April/May 2022 Issue

Focus on Fitness: Virtual Personal Training Programs
By Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 24, No. 4, P. 56

Strategies to Help Clients Choose What’s Best for Them

While most clients understand that regular physical activity is a key component of a healthful lifestyle, many struggle to stick to a fitness regimen. Even before the pandemic, which drove many consumers away from the gym, it was reported that only 17% of new fitness club members visited the gym at least twice weekly in their first year and less than 40% adhered to a long-term exercise routine.1,2

Although many options, such as virtual and at-home group fitness classes and gamified fitness equipment, including "smart" stationary bikes, may increase exercise enjoyment and participation, the support of a personal trainer has been suggested to help clients develop long-term commitments to physical activity.3 As at-home and virtual fitness offerings have broadened significantly during the pandemic, virtual personal training also has gained popularity. This article covers what services are available and which clients may gain the most from them.

Exercise has many benefits, including improved mood and decreased risk of chronic disease, but busy lifestyles may keep people from including exercise in their weekly plans, or cause them to show up at gyms without a plan when time is available. In the long run, this can reduce their likelihood of achieving fitness goals or committing to fitness long term. However, a personal trainer may support exercisers in setting realistic goals while guiding them to feel more confident in their training. This may help improve self-efficacy as well as focus on making exercise enjoyable.4

One study used the context of the Transtheoretical/Stages of Change Model, which measures a person's readiness for behavior change in six progressive stages. Participants met with a trainer once a week for eight weeks. While training, they discussed benefits of activity, barriers to exercise, goal setting, and more, plus suggestions for physical activity to engage in on the other days of the week. At the conclusion of the program, all but one participant maintained their stages of readiness for change or moved further by one to two stages, suggesting that personal training changed participants' negative attitudes toward exercise and increased their adherence to physical activity programs.5

Rise of Virtual Training
Fear of crowds and shared equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic may seem a significant driver for virtual personal training, but a variety of factors come into play, including gym closure–related job losses. Despite data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and IHRSA showing a lack of statistically significant associations between COVID-19 and gym visitation, 1.5 million jobs (44% of fitness industry positions) have been lost since the start of the pandemic.6 This motivated many personal trainers to launch their own businesses.

Krista Williams, NASM CPT, a certified personal trainer and owner of The Strong Mom Project in Newtown, Pennsylvania, moved her group and private training clients to Zoom in March 2020. While she's back in the gym for some of her sessions, the pandemic prompted the launch of her virtual business, The Strong Mom Project, and her client list continues to grow. Williams says, “The last two years have forced people to look at their time and priorities differently. Virtual training allows for more flexibility, can be accessed from any location, and can be more affordable.”

St. Louis–based fitness instructor and personal trainer Heidi M. Williams, MPH, RD, CSSD, LD, NSCA-CPT, has found convenience to be a major factor in both virtual personal training and group training. She also has noticed “people tend to like the social aspect and workout with their video on to see others training.”

Why Virtual Training Remains Popular
It’s true that many studies on the benefits of personal training were done in person, but research shows virtual options also provide positive results. When compared with in-person training, eight weeks of body weight–based training via Zoom provided similar improvements in strength, as well as blood pressure and arterial stiffness.7

Virtual training is accessible to all ages, too. While older adults may not be perceived as technologically savvy, a study assessed exercise feasibility and safety via video conferencing with 30 participants older than 70. After eight weeks, 97% indicated they would participate in a similar program on their own.8

Williams has found one-on-one personal training clients are more likely to commit to 30-minute sessions virtually than in person since they can squeeze it in between other priorities and eliminate commuting time. She has also seen more attendance for specialty classes, such as foam rolling.

Andie B. Schwartz, MEd, RD, CLC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, RYT, a strength coach and yoga instructor, and owner of ABS Nutrition & Fitness in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, has had the most success with large live training groups, including up to 20 people at once on Zoom. She’s able to see her clients and offer corrections while they benefit from a community feel.

