HOPE MONEY RECEIPTS: Capitalist Fitness and Critical Mass Confusion

Wealth and Hellness was a pilot I co-wrote with my co-worker about the trials of two fitness purists living and working in the Los Angeles fitness scene. My buddy, Matt, was a brash, street-talking Scotsman with a passion for Arnold and Jean-Claude. He had a propensity for pugilism as much as I did for apropos opinion. We watched as the industry changed quickly-we’d be considered dinosaurs by today’s standards. Having tired of selling our well-honed skills as trainers to people eager to see results yesterday based on how we looked in the moment was a conundrum. Aware the landscape was giving way to those who worked out the best, made the most promises, and sacrificed the most morally, we were tired. We wrote it into a pilot that was shopped and never saw the screen.

My character was true to me. As a novice writer and trainer, I maintained continuity-I wrote what I knew, and I trained what I knew. I was a Midwest kid who had found fitness as a quality currency to impact the lives of others. Los Angeles was the cultural Mecca of fitness, Muscle Beach, and Malibu-movie stars. I’d entered the industry like many others-with an earnest desire to change lives.  I continued to labor daily with affluent clients looking for something thought attainable through transaction; their health. It wasn’t just clients who could afford the pricey training my gym offered, but it was everyone who was looking for a solution to a problem that was/is so multi-faceted, there was no possible way for one person to address all of the needs of their clients in the most holistic way possible.

The gym I worked for provided me with a robust list of leads/potential clients. I would set up introductory appointments and we would go over their history, do some measurements, set some goals, and discuss the plan for them. While I’d received an immense amount of training, when all was said and done, I still had to ask the potential client “when they’d like to start’” with the assumption they would purchase training and I would assume the role of trainer and guide them toward their best self. I remember the transaction. Every time someone would purchase training I could only think they had so much hope and all they got was a lousy receipt. The real work hadn’t started. And there were more and more trainers like me on the horizon.

 I’m comfortable asking people for money in return for guidance and instruction for their journey. I have over fifteen-years-experience and have amassed well over ten thousand hours on the floor with clients.  It’s still hope, money, and receipts. A lot of time has passed since my first client. I remember how I felt when Facebook, Instagram, and the Internet took their respective turns changing the game. I’m saddened that in the time since I first started in this business, the collective health of the average American has continued to decline while our “quality of living” continues to improve.

The turnover always stuck with me. Our training staff turnover was one hundred fifty percent year over year. It was difficult for people to grind out a day let alone a living when the workforce gradually became as entitled as the clientele. “It’s not supposed to be this hard” they would say. Or, “I didn’t sign up to be a salesman.” Us lucky few, those who followed the system, did really well for ourselves. Oftentimes, when someone started to do too well, they thought they could do better on their own. They would leave the gym with their book of business and venture out into the wilderness of self-employment. This was the natural life cycle of the trainer. Until, of course, social media and the internet disrupted the antiquated model of training to such a degree that it has become almost unnavigable today.

I tell you all of this to give you some exposition. To tell you a story that underpins the disdain I have for the industry within which I currently function. The fitness business has grown so much and to such a degree that I don’t see how the average Joe can decide what’s the best route to take when every sign is pointing in a different direction.

Today, I spend my waking hours on the floor waging warfare on the gaps and instincts that have grown out of this burgeoning fitness landscape. I remember the first chapter of Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It provided clarity to the trials of the pedestrian gym goer by ascribing a vocabulary to the inherent problems belying Joe Unfit. Gaps and instincts. Knowledge gaps. And the adjoining responsive instincts. The malaise I felt toward the business adopted a new tone. It’s easy to gripe and complain. My job is to understand and adjust in a saturated market while remaining true to my moral and ethical self. My anger devolved into a sadness for the uninformed looking to make informed decisions in a world designed to confuse, mislead, and separate those with best intentions, not from their pounds as much as their wallets. Hope. Money. Receipts.

Our perception of ourselves has left us searching for a transaction that will provide a solution. The fitness business is booming monetarily as the general public not only demands more options but simultaneously, gets lost amidst the cereal aisle smorgasbord of health-related options; diets, foods, creams, supplements, retreats, gyms, online programs, trainers, coaches, braces, pants, sprays, and here I am digressing. The industry is as confusing for the professionals as it is for the consumer. It’s hard out here for a pimp. The golden calf we thought was fitness is dying.

