A Good Health and Wellness Professional

14 Jun

This is an excerpt from a talk I gave this week to other health and wellness professionals – ranging from gym owners and personal trainers to physical therapists to employees at the large medical insurance companies in Massachusetts to other benefit specialists like myself.

We all have reasons to care about physical fitness and health. For some of us, its our livelihood, the way we make money. For others of us, its our passion or our career choice or something we stumbled into or a way of life.

No matter how we got here, we’re kept here by the simple truth that fitness and health matter. That health care claims and costs drop significantly when people invest in their bodies. That absenteeism drops, that depression drops, that many studies link intelligence in part to staying active. I believe that my employees are healthier, happier, and more energized about their work when they feel good about themselves, their health, and their abilities.

At the same time, its a touchy subject with many. People’s self-esteem and body images are tied up in lots of pieces too complicated to fully process: childhood experiences, memories, words said to them, images from magazines, beliefs on how skinny or fat or strong or weak they are. People have exercise addictions and exercise phobias, eating disorders and disordered eating, some love to sweat and some find it disgusting. As always, people share many similarities but are also very unique.

I belong to a Crossfit gym.  The Crossfit program is designed for universal scalability. The belief is that people may need to scale the quantity and modify the type of exercise but different people do not require different exercises.  (This, of course, is under the premise of general exercise.  An Olympic runner and a football player will no doubt benefit from very different exercises.  But regardless of ability or age, Crossfit can be scaled to anyone.)  And Crossfit is not unique in this.

As Mike Cahill, a Crossfit Coach, put it, “There is nothing elite about Crossfit, nothing that was invented through CrossFit, and surely there are no secrets that are confined to the walls of a Crossfit gym…remember, we are all in this for the same reason, to make a healthier world.”

In reading this quote and preparing for this talk, I kept coming back to the premise that “A good health and wellness professional is like a good parent.”  I kept dismissing this point. Not because I disagree with it but because I am not a parent. So I’m fairly certain no one wants to hear me talk at length about being a good parent.  Fairly hypocritical, right?  But I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head and finally I decided to structure my talk around this idea.  I may not be a parent but I have good parents.  I have lots of friends who are good parents. I’ve spent years working in the infant room of a day-care and with after-school programs. I have seen a lot of parents in my time.

A good health and wellness professional is like a good parent because they realize that one size does not fit all.
Parents learn pretty quickly that children are all different.  You take Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith and (when they aren’t destroying their house shooting at each other), they produce Alvin, Simon and Theodore.  Who are all vastly different.  They don’t eat, sleep, think, talk the same. The same discipline that worked on Alvin doesn’t on Simon. Simon is motivated differently than Theodore. Theodore learns differently than Alvin.  And so on.

When it comes to motivating my employees to get in better shape, to live a heathy lifestyle, I always keep this in mind.  For this very reason, I very rarely tell my employees what I do for workouts, where I workout, what races I am entering. It’s very easy to persuade someone that what works for me must work for them.  But maybe it won’t. Or maybe they will be so nervous to admit to you that they don’t like your form of exercise that they will start avoiding you.  My employees avoiding me is the last thing I want.

Here’s what I want for my employees (and probably very similar to what a parent wants for their child):

  • To be healthy (free of conditions and prescriptions necessitated by being out of shape)
  • To be safe (injury free)
  • To be happy (to find exercise that gives them fulfillment and enjoyment)
  • Sustainable activity (which requires exercise that can be repeated on a regular basis and that is motivating enough for them to want to continue)
  • To see positive growth (directly correlated to all of the above elements. Someone who is seeing results will be motivated to keep moving forward, will be happy with those results, etc.)

What I do not want is to promote an idea that one exercise type must fit all. There are some that are better than others (in terms of seeing positive growth and being sustainable) but there are an awful lot that are very good.

Some people want to exercise in the comfort of their home. If they have the motivation to do so, good for them.  Some people want to exercise outside. If they are willing to chance the elements, good for them.  Often, I feel like I’m quoting Green Eggs and Ham when I try to help employees choose a gym or fitness routine to try out:  Do you like to exercise outside?  In the rain? In the snow? In a gym? In a gym class?  In the weight room? Would you run on a treadmill? Would you dance in a Zumba class? Would you spin on a bike? And on it goes…

It is possible to learn to love things that you previously hated. In the past year alone, I have come to love swimming.  And running hills.  And running stadium steps. I have a love-hate relationship with handstand push-ups and wall balls and things that I used to just hate-hate. I respect those who take yoga and Pilates and Zumba and spin classes and do at home exercise videos and push their kids in jogging strollers even though yoga is the only one I do on a regular basis. And I have loved boxing and running and jump-roping and biking and the myriad of activities I do often.

Please don’t box people in and try to convince them that your way is the best way. Help them find what fits for them.  What fits for them at this time in this place in their life. Because that too will change.

What inspires us as health and wellness professionals?  My inspiration comes from seeing people change for the better.  For seeing them come off medicine and manage their chronic conditions.  I’m inspired when I see people willing to challenge themselves at something they aren’t sure they can do.  When people work hard at something they struggle with, rather than just settling for doing something they already excel at, I am inspired.  As a Crossfit coach once said, “Watching elite athletes…certainly is amazing, no arguments there. However, it is the people that come into the gym and try their hardest, don’t make excuses, and continuously strive to improve – they are my inspiration.”

Mine as well.  And when I am inspired, I am more likely to inspire others.

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