THE BLOG
11/24/2015 11:42 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

Tapping Into the Helper High: Tips on Feeding Your Trainer's Helper Habit

Halfway into my long run, I knew I had already set a personal record for pace. I was like a fine-tuned machine except that I was almost weepy. Going into my sixth mile I was practicing gratitude for my trainer, my running coach, my physical therapist, my sports nutritionist, okay, even my massage therapist, whom I had just seen the day before.

I'm the one on the trail, but I would be nowhere without my support team. And although I would be the first to admit that when I'm in a session with my trainer, or anyone else on my team, it's all about me, recently I came across a personal trainer's story that made me think there actually may be two people in the room.

Unspeakable tragedy touched Miami Beach lifestyle coach and personal trainer Ted Ryce when he was 14. His mother was killed in an auto accident and a few years later his younger brother was randomly kidnapped and murdered. Ryce lost his way.

When he was struggling to pull himself together, Ryce instinctively turned to exercise. So it was 16 years ago when he was still dealing with his loss that he observed the personal trainers in his gym and the affect they were having on their clients.

I want to do that, he thought, I want to help people. But what Ryce really meant was, I need to do that. I need to help people.

That's the helper high, the rush some people get when they help another person.

I was moved when I heard Ryce's story on an athletic podcast and wanted to learn more about what led him to personal training.

But before I called Ryce, I asked my own personal trainer, Nancy Accetta, at Equinox Bethesda, to tell me about the so-called helper high. Only a few weeks ago I was coming off an injury and it never crossed my mind to consider how my trainers might feel about my training or my injuries.

"I am really happy when my clients are happy," Accetta told me.

Simple as that.

Ideally when individuals are other-concerned in their activities, one of the unintended side effects is that they show elevations in their own happiness and energy level, said Stephen Post, an expert on the topic who teaches in the medical school at Stony Brook University. I emailed Post after searching online for a definition of "helper high." While I was talking with him his comments reminded me of a moment during one of my earliest personal training sessions with my first trainer.

He was making easy conversation during a wall sit when he told me he stopped eating for days when he first started working at the gym.

"I just wasn't hungry," he said. "I was so happy I just never thought about food."

It was a minor comment and of course I was in my own head at the time, but it stuck with me. It just hadn't occurred to me to consider how he-the-person as opposed to he-the-trainer fit into our relationship.

We all know how important it is in general to be helpful to others. That's not what I'm talking about here. There are some people who are motivated by the helper high. They need to make a positive difference in other people's lives so that they can feel satisfied and, well, happy.

Personal trainers are technically skilled and oriented and passionate about helping people see very direct results, Ryce said in our telephone conversation when I asked him about his own need to have a positive impact on people's lives.

"When you get a person to live in a healthy way there is a visual transformation, an energetic transformation," Ryce said.

"I love that," he said.

Ryce told me about the time he was training a man who was stuck in a motorized scooter and could not walk from the elevator in his condo to his apartment.

Ryce was the one who helped him to walk again.

"I had such a sense of euphoria