ghent, Belgium, remembers this embarrassing moment. She noticed the nicely rounded belly of a student and congratulated her on her pregnancy, only to be told, “I’m not pregnant.”

Handling the Situation. If you utter a similar faux pas, what should you do? When sinking into the floor is not an option, try these suggestions from Pamela J. Holland, chief operating officer for Brody Communications Ltd. in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and coauthor of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?

She advises being totally honest and saying something like, “I am so sorry if I offended you with my comment.” Find a story, but do not lie. For example, you might say, “My sister-in-law is trying to get pregnant, and I’ve got babies on my mind. The first sign of any possibility and my mind goes there. I realize how inappropriate that comment was.” Figure out a way to take the remark back on you. She advises coupling that explanation with finding an opportunity, say a week or two later, to compliment the student on the progress she is making. You must be genuine about it, however. Perhaps you might say, “I noticed that your endurance is so much better. You must feel great about that.”

Strange Situations

You’ve heard that truth is stranger that fiction. Well, that philosophy definitely applies to life in the fitness industry! Here are three stories wherein fitness pros experienced bizarre occurrences.

FORTY WINKS

p>Mike Bee, fitness specialist at the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California, tells this home training story. “About 12 years ago a regular in my group exercise class asked if I would train her in her home. No problem; cardio, weights, flexibility—piece of cake. On this first session we really went for it, and ended with a bit of stretching from my Rhythmic Stretch routine in her living room. The music I use for stretch has always been very relaxing, and being [that it was] 4:00 in the afternoon, I guess it wasn’t that surprising that both of us dozed off, side by side, with movie scores softly playing in the background. It wasn’t much later that her husband arrived home from work, apparently unaware that his wife had taken on a personal trainer.”

Handling the Situation. Whoops! What did they do? “It was easily cleared up within minutes, but if we had a film of the incident and the respective looks on our faces when we were awakened by the curious husband, it would have been a MasterCard ‘priceless’ moment,” says Bee. “These days I like to keep my clients to the morning hours, do assisted stretching without music and always have them inform their husbands about the new trainer.”

Communications expert Holland suggests saving face in such a situation by pointing out that the service you are providing does work. You can acknowledge that falling asleep on the job may not have been the best thing to do, but it shows that the relaxation segment is effective!

THEY’RE PLAYING WHOSE SONG?

Joy Prouty, Reebok master trainer and ACE- and ACSM-certified instructor in Palm Beach, Florida, recalls a conference in Puerto Rico where the music from another session was piped into her room.

Handling the Situation. So what did Prouty do? A true pro, she went ahead and taught to the other presenter’s music!

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

Donna Cyrus, national group fitness director for Crunch in New York City, relates a time when even the unexpected didn’t stop her from teaching. “I think that one of the funniest things happened when I owned my studio in Newport, Rhode Island,” she says. “At that time I taught three classes a day. One day I was teaching a sculpt class when my assistant came up to me during the cardio section and whispered, ‘Your house is on fire.’”

Handling the Situation. How did Cyrus cope? “It was during one of those impact days and I did not know how to stop, so I just looked over, said, ‘Call the fire department,’ and kept going. True dedication in those days!”

What’s My Line?

You are bound to make humorous mistakes during the course of your fitness career. How do you prepare for them?

The best way to deal with embarrassing situations is to “know your line,” advises Barbara Pachter, communications expert, president of Pachter & Associates in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of The Jerk With the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us. Anticipate the situations you may find yourself in and figure out what you will say when one happens. Knowing in advance how you will respond will make almost any situation more comfortable.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Let’s end on the story that prompted me to research funny stories and write this article. The penthouse gym in my client’s apartment building was hot. Despite several days of entreaties to various staff members, the heat was blasting and the temperature was warm, even for me. Seeing my client’s discomfort, I tried to open several windows and succeeded with the third one. As the cool air flowed in, an ear-piercing noise reverberated throughout the building. Realizing that we had set off the alarm, my client picked up the house emergency phone to notify the front desk. She couldn’t hear a response through the din, so we made the trip down 25 floors to the front lobby. We found police and firefighters working to evacuate the building! Several minutes later we located the correct person, told our story and stopped the stream of people flowing from the premises.

This incident has made me more proactive about ensuring that my clients are comfortable. Since this particular client resided in the building, I left it to her to handle complaints about the heat. Should such an incident occur again, I would be sure to search out the person who could do something about the problem.

