Send Healthy People to Doctors Before Trainers?

A stressed doctor puts his hands on his head and yells.

This week:

  • Do healthy prospective clients really need a doctor’s note to train with you?
  • U.K. gym chain experiences post-lockdown influx.
  • How competitive athletes should choose the best programming stream.
A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."


Doctor’s Note Required to Squat?


The Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) sent out a recent edition of FitBizWeekly and expressed dismay that fitness wasn’t included in the 2021 Canadian budget. Despite the omission, the council will forge ahead with its Prescription to Get Active program.

For the record, anything that gets people moving is good. Anything. However, gym owners won’t be surprised to read that I’d love to make some edits to a “client journey” from the couch to our gyms by way of the doctor’s office first.

Yes, some people absolutely need to see a doctor before exercising. But, in general, apparently healthy people don’t need a trip through the health-care system before becoming more active. The Mayo Clinic reports that moderate physical activity is safe for most people but recommends prospective exercisers consult a doctor if conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and so on are present.

Here’s what happened when I tried to test out the Prescription to Get Active website: I clicked “get started” and was asked if I had a prescription from a health-care provider. I did not, so I was shuttled to a map to find a health-care provider who might help me. I couldn’t find any within 480 kilometers. Were I disinclined to get active in the first place, I would have closed the browser then so I could continue my extensive research on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I passed on “Loki” trailers—for now—and scrolled down the page to find much less prominent info on becoming active “today.” Any marketer will tell you that info is completely buried, and the site very clearly suggests seeing a health-care provider is Step 1 in becoming active.

It’s not. Seeing a microgym owner who uses the prescriptive model is the best first step. A qualified trainer can provide a precise activity prescription—and it will be better than the general advice a doc will provide. Even better, gym staff can get many people started immediately while referring those who need medical clearance to the appropriate providers.

Finally, the FIC plan’s major value proposition is that a prescription will give a person a month of free access at registered facilities—lots of GoodLife locations, along with other brands.

While “free” is a big deal in marketing language, it’s generally a bad play in fitness unless you’re selling access to a facility and don’t care if people actually show up. Microgym owners are acutely aware that people who get things for free have little incentive to use them. Worse, a free month at a chain gym will certainly not involve a personal relationship with a trainer, an in-depth intro program and the accountability that’s needed for long-term adherence.

I’m not here to poke holes in any attempt to get people into gyms or get the government to help a fitness industry that keeps people healthy. And it’s possible the doctor-first approach is a strategy to hook into federal funding. I’m also not here to criticize doctors.

But, in the interests of getting people moving with low drag, I just wouldn’t focus on sending generally healthy people to the doctor first. That’s a huge barrier to entry—especially during a pandemic when the medical system is already strained. Any qualified trainer can identify which people can start right away and which should see a doctor. That’s the right path.


If They Come Back for the Pec Deck…


Good news: A BBC.com article suggests gyms will acquire or reacquire clients after a lockdown.

Referring only to PureGym, a chain of more than 280 facilities in Europe, the article reported “tens of thousands of new members have joined since restrictions eased in England.”

This isn’t the pinnacle of journalism in that we don’t know if these are returning members who cancelled or “new” clients who have never held memberships. We also don’t know how many “tens of thousands” of people appeared or if the influx was enough to replace departed members. We also don’t have a clue if the crowd’s credit cards will stop PureGym’s bleeding, which was apparently around US$700,000 a day over about eight months of closure.

Still, it’s good to see some positive news for the gym business. PureGym’s facilities in England, Scotland and Ireland now have sneakers pounding on treadmills, and clubs in Wales are expected reopen on May 3.

For microgym owners who are still dealing with lockdowns, the bright light is that if people are returning to or joining low-touch facilities with rates of about $20 a month, they’re even more likely to return to facilities that have always focused on creating deeply personal connections to members.

Indeed, Chris Cooper wrote about “the surge” after an earlier lockdown, so if you’re feeling down right now, check out “Why Some Gyms Are Thriving After COVID.”


Is It the Special Programming?


Programming streams are legion these days, with Mat Fraser and Underdogs Athletics recently releasing their training plans into a crowded market that includes Misfit Athletics, CompTrain, Invictus, PRVN Fitness and many more.

Which one is the best? The one you stick to.

Competitive athletes can be very fickle, and the lure of a new stream with “secret tips and strategies” can be powerful. It’s not uncommon to see people jumping around regularly and announcing their new allegiance on social media, as if poor programming were the only reason for previous failures.

The reality: Just about every single program will get results if you stick to it. That’s not to say some aren’t better than others or athletes should never change their programming. But I will say that 5 rounds of 10 thrusters and 10 burpees is pretty close to 10 rounds of 5 burpees and 5 thrusters.

Over a decade covering the CrossFit Games, I came up with an unofficial award: Programmer of the Year. I mentally gave it to the coach who acquired the most post-Games prestige based purely on the success of an athlete at the finals. I could have won this award several times had Rich Froning walked into my gym in 2010.

The coaches behind podium athletes were indeed great—but they were great before their athletes rose to the top, and they’re still great now that those athletes have retired. And I’m sure a few coaches to Games athletes aren’t that great—but their athletes sure are.

If anyone is looking for advice on how to pick a programming stream, here it is:

Pick the stream that offers the closest relationship with an actual coach you can message. Stick with that stream for at least a year and base any changes on testing, not on the blowing of the winds from Aromas or Madison.

While some workouts might be better than others, no general programming stream can ever replace contact with a coach who can give you what you need every day and address sleeping, eating, stress and recovery.

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