What is now sold by most is a facile, debilitated, version for the masses. To some degree, this is largely unintentional as people claim they are simply meeting the demand of the market. Fitness is a product. A widget. It’s not sustainable, free-range, organic, or compostable. It’s disposable. It’s becoming the automobile, or the satellite dish, or the internet. A commoditized, fast food nation of fitness has replaced the process and evolutionary respect of a body that has remained relatively unchanged for two hundred thousand years. As much as we’re trying to love and nurture on the professional side, there are still shills and snake oil salesmen galore. We’ve turned into Lenny and killed the bunny. Maybe out of love, fear, ignorance, greed, or a combination of all of them.

Fitness and gym life came into popularity in the seventies, and was commercialized in the eighties. It was a response due to emergence of a less than healthy population. From this point on, we found a way to remove ourselves from our purpose when it comes to caring for our bodies. We don’t know why we want to work out so much, in as much as we don’t know why we want the new iPhone. Exercise has become a cultural necessity, an accessory, a first world entitlement. Gym memberships, trainers, dietitians, and the like are to some degree luxury items precipitated by the fact that we “evolved” so much in the last fifty years to the tune of a sixty percent obesity rate.

The people we admire on television, film, or Instagram-they seem to be not only living their best lives but also selling it-programs, diets, products, and lifestyles to the tune of billions of industry dollars. The numbers keep coming in and it’s alarming. It’s hard to keep up with all of the new products looking to disrupt the industry and change lives. We’re an outsourcing type of generation because we’re focused on crushing it. We have also outsourced our ability to decide what is in the best interest of our collective health. There are simply too many “experts.”

Misinformation or conflicting information has proliferated over the last forty years. The population has been sold the narrative if you’re out of shape, not happy with your physical appearance, or hope to look like someone else, you should make a beeline to the nearest transaction and workout as much as possible. Hope. Money. Receipts. Find a trainer, a gym, a class-that’ll do it, that’ll undo everything. Fitness has been elevated to the status of solution. When in essence, it’s a tool, a means to an end, not the end. It can’t turn back time, nachos, or binge-drinking. Only the cessation of those habits will undo those habits.

The misinformation creates a gap: well-being versus fitness. Or truth versus reality. We have more data, information, and knowledge than at any time in history. But, the top of Ackoff’s Wisdom Pyramid, wisdom, is nowhere in sight. In its place, a dollar sign. The beacon urging us to use the aforementioned to garner as much cash as possible before it’s too late, at the expense of the health of others. This is my sadness talking. My Midwest guilt. My purist roots. I’m talking with my mouth full.

 

Human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.” -Hans Rosling, Factfulness

 

On one side of the gap is me, the fitness professional. I’m accompanied by hundreds of thousands of others. On the other side, the public, the millions of Americans looking for guidance on how to live a better life. Most people believe in order to live a healthy life they need to add myriad things to their lives, namely exercise. And while yes, this is true, they also need to take stock of what they’re buying into, why they’re buying into it, and who they’re buying it from. The business due to saturation and misinformation is approaching the coalescence of critical mass and entropy.

 

Entropy: lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder

 

When I was a kid there were three kinds of toothpaste: Crest, Colgate, and Sensodyne. Sensodyne was for old people. Colgate tasted amazing, especially after they added the glitter, and Crest, with the mint. It didn’t take a lot of time to pick out toothpaste. And now, there is half an aisle, seven feet high. It provides a lot of choices, just not a lot of freedom. Fitness is no different. How does one choose? And for me, how do I differentiate myself from the herd so you can find me? Do I try to out-fitness everyone else? Do I post insane workouts, eat a mononutrient diet, and journal my monochromatic life into technicolor with filters, emojis, and hashtags to legitimize my seat at the table? Do I re-purpose someone else’s online program as my own with better marketing and swag?

We have been led out to pasture with our food and lifestyle only to be shepherded by professionals, doctors, gurus, coaches and trainers telling us we can reverse it all quickly if we just buy into the system for sale. There are no foolproof systems. Culture eats systems. Believe me. Or don’t. I wouldn’t if I were you. Thank you, Google for allowing us to fact check those that try to keep us in the dark. And for the majority, when in the dark, even the sound of our own voice scares us.

“Why am I doing this?”

“What do I want out of this?”

“What does it mean to be healthy and how do I get there?”

