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At the gym, the customer isn't always right

Every small business owner knows the mantra that the customer is always right.  But when it’s your business to get people to exercise, many say that, frankly, the customers don’t always know what’s good for them.The news last week that a yoga instructor was fired after glaring at a student who used her cell phone during class struck a nerve with fitness professionals who say it can be a con
No chatting, ladies. Fitness instructors say it can be tough to get help people get their money's worth.
No chatting, ladies. Fitness instructors say it can be tough to get help people get their money's worth.Photodisc / Getty Images file / Today

Every small business owner knows the mantra that the customer is always right.  But when it’s your business to get people to exercise, many say that, frankly, the customers don’t always know what’s good for them.

The news last week that a yoga instructor was fired after glaring at a student who used her cell phone during class struck a nerve with fitness professionals who say it can be a constant – and complex – struggle to keep their customers happy, but also in line.

Alice Van Ness, who teaches yoga in Northern California, told The Associated Press she was dismissed from her job teaching yoga at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., campus because she glared at a Facebook employee who sent a text during class.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. I would be shocked,” yoga instructor Joy Keller said after reading about the student’s attempt at multi-tasking.

Keller, who teaches yoga in San Diego, Calif., said her first thought was that student could have hurt herself, or someone nearby, while focused on the phone instead of the pose.

Then there’s the fact that texting isn’t exactly conducive to a good yoga session.

“Yoga is all about connecting your body with your mind, and it’s hard enough to do that without a cell phone with your hand,” Keller said.

Keller has never actually had someone take a call from the yoga mat, although she has seen students get up and go to the side of the classroom to answer their phone.

But even with phones tucked safely away, she said she has trouble keeping her students focused.

“I can’t even get people to breathe. I say breathe and they don’t do that. They’re thinking about a zillion things,” she said. “They’re probably thinking about who they’re going to text.”

Fitness instructor Linda Taix has seen people text during workouts, chat through instruction or even slip on headphones while she’s leading group activities.

“I’ll watch people on the treadmill and they’re talking on the phone,” said Taix, who is mystified at how someone can get a good workout if they are focused on their conversation rather than getting their heart rate up.

But Taix, who runs a fitness studio as well as a series of Extreme Boot Camp fitness classes in Southern California, said that as a business owner it can be tough to get people to follow the rules without alienating them.

In her Extreme Boot Camp classes, she said she can get a little tougher because people are paying you to be their fitness drill sergeant. The instructors might give students “rewards” such as extra pushups or laps if they slip up in their fitness or diet regime.

But still, she said there are limits.

“We want to be friendly about it because obviously they are civilians, and they do pay you,” she said.

Still, at the gym she said she does sometimes feels insulted by people’s behavior, especially if they are carting their cell phone around during a personal training session or chatting with friends instead of paying attention.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey ladies, I’m sorry, this isn’t a tea party,’” she said.

Taix isn’t aware of losing a student over such a reprimand, but she said that’s partly because she is sensitive that not everyone can take the criticism.

“You have to know their personalities,” she said.

Anthony Wall, director of professional education for the American Council on Exercise, said that for fitness instructors, working with people’s personalities can be just as hard as working on their bodies.

“It’s definitely an area where our trainers trip up,” he said. “The exercise side is relatively easy.”

He said a common complaint is the person who shows up for a group class and then proceeds to do their own exercises, often while standing in the middle of the class distracting people who are trying to follow the instructor.

Gym instructors can lay ground rules at the beginning of class, and even talk to the offenders individually. But sometimes, he said, you have to consider whether it’s worth losing the bad player in order to keep everyone else.

“There are times when you have to fire the participant,” he said.

Keller, the yoga instructor in San Diego, said she has learned over the years that despite her best efforts, not all her clients are going to do what’s best for themselves.

“I had to learn to let go. I can’t be co-dependent,” she said. “I tell them what I tell them. I try to guide them and give them the best instruction, but I have to let go at some point.”

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