As the awareness of health dangers associated with obesity and the sedentary lifestyle grows, proactive Americans are increasingly turning to exercise to help them stave off decline and illness. Athletic clubs have become commonplace, and more people are signing up with personal trainers to help them achieve fitness goals.

Though most trainers are still men, women are definitely gaining ground and having fun at it. We profile four of them in this article. They are a diverse group, but all four practice what they teach and believe in what they do.

THE GREATEST JOB

We arrive at Anytime Fitness on Thousand Oaks to find Shannon Sutton engaged in putting client Deborah Gray through her workout routine. A slim woman, Gray is no novice in the gym. She expertly moves from machine to machine, exercising seemingly every muscle in her body as she pushes, pulls, bends, lifts and lunges, pausing frequently to sip some water.

The trainer prompts her here and there to adjust her position, monitors Gray’s breathing (“Always exhale when you are exerting yourself”), and lends a helping hand when necessary. She also makes sure that opposite muscle groups get equal attention. “If you work your back, work your chest, too,” she says. “It promotes symmetry and balance.”

Sutton has only recently transferred to this particular club, and Gray has followed her.

“I get results with Shannon,” says Gray, who owns a real estate appraisal business with her husband. “When she moved (from another club), I moved with her. As I am getting older, it becomes even more important for me to exercise, but I want to be realistic in my fitness goals. That’s where the personal trainer comes in — to tell me what I should do and how.”

Gray is just one of a number of clients who followed Sutton to her present location. Since these clients became members of Anytime Fitness, the facility’s owners offered her a deal she couldn’t refuse. Ordinarily, trainers work either as club employees or as independent contractors who give a percentage of their income to the club for the use of the premises. Sutton falls into the second category, but for the time being, she will be able to train her clients at this particular club free of charge. It’s a win-win situation both for her and the recently opened facility. As a trainer, she likes to be in a gym setting.

“No matter where you work out, you can use the mobile equipment, but a gym is more convenient and it offers more variety. You can get a great overall workout in a single hour,” she says. “To start out, I would recommend that everyone use a trainer. You want to learn the proper form; you want to make sure that you are using the equipment properly to prevent injuries. But a trainer can also help you tweak your routine as you go along. It’s good to change your routine every six weeks or so.”

With each new client, Sutton performs a more or less standard fitness and nutrition assessment that includes questions like “How many servings of fruits or vegetables do you eat per day?” plus inquiries about medical conditions and medications. Then each person gets her own exercise plan that specifies which exercises should be performed and how often. Clients have to commit to their goals, she says. There is no easy way; this takes dedication, planning and work. Sutton knows whereof she speaks. Her looks testify to her own commitment to physical fitness. An athletic child who excelled at gymnastics, Sutton, now 33, grew up to be a physically active adult who jogged, swam and played golf. “I can still tumble like I did in high school,” she says, “but it never occurred to me that my love of gymnastics and sports could be turned into a profession. When I finally realized that it could, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. This is the greatest job — to stay in shape and get paid for it. And I like helping people reach their goals of becoming healthier.”

Before her epiphany, she spent seven years in the restaurant business, followed by a time in car sales. What helped her make the career switch was getting to know two experienced trainers who served as role models. “Their hearts were really in it — I could see their joy,” she says. She could also foresee her own.

To learn her craft she underwent resistance training herself, studied and shadowed established trainers for a while. Like most of her colleagues, Sutton is certified by several entities, including the International Sports Science Association, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, APEX and the Reebok One to One Flexibility Training program offered by Reebok University.

“Different programs emphasize different aspects of fitness and have different approaches,” she explains. “The National Academy of Sports Medicine, for instance, sent a rep to San Antonio to teach a three-day course to a group of us before we took their exam. And then, you are supposed to take continuing education courses as well to be recertified every two years.”

While we are talking in the small lounge area of the club, she offers me coffee, which I accept, and later water, which I imprudently decline. “Have some water — you need it,” she responds, plunking down a small bottle in front of me. “I am a great believer in drinking water. I instill in my clients the need for water breaks. I am sure they can hear my voice telling them to drink water when they are out there driving or doing whatever they do.” Among her clients she counts the 2006 Mrs. International, Suzy Bootz, and Broadway choreographer/director Justin Cerne, who works out with her when he is in town.