The silence that follows correlates to the size of the gap. We wait for the echo instead of pressing on into the darkness. Gaps and instincts. There are other voices too. These are the ones I’m warning you against, my preciousssss. Everyone is selling everything in an effort to capitalize on market share. It is a paradigm predicated on pleading to the emotional part of us saddened by our current state of physical affairs. We need to be more selective.

 

“It doesn’t really matter which terms people use to describe the world, as long as the words create relevant pictures in their heads and mean something with a basis in reality…. And how do those pictures compare to reality?” -Hans Rosling, Factfulness

 

I’ve tried to not allow what has happened to this industry completely change me or how I do my business. I’m certain I’ve suffered financially for it, but I’ve never been inauthentic. For the most part, we’re interested in immediate gratification. We’re results-driven. This is true for both parties on either side of the gap. Add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt and we have a noteworthy consumerism recipe. We’ve been content to invest in physical flagellation for one to five hours a week. And when the pain isn’t enough anymore to undo the sins of the weekend, we move on in search of the next best thing. Swipe right.

Fitness is defined as being physically fit and healthy. Healthy disappeared from the understanding and the focus was lasered on the physically fit component. This segment of the definition was bastardized by limiting to what one can see. Fitness is intrinsically based by definition. The modern utilization and pursuit are extrinsically based. We have another gap.

“Is it really beautiful to win the genetic lottery? Or should beauty be contingent on the choices, actions, and attributes we develop? An even keel, a sense of justice, a commitment to duty. These are beautiful traits-and they go much deeper than appearances.” -Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic

We associate our self-worth with our appearance. It’s baked into our design. We’re going to inhabit these bodies for a long time, if we’re lucky, and it’s time we pay heed to the kinds of miles we put on the car and the type of fuel we put in the tank. Our bodies are scrapbooks that tell a story of how we’ve lived, believe that. Health is a lifestyle. It goes beyond the workout of the day. It is the pursuit of a normal life.

What does that mean? A normal life. A healthy life. When I started in this business I thought I knew what normal was and tried to stay within that pocket. I’ve tried to provide information, clarification, and the appropriate motivation for those seeking a life worth living. It’s hard out there on both sides of the gap. Professionals have a moral and ethical responsibility as much as consumers have their own due diligence.

Along the way, as I’ve traversed chasms of change in a business I still call home and realize I’m still here as a resource. I urge you to do the same. Ask questions. Answer them in kind. If you don’t know. Admit it. Become a resource by utilizing the ones available to you. Reach out. Learn things. Read books. Read non-fitness books. Taste the world. Let it impact your work. There are things you can learn after countless hours without the answer in the company of your clients. Don’t look to sell a goddamn thing. If it’s good, they’ll buy it. For the professional:

1.     Awareness is awakening: Understand who you are, what you’re selling, and the real value.

2.     Become a resource: You have a responsibility to find answers, not always have them.

3.     Walk the walk: Coaching and training is more than workouts. It’s about people. Strive to be the best human you can.

4.     Empathy isn’t about you: Avoid the pitfall of co-opting their story. Just be present, put yourself there, and meet them where they are.

5.     Learn it. Then teach it. Then sell it. Mastery is self-respect. Don’t settle for selling low-hanging fruit.

(I will go into greater detail regarding the above in a subsequent article-it only seems fitting and necessary-stay tuned.)

To the consumer: this labyrinth isn’t going anywhere. More choices and fads will materialize. Mindfulness, yoga, Crossfit, Pilates, functional training, movement culture, powerlifting, endurance sports, are all modalities that are now commodities that are sold at a premium. Here are some guidelines for getting the most out of your experience.

1.     Ask questions-lots of them.

2.     Instagram is NOT the Yellow Pages.

3.     Changing your life takes time-buy into the long game.

4.     Do what works for you and your life-don’t jump on someone else’s bandwagon.

5.     Find a community that resonates with who YOU are, not necessarily who you THINK they are.

If I had to rewrite the script, I wouldn’t change much. The genre has gone from fitness noir to a coming of age science fiction landscape overrun by robots. The character is still me. I’m still out here fighting the good fight. I can’t deliver one line from that script. I can recall the feeling I had sitting with a writing partner who truly understood where I was at in my life, as I with him, in his. Seek understanding. Find someone to walk the path with you if you need it. There are a lot of great trainers and coaches out there. Just be wary of those that are doing more selling than listening.

Nathan Senter1 Comment