About the whole alarming incident? I take heart in the fact that most people seemed more amused than angry; it was midmorning on a beautiful autumn day. I also like to think the incident inspired at least one person to work out. As my client and I made our way among the people milling about, I heard one man say, “I didn’t even know we had a gym in the building. I think I’ll check it out.”

When Your Client Makes the Faux Pas

Most trainers and instructors can handle their own gaffes with apologies and humor, but they may not know how to handle their clients’ embarrassing moments. We have all encountered problems with ripped clothing, excessive sweating, passed gas, body odor, bad breath and lack of coordination. We can ignore some of these things, but we have to deal with others. Barbara Pachter, author of The Jerk With the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us, recommends sorting incidents into those you can change versus those you can’t.

Wardrobe Malfunctions. You must approach clients if something goes wrong with their clothing. If you ignore the problem and a client discovers it, he or she may become angry that you did not prevent further embarrassment. Holland recommends approaching the person matter-of-factly and discreetly. Act as though situations like this happened all the time. Take a “no big deal” but direct approach.

Karen Merrill, ACE’s 2004 Personal Trainer of the Year, who works in Kailua, Hawaii, adds, “Immediately, but quietly, inform your client.” She suggests taking the client to a less-occupied area or the locker room in order to point out the problem in a more private place—and then allowing the client to decide how to proceed. Many people carry extra workout clothes in their gym bags, so they can do a quick change and continue. Merrill always shares her own embarrassing moment so the client realizes that wardrobe malfunctions happen to everyone.

Equipment Problems. Merrill says that when a client or a class member has equipment challenges, the first priority is to make sure the person doesn’t get injured. She says, “Being sincere for the well-being of the client is foremost. It is imperative that the client realize that the trainer is not embarrassed, but is concerned about [the client’s] well-being.” She reviews the incident with the client to make sure it does not happen again.

What if a client falls off a resistance ball? As fitness professionals we know that most people fall off a resistance ball at least once, but our clients may not know this. When a participant falls off during class, my own approach (after making sure the person is fine) is to comment on how often I’ve fallen off myself. I may now add that Mike Morris, president of Resist-A-Ball®, from Destin, Florida, told me that even he has fallen off the ball a number of times, “usually while telling people what a safe and effective tool it is.”

Bad Body Odor. Pachter offers some advice for dealing with the class member whose body odor is bothering other members. “Once others complain, this becomes the instructor’s problem.” She recommends approaching the member in private when you are calm. “Think ahead on how you are going to word [the conversation]. Use some softening statements, such as, ‘This is a hard topic for me to discuss.’ Alternatively, say, ‘I’m sure you don’t realize it.’ Then describe the problem.” Explain that the fitter you get, the more you sweat, and that excessive sweating can become objectionable to others. Then suggest that the member be sure to apply deodorant and wear a clean shirt to class.

[Editor’s note: For more strategies on talking to a client with body odor, see the “Tricks of the Trade” column on pages 40–41 of the March 2005 IDEA Fitness Journal.]

Uncoordinated Students. Pachter describes lack of coordination in a class member as one of those things you cannot change. Chances are, if the person keeps coming back to class, then you are the one who is concerned, not the member. However, if he or she bumps into or interferes with other participants, you may have to act. Pachter suggests approaching the member and asking if you can give some feedback. Start with a positive statement, such as, “You’ve been coming regularly to class, and I can see that you are really working hard.” From there go to your correction; for example, “It does seem that you have had some collisions with other members. Perhaps you could stand a bit more to the side where there is more room.”

Bottom Line: Have Compassion. Pamela J. Holland, coauthor of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?, stresses just how important it is to be empathetic when working with people. If you take the time to stop and really know where someone is coming from, you will become aware of what is difficult for that person, what the priorities are and what might cause embarrassment.

Holland recommends using the principles that can cover any type of business etiquette: kindness, logic and efficiency. “Someone has said recently that we were raised with the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” but the Platinum Rule is that we need to treat others as they would like to be treated.”

She also advises never losing sight of the fact that your clients have invested time and money and made themselves vulnerable to be with you. Regardless of what occurs, make sure you remain focused on assisting your clients. Do what it takes to help them get past any obstacle, be it ripped clothing or tripping on machinery. Find the most efficient way to help clients reach their goals.

Humor Resources

Want to have a laugh or share one with your clients? Check out these links to websites with fitness, diet or exercise jokes. With permission, you may be able to use some of them in newsletters or on bulletin boards.

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Janet Weller, RN

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