Married, with no children, Sutton says her ambition is to have a positive effect on everyone she comes in contact with and to make more people aware that they need to take care of themselves. To that end, she also writes a weight-training column for South Texas Fitness & Health magazine, published by PixelWorks, the publisher of SAN ANTONIO WOMAN.

So how does she motivate people to stick to their workout schedule?

“If I can get a one-week commitment from them, I’ll succeed,” she says. “In one week, their clothes are already fitting differently. So when they see results, that makes them stick to it.”

SHE HAD WALKED IN
HER CLIENTS’ SHOES

One of those trainers who inspired Sutton was Pamela Painter, a woman who positively exudes energy and enthusiasm. At 51, she has the physique of a fit 30-year-old and a powerful personal story that is indeed inspirational.

Here’s a woman who has “walked in my clients’ shoes” virtually since childhood, but triumphed over illness and family crises to become the role model she is today. From a chubby child who turned to food for comfort, she became an anorexic teenager weighing barely 80 pounds. There were lots of serious problems in her family, and young Pamela wrestled with low self-esteem and a host of unresolved issues. The starvation ruined her metabolism, she says.

She credits her husband, Frank Painter, whom she married at 20, for helping her to eventually overcome her illness. Her problematic relationship with food, however, reasserted itself in a big way years later following the suicide of her father. A former war hero, he had become an alcoholic and diabetic who had trouble coping with his wife’s bipolar disorder. Distraught, the 5-foot-4-inch Painter ballooned from 115 to 180 pounds in eight months.

For a woman who had not only studied kinesiology in college but also thought that she had conquered her demons for good, this was hard to take.

“It took me nine months to lose the weight,” she says. “First, I tried all the diets, but none helped me to live without hunger. I had to come up with something that worked for me. All the things I am teaching others today are things I have tested myself. Two basic tenets: You should be able to eat, and exercise should not hurt.”

Determined to help others the way she helped herself, Painter threw herself into fitness and health with the zeal of a convert. She took a job as fitness coordinator at the downtown YMCA for a while but eventually obtained a certification as a personal trainer from the highly regarded Cooper Institute in Dallas and moved to the World Gym in New Braunfels. She also volunteered to share her knowledge with the public by writing fitness features for a number of small publications.

Today, Painter trains clients in their own homes and has just about all the business she can handle. Like so many things in life, her enterprise started with an auspicious encounter:

“I had just opened a gym on I-10 in Leon Springs with another trainer, when a woman walked in one day, took a look at me and declared, ‘I want to look like you but I don’t want to come to this smelly gym. Will you come to my house?’ That’s how Fitness To Go was born. Her friends saw the results, and they signed up, too.

“It’s better than a gym,” Painter adds. “Women can be self-conscious about being seen at the gym. These early clients were women living in The Dominion who didn’t want to be seen in the gym. Also, I teach them how to do it with what they already have in the house and a little specialized equipment, so they can do it on their own without expensive machines. I am the secret of many professional people in town, she confides.

One of her recent clients turned out to be a childhood friend of Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, who is paying for her friend’s sessions. Painter praises Longoria for choosing a health-related gift. It would be nice if more people thought along the same lines, she says. Her concerns extend to nutrition, too, especially the still ubiquitous presence of artery-clogging trans fats in restaurant and packaged foods.

Good eating habits and physical activity have helped Painter overcome even worse enemies than obesity or anorexia. In 2002, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a complete hysterectomy. Her physician wanted to put her on hormones, but she refused. To make things worse, during the weeks of rest after the operation, the pain caused by a herniated disc in her cervical spine came back with a vengeance. Doctors wanted to operate, but once again she said no. There would be no surgery for her. Instead, the remedy for her ills was to be found in more and better-targeted exercise. She now feels fine.

“I have the bone density of a much younger woman, and my resting heart rate is 40,” she says proudly. “I have strengthened my neck and shoulder muscles again so I have avoided surgery (for the disc). So you see what keeps me passionate and motivated. I want others to have the tools to do the same for themselves. Once I educate them on body mechanics and balance, they can apply it everywhere and won’t get injured and abandon their fitness goals.”

