Is Exercise Subjective? The Personal Training Industry and Demand Creation

Posted on 22 Jun 2014 20:42

By Eric Troy and Tony Ingram1

Of the following items, which do you feel you absolutely need: Food, water, clothing, shelter, microwave oven, cell phone, and personal training? A bit of a daft question, perhaps. We know, as humans, that our absolute necessities of survival do not include microwave ovens, cell phones, and personal training. We can say that we must have food, water, clothing, and shelter. We might also include healthcare and education in that list. Other things, no matter how much we love them, are luxuries. However, what we don't always realize is that before the microwave oven was invented, there was no demand for it. And for years, when our rotary phone was attached to the kitchen wall and we had to stretch the coiled cord of the handset over to the broom closet so our parents wouldn't hear our private conversation, there was no demand for cell phones. So, just because a product or service is useful and even though it changes our lives, the demand for these things does not exist until they arrive on the scene. But, often, it takes more than usefulness to create demand for a product.

Just because there was no demand for cell phones, the fact that we had to practically pull the handset cord out of the phone to have a private phone conversation, and the fact that beyond that, we could not make a phone call unless a hardwired phone was available, meant that there was a latent need for a better phone. All I have to say to you is "Wouldn't it be cool to make a phone call from anywhere, even from your car?" and I'm starting to create demand for mobile phones even if I haven't invented them yet. The marketing term for creating interest in your products or services is demand creation or demand generation.

This need does not only exist for new products or services, it exists when there are multiple versions of the same product or service being offered by different companies. We do not need more than one brand of all-purpose flour, for instance. How does one flour company get you, the customer, to reach for their flour, rather than the competitor brand?

Above, we implied that personal training was a luxury service. One that you do not absolutely need. The personal training industry, and the greater fitness industry must engage in demand creation. And since there are many personal trainers competing for your dollar in any given market, the same need exists for them as exist for the flour company. They must generate a demand for their services. To do this, they must somehow differentiate themselves from others, and convince you, the customer, that you are in need of that difference.


Personal Trainers are selling a product and they must create
demand for that product like any other business. How this demand
is created affects not only their business, but your choices and outcomes.

Mobile phones started out as huge, chunky, and completely impractical monstrosities. It’s safe to say that the smart phones of today are a huge improvement over the first generation of mobile phones. So are the personal trainers of today. But there are many smart phones to choose from. Each of them tend to be better at a particular function or set of functions. Of course, then, any effective marketing should be about convincing you of the importance of those particular functions, at least in part.

The same problem exists for personal trainers. They each have certain "functions" that they are more suited for, and they must convince you, the potential customer, that those functions are superior and more important to your goals! Of course, personal trainers are not cell phones — what differentiates them from each other are not functions, but the skills and knowledge they possess, which can vary considerably depending on how they became trainers in the first place, what continuing education they may have, their experience, education, etc.

Imagine you’re a business owner. You might need a very special smartphone to help you with many financial tasks, scheduling, etc. But, wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the cell phone manufacturer advertised like this? “If you don’t have this phone, don’t even bother with cell phones at all. All others are inferior and pointless, perhaps even dangerous.”

Absolutely ridiculous, and yet this is exactly what many personal trainers do. And many times, their methods aren’t even the best (at least when investigated through exercise science — which is tenuous at times, yes, but shouldn’t be ignored).

If a personal trainer is better at teaching and programming with the squat and the bench press, he is going to do everything he can to sell the superiority of those exercises. When searching for evidence and researching information, he might tend to seek out confirming evidence or information. What if you want to stay in shape, and your chosen activity is not within his expertise? Say, you choose to dance to stay in shape. Would it be in the trainer's interest to tell you that this was a good way to be fit, healthy, and have fun? Is that "exercise?" If not, what is exercise?

There are several definitions of exercise that you could use to frame statements about exercise. However, the basic definition, as usually accepted, says nothing about a "correct" or "incorrect" way of exercising. That is, the word exercise has to do with intention. Any activity that is undertaken to condition the body and/or improve health, could be considered exercise. We could expand the definition of exercise to include any activity undertaken to improve any aspect of our condition or functioning. For example, we might do exercises to keep our minds sharp. One way, among many to keep your mind sharp is to do crossword puzzles. Now, to think that this same activity wouldn't have the same side-effects if you did not choose to call it exercise, would just be silly. The nature of a thing does not change for us because we choose to label it, or not to label it.

You may have noticed that the definition of exercise, that is, the intentions we have for performing exercise activities, are fairly vague. What does it mean to “condition the body?” What are we conditioning if for? What does it mean to improve health? Are we talking about specific health conditions, or are we talking about general health? How does exercise benefit, specifically, our general health? The more specific our goals, the more specific the type of exercise we might do. However, how often do people have specific goals for conditioning their body or improving their health? Athletes likely do, but most of the general public likely does not.

When personal trainers talk about exercise, they talk about fitness. So, what is fitness? It’s having attributes in place – acquired or not – that enable you to perform physical activity. So, fitness, really, is specific to your goal activity, even though good physical conditioning, for most activities, has certain overlapping characteristics. Physical exercise for fitness and for health is, necessarily, a generic term. The less specific your goals are, the more subjective exercise becomes. The personal training industry, as it operates today, rejects this reality!

What reality are we talking about, in plain language? It is as simple as your goals. If your goal is to improve your squat, get a trainer that is good at teaching it. If your goal is sprinting faster, jumping higher, etc., same thing. However, if the goal is simply exercise for health and general fitness, then it hardly matters what you do as long as it is safe. For the majority of the population, the latter scenario is typically the goal. But these people may be intimidated, confused and put off by the hard selling and the “this is THE way” attitude that many trainers have. If more personal trainers would spend time gaining skills that fit the needs of their prospective clients, rather than trying to fit the needs of their clients to their existing skills, this problem would not be as widespread. But, remember, personal training is a luxury. You do not need it. In fact, generally speaking, the personal training industry needs you more than you need it!

Tony Ingram, PT, M.Sc., is a Physical Therapist, researcher, and dancer based in Halifax, Canada. He has practiced in orthopaedics with a clinical focus in chronic low back pain, as well as neurological rehabilitation. He has an MSc in Kinesiology, an MSc in physical therapy, and is currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience. As a dancer, he is involved with numerous youth outreach programs, and teaches injury prevention to dancers. You can find his work on his blogs, Mind and Movement and

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This page created 22 Jun 2014 20:42
Last updated 30 Jul 2016 20:34

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