Key Candidates for Virtual Training
For safety reasons, virtual training may not be best for those without introductory in-person guidance to physical activity. Most novice exercisers may have limited knowledge on how to perform endurance and resistance exercise.9

Stephanie Hnatiuk, RD, CDE, PTS, owner of Stephanie Hnatiuk Performance Nutrition in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, says that individuals who are fairly knowledgeable about proper exercise form, such as the correct way to lift a weight, are the most appropriate virtual training candidates. Williams agrees: “While I can see my clients [over video conferencing], it can be difficult to correct form when on video, especially if they’re not familiar with the exercise.” Schwartz says those who experience anxiety exercising around others also may reap benefits from virtual training, given they have the proper knowledge.

As with at-home cycling, parents are a key demographic for virtual personal training. It can be harder for parents to make it to the gym due to childcare barriers. Williams says that even when local gyms offer free childcare, parents are pressed enough for time that the commute to the gym can be a significant obstacle.

Virtual Training Equipment and Investment
While body weight–based exercise can improve fitness, it can be challenging to continue to progress towards goals with body weight alone. Inexpensive equipment such as mini bands really elevate the workout experience. Even then, purchasing new items may be unnecessary, as household items such as chairs or steps also can be used during sessions.

The virtual training itself, whether individually or with a group, may be expensive. However, clients may find options for less than what they’d pay to access training at a brick-and-mortar location, where training fees are in addition to facility fees and membership. Trainers note virtual training pricing tends to be $60 to $135 for one-on-one sessions, while group programming may run as little as $15 per person. Monthly plans for such programs can cost $40 to $200, depending on what's included.

There are app-based programs, too, such as Ladder, that connect users with a personal trainer to provide a program, but without live sessions. After an assessment, Ladder matches users with a personal trainer providing five or more workouts a week for $29.99 per month. It also offers a community chat.

Ellie Meyers, MS, RD, CPT, a personal trainer and owner of Ellie Meyers Nutrition, LLC, in Brookside, New Jersey, is familiar with the Ladder app and says, “For those with intermediate through advanced levels of activity, Ladder is awesome for affordable, effective workouts that are customizable to the equipment you have.” However, Meyers mentioned she wouldn’t suggest the app to someone who’s new to exercise.

Recommendations for Clients
Before discussing virtual training options with clients, consider whether they’re ideal candidates. Williams says anyone can still benefit from virtual vs not training at all, provided they're doing movements safely with proper form.

If RDs find they’re making training recommendations often, they can connect clients with local gyms and trainers or suggest they look to programs such as WRKOUT, a virtual personal training platform that matches users with trainers for live sessions. Starting at $350/month for one session per week, WRKOUT is a pricier option, but the free one-session trial includes an assessment to identify a personal trainer that fits the subscriber’s goals, fitness level, and preferences. Clients and trainers join live via computer, smartphone, or tablet on a secure platform.

Clients may want to test their options before committing to a specific trainer. WRKOUT offers a free introductory session, Ladder offers a free week, and gyms that now offer virtual training may have a complimentary session, too. For personal trainers working independently, they likely offer initial single sessions without the requirements to sign up for a long-term program. Williams’ Strong Mom Project regularly offers free challenges, such as setting goals for healthful habits, to help potential clients get acquainted with her workout style and all she has to offer; clients also can request a free class. Local parent groups on Facebook can be another great place for clients to get similar recommendations. For clients in the market for a personal trainer, inquire about what they may be looking for to help them consider various trainers' personalities and styles and how they may align with their goals.

— Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and a media and nutrition communications expert who’s regularly featured in broadcast, print, and digital media. Through her private practice, Student Athlete Nutrition, she works with athletes at every level in individual and group settings with a mission to make accurate performance nutrition information and practical applications accessible to all high school and collegiate athletes.

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6. Fernandez KA. How many gyms survived the devastation that was 2020? IHRSA website. https://www.ihrsa.org/improve-your-club/industry-news/how-many-gyms-survived-the-devastation-that-was-2020/. Published August 5, 2021. Accessed January 27, 2022.

7. Kikuchi N, Mochizuki Y, Kozuma A, et al. The effect of online low-intensity exercise training on fitness and cardiovascular parameters [published online August 10, 2021]. Int J Sports Med. doi: 10.1055/a-1582-2874.

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