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Virtual trainers customize real workouts

For a much lower fee, online training programs replace the gym for those short on time.

August 11, 2003|Molly Knight | Baltimore Sun

Over the past five years, hundreds of fitness Web sites offering customized training programs have sprouted up, and the American Council on Exercise estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are working out with virtual trainers.

Such Web sites cannot replace hands-on trainers who trail their clients around the gym with water bottles and fresh towels. But for as little as $10 a month, they offer personalized fitness programs delivered by e-mail or posted on secure Web pages. The training sessions can be completed anywhere and usually require nothing more than a set of weights.

Gregory Florez, a trainer certified by the American Council of Sports Medicine, launched in 2000, after spending two decades training his clients in the gym.

"It's a really good option, and a much lower-cost alternative to one-on-one training," said Florez, whose says his staff of 50 virtual trainers works with thousands of clients. "It works very well for people with really tight schedules or unusual hours. Or, quite frankly, those who are overweight and who want to get started on an exercise program without going to a gym."

To sign up with, new clients are required to fill out an online fitness and lifestyle evaluation, after which they consult with their assigned trainer by phone. For $125 a year, the trainer devises a customized fitness program -- delivered through regular e-mails and available online -- based on the client's schedule, goals and limitations.

Other virtual services and approaches vary from site to site. In addition to training programs, some sites offer nutritional tips and health advice. Some feature chat rooms where clients can share advice and post questions. Nearly all of the most popular sites offer the option of a personal dialogue -- by phone or e-mail -- with virtual trainers.

Sally Imbo, founder of, worked as a personal trainer for six years before launching her site in 1999.

"Some people dismissed the idea because sitting at your computer and getting exercise does not seem to make sense," she said. "But for people who will not go to the gym, it's a launching pad to fitness."

Kevin McGuiness, a 51-year-old Washington, D.C., attorney, said he signed up with because with unpredictable work hours and three kids at home, he had no time for regular workouts.

"With this, I get qualified, expert advice and I don't have to schlep to a gym," said McGuiness, who follows a customized program that uses exercise bands and free weights.

The only drawback to his virtual training, McGuiness said, is that his workouts are limited to his home or hotel room. "At a gym there is just more stuff to do," he said.

Critics of virtual trainers say that because these workouts are designed for the home, beginners can get injured without a trainer by their side.

"For 90% of the population, it's OK to train online," said Dr. Bill Howard, director of the Sports Medicine Center at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "But then there is that 10% that might get injured."'s Florez acknowledges that there are drawbacks to training online: "As the trainer, I can't look at what a muscle is doing during a particular movement." But he added: "People have changes in their life and they can't go to the gym anymore -- vacations, pregnancies, new jobs. These people need a solution."

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