To spread her health gospel further, Painter has recently established her own rigorous certification program for new trainers called Fitness Instructors of Texas. The students must work under her supervision for at least a year. She sees a continuing need for community education in health and wellness and a growing need for personal trainers.

“Awareness in San Antonio has gotten a little better, but the changes are not as huge as you may think,” she says. “People are still confused about nutrition, and the majority is still physically inactive.”

LIKE A FAMILY

Still, there is progress. The number of active women has steadily risen here and elsewhere, prompting the opening of women-only facilities such as Curves and Women’s Super Fitness.

At the Curves for Women on Culebra Road, the busiest time is right after 5 p.m., when working women drop by for their 30-minute workout before heading home. On this particular evening in late November, the place is lively with music, talk and activity. Trainer Jill Sanchez, a petite 26-year-old brunette, stands in the middle of the circle of machines, keeping an eye on the exercising ladies. Tonight, she is chatting with them about the just-past Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone has something to say. There are chuckles and smiles aplenty.

“I am always in the middle, watching, helping them and entertaining them. We are really like a family here. I know all the ladies who come here, and they know me,” says Sanchez, who took the job six months ago.

To encourage that family feeling, the machines are arranged in a circuit with so-called recovery stations between them. The latter are supposed to be used for jogging in place or other aerobic activity. A woman can start with any machine she chooses, but she must complete the entire circuit in 30 minutes.

It looks easy, so I decide to hop on. And at first it is easy. A taped voice tells us to change machines every 30 seconds so there’s no danger of over-stressing a particular muscle group. Some machines work the upper body, and some are designed to strengthen the lower body muscles. I move briskly along, from leg curl to shoulder press to the bicep/tricep machine and the hip abductor/adductor, using time at the recovery stations for some gentle jogging. But 15 minutes or so into it, I become aware of my quickened heart rate, and I am getting warm.

“You get a pretty complete workout in 30 minutes,” says Sanchez after I get off since I am here not to exercise but to talk to her. “I think the concept works so well because it’s only for women, and it’s only 30 minutes three times a week. A lot of working women can get away for 30 minutes, and they get both a cardio and a strength workout. We are always talking to the ladies so the half-hour goes by fast.”

Members, called Curvettes, are weighed and measured every month, and their body fat is also monitored. But as with everywhere else, some members are more committed than others. Sanchez points out several women in the room whom she calls success stories. One diligent young woman managed to lose 83 pounds in one year.

Though each Curves gym is an independent franchise, they all follow the principle set up by the parent company headquartered in Waco. Circuit coaches like Sanchez are trained in-house, on Curves machines, which use hydraulic resistance. Coaches also need to be CPR-certified. For most, this is a part-time job. Sanchez is a student at Texas State University majoring in communication disorders and also works as a counselor-clerk at Nelson Elementary School. Busy as she is, she says, she won’t give up working at Curves. “I don’t really need this job financially, but I love it,” she says sincerely.

“When I am sick, the ladies will bring me medicine. When they travel, they bring back souvenirs. That’s how family-like this place is. It’s low-stress. We all have a sense of belonging,” she says.

As a Hispanic, she is well aware of health statistics that show a high incidence of diabetes, hypertension and other ills among local Hispanics. In fact, both her grandmothers were diabetics. “That definitely makes me more motivated to work out,” says Sanchez, who has always been active. “I hop on the circuit at least four times a week.” And the job has enhanced her self-confidence: “I am there in the middle, and the ladies are looking at me as a role model. I am motivating them! So that boosts my confidence.”

SHIFTING GEARS

Lana and Damian Cortez also want to cultivate a family atmosphere in their new gym. In May of last year, the two experienced personal trainers, who are married to each other, opened their own facility on E. Ramsey Road. Although they have been in the fitness business since 1997, investing in a fully equipped gym was a new and different challenge. Their sparkling Specialized Fitness “The Gym” is intended to be both a membership-based club and a place where other trainers can work with their own clients. This is something they wanted to do for their fellow trainers.

