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Now You Can Get a Life While You Get in Shape
April 26, 2004

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Now you can get a life while you get in shape
* Life coaching is working its way into the fitness industry as trainers take classes in helping clients reach their goals.

Trainer Brenda Ann Wong, top, uses life coaching techniques with clients such as Bronwyn LeighBrenda Ann Wong, right, talks with client Bronwyn Leigh for an hour before a workout

By Jeannine Stein, Times Staff Writer

What would life be like in L.A. without another guru to guide us through the chaos? To the list that includes spiritual advisor, yoga instructor and holistic healer add another: personal trainer/life coach.

Sure, a personal trainer can get you through three sets of ab crunches, but a trainer who's also a life coach may help cure your addiction to double-tall mochas and make you realize that that relationship you're in has "dead end" written all over it.

Life coaches have been around for more than a decade, first in the business world, then in the personal arena to help people deal with issues such as job ruts. It's not psychotherapy, nor does it pretend to be, focusing on the here and now rather than dredging up the past.

Now life coaching is working its way into the fitness industry as trainers are opting for certifications or education to better help their clients and boost their fees.

The health industry has long known that motivation is key to staying on an exercise program. Trainers say that not all college exercise science majors and certification programs teach the skills they need to help clients stay inspired long enough to achieve their weight loss and fitness goals. "It's a natural progression," says Daniel Martinage, executive director of the International Coach Federation, a professional association of personal and business coaches. "In a gym setting, a trainer can assess someone's fitness level and give them a program to work with. But coaches go beyond the fitness level and look at what are the goals for making positive changes and how to set up a program to do that and keeping you accountable."

Respected fitness trainer certification programs such as the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise see coaching as a positive trend; the former is affiliated with Wellcoaches, an Internet-based coaching service that also trains coaches in its self-licensed program.

"We haven't been terribly effective in scaring people into activity," says Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist with the exercise council.

To most of the world, "life coach" tacked onto "personal trainer" is still a fuzzy designation at best. Although there are several life coach certification courses, there is no standard curriculum or any regulatory or licensing body. Some trainers call themselves coaches after taking short-term classes or seminars.

Some psychologists and fitness industry professionals scoff at the notion. Coaches, they say, are not supposed to dispense psychological advice or become too involved in their clients' personal lives. They are taught to recognize when such issues as eating disorders are beyond their capabilities. But can a client trust they'll know how?

"It's a buyer-beware situation," says Dr. George Stricker, research professor of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "In an ethical framework, you have to look at to what extent is a person competent to handle a problem of that sort. The less education, experience, training and supervision they have, the less they'd be able to do a competent job, and they may be compromising the person they're working with."

The term "life coach" makes some people bristle. Greg Isaacs, owner of a fitness studio in Brentwood who has trained Pierce Brosnan, Clint Eastwood and Brooke Shields, finds the term "pompous and arrogant." "As fitness people, our job is to ask you what were the obstacles that prevented you from exercising we do that on a daily basis," he says. "But I don't call that a life coach. I respect certain aspects of it, but I think it's a very broad name."

Some trainers say their interest in coaching was born of frustration at working with clients who showed little improvement.

Fitness trainer Ron Jones has a master's degree in kinesiology with a specialization in sports and exercise psychology and decided to become certified with Wellcoaches after seeing some clients struggle with achieving progress: "I would get to a certain point and then I didn't know what else to do," explains Jones, 44, California wellness coach. The coaching program, he says, taught him how to help his clients achieve their goals and improve results. "Most trainers don't have that background," he says.

One client has gone from 260 pounds to 206 since she began training with Jones last September. Cindy Wilson, a 42-year-old day-care provider from Bakersfield, worked with a personal trainer eight years ago but found the experience less than satisfying: "She just walked me from station to station and watched me," she says. Jones, a friend, offered to help.

Setting small, achievable goals that produced measurable results helped Wilson stick to her regime, as did advice on making good choices when eating out. Wilson, who put on weight 12 years ago, doesn't think traditional psychotherapy was necessary: "I've read enough and know enough that I just needed someone to hold my hand and guide me along the way," she says.

Fitness trainer Brenda Ann Wong took a course in coaching at UCLA and uses the techniques she learned with some clients. She doesn't call herself a life coach, although she's considering becoming certified.

"A lot of trainers don't understand why their clients cancel, or why they're constantly feeling fatigued, and it's not always physical. You have to address the root," Wong says. "You have to try to understand the client, not get mad at them."

Wong, 24, sits in a small office at Equinox in West Hollywood with 29-year-old Bronwyn Leigh, a new client who hopes to improve her diet and shed 10 pounds she's gained since she quit smoking four months ago. Wong has Leigh make several lists, from current dilemmas to professional goals, and they discuss a variety of issues, ranging from Leigh's junk-food habits to how to find a cleaning lady. "I want you to continue to add onto the list," says Wong, "and each time we meet, I want you to check one thing off. It mentally feels better when you have less on your plate."

After an hour of coaching, they head to the gym for another hour of cardio, strength training and stretching. Leigh says Wong's holistic approach to fitness makes sense so far: "Prioritizing things and getting my life more organized will definitely help my eating habits," she says. "If you don't have time to eat, you make very bad choices."

Times staff writer Jeannine Stein can be reached by e-mail at

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(Updated 11.23.07)

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