If more people were paid to stay fit, America would look like a very different nation. Becoming a personal trainer offers that incentive—and it's one of the country's fastest-growing careers, predicted to increase 30 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Much of that growth will be driven by 20- and 30- somethings like Alexander Pompa, 24. Pompa, spent five years in the Marine Corps before becoming a certified personal trainer. He says the discipline of the military has helped him manage other peoples' fitness goals. "You're in charge of these people. You have to learn how to manage your schedule as well as another person's health," says Pompa, who works at Fitness First in Bethesda, Md. "You have to keep up the intensity so they remain focused on the exercise and don't drift. People have to use their mind to tell their muscles what to do."
Apart from leadership skills, personal training involves creativity and empathy—and could be described as a professional buddy system, says Stephen Rodrigues, a longtime trainer who has watched the business evolve from a rich person's past-time to something of a mainstream luxury. The public's push to get fit—coupled with rising obesity levels—has made personal training a sought-after service. Getting certification has become much easier as a result, says Rodrigues, who owns his own gym in Lincoln, R.I., and coauthored The Everything Guide to Being a Personal Trainer.
"Now you can literally go online and be certified within a month. Many people do it as a second job or part-time," Rodrigues says, adding that some colleges and universities now offer degrees in personal training. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the American Fitness Aerobics Association (AFAA) are among the most popular certifying organizations, but there are at least 12. ACE scientific officer Cedric Bryant says demand for certification has increased 30 percent since 2007. Baby boomers' desire to stay active is driving some of the demand for personal training, he says—and some boomers are even becoming trainers themselves in their retirement through organizations like AARP.
Other people are simply looking for a career change. Lynn Jarrett had taught English as a second language for 25 years when a personal trainer came to her school to help teachers get in shape. As a longtime runner who had ignored her upper body, Jarrett loved the well-rounded workouts the trainer provided. "The trainer said I would be good at training. It requires patience, and I like people," she says. "It's very much like teaching in that you have to instruct and demonstrate."
Jarrett spent three months studying for the certification exam: memorizing the names of muscles and bones, learning about metabolism and peoples' physical limitations, and shadowing other trainers. Last October she got certified, and took a year off of teaching to pursue personal training. She hopes to become a full-time trainer. "I really believe [fitness] is an important thing for people. It truly adds years to their lives," says Jarrett, who also works at Bethesda's Fitness First.
Jarrett's workouts have helped one woman fit into her wedding dress and another lower her body-mass index from 30 percent (considered obese) to 19 percent (in the normal range for women). She's also helped a cancer patient regain muscle tone and a Parkinson's patient get stronger.
"It's a joy to help people reach their goals," she says.
Rodrigues has also helped clients with other problems that emerge in the gym. "Sometimes I get people just want to talk. When your body becomes physically tired, certain walls come down," he says. "I've dealt with clients who are anorexic and bulimic. I've actually referred people to therapists."
While many trainers say the most rewarding part of the job is helping people transform themselves, it also ensures they practice what they preach. "You are a walking billboard. When I tell people I don't drink Monday through Thursday, I don't drink," says Rodrigues, who played football in high school and college and squeezes his own workouts in between clients. "Make sure people see you working out. You're also a salesman."