“Large clubs take too much of a cut from individual trainers,” explains Lana, a vivacious 47-year-old blonde, who has the title of vice-president. “We take a much smaller one. Also, in most clubs there is competition among the trainers (for clients), while we take the opposite attitude here. We are all family; we cover for each other. If a trainer has to take time off, we’ll cover for him. If a client wants to switch trainers, no one gets insulted. The main thing is individualization of service. I have to be concerned about what’s best for the client.”

Individuals who choose the membership-only option exercise on their own, but they can get guidance from the staff whenever they need it. They may also be referred to other professionals or facilities should they need treatment for injuries, for instance, or if they would like to pursue disciplines such as Pilates or swimming.

When members don’t show up for two weeks or so, they are likely to get a call from their friendly gym. That’s the kind of personal attention a small, privately owned business can offer, says Lana. And that’s one reason why she and her husband opted to largely abandon their previous practice of working in corporate settings. The personal aspect was no longer there the way it had been in the mid-’90s when Specialized Fitness was first launched by Damian.

It was also about that time that the two met. A single mom of three, Lana was making good money as a gas controller/marketer for an oil and gas company when she decided to take advantage of her company’s corporate membership in the now defunct Colonnade Athletic Club. The former John Marshall High School cheerleader and homecoming queen needed help with a jogging injury. Damian was the athletic director at the Colonnade. One thing led to another, and before long Damian was not only asking her to marry him but also urging her to consider changing careers.

“I thought it would be good to be in business with my future husband,” she says. “But it was hard to make the switch. I was well established and was making good money. I had to build up my way in the male-dominated oil and gas business from a position of administrative assistant. But I love working with my husband. I think he’s the best in San Antonio. And I like working with people. I am a natural cheerleader.”

She eventually earned a Cooper Institute certification and joined Damian, who had left the Colonnade to start Specialized Fitness. (He has a degree in kinesiology from UTSA.) His idea was to offer personalized service to clients at home or at their workplace. The Cortezes’ first corporate client was Diamond Shamrock, where 150 employees signed up for the in-house gym. Specialized Fitness offered classes and seminars in addition to individual personal training.

Later, other companies such as Valero, Pacific Care and American Payroll contracted for their services, too, and business flourished for a while. A number of factors, however, eventually contributed to a change of scene. When Valero and Diamond Shamrock merged and grew bigger and bigger, dealing with the new entity became more problematic.

“Instead of 700 employees, there were 3000,” says Lana. “The personal contact with the executives who cared about fitness soon faded. Instead we had to deal with indifferent human resources personnel who often didn’t use the fitness facility themselves. Also, getting people in became difficult. Managers didn’t want to be seen sweating with the employees, and the other way around, too — employees didn’t want to appear like they were not working.”

In another case, the client had to drop the program because its national parent company had decreed so.

It was time to switch gears. Though two of their employees continue to offer the in-home service, the gym is the Cortezes’ flagship business now. Not only are they able to build a good rapport with clients, but, as owners, they can pick the equipment they consider most valuable.

“A lot of equipment is useless,” says Lana. “It’s there for glitz. It’s best to use your whole body when you lift weights. A lot of machines are not really effective in that way.”

With that, she takes me on a tour of the gym, explaining which machine does what. Though she acknowledges the need for aerobic exercise, she is adamant about weight lifting to keep bone density up, sculpt the body and lose fat. Think of your muscles as a fire, she suggests. A body builder is a calorie-burning machine that has a bonfire going even when he is not exerting himself. The marathon runner, on the other hand, has hardly a little smoldering blaze except when he is actually running. Most of us don’t wish to be body builders, of course, but we must weight train if we want an agile, lean body and strong bones.

“Osteoporosis is going to be the next big epidemic, like diabetes,” she says with conviction. “Parents let their kids eat all kind of junk food, and their bones are like mush.”

Like Pamela Painter, whom she resembles in physique and hairstyle, Lana is the embodiment of her lifestyle philosophy. She may be making less money than in her previous career, but she is much happier.

“I want to keep it personal,” she says. “I hope a small Mom and Pop business like ours can enter the market and be profitable because we do have to make a living.”

Author: Kay McKay Myers

Photographer: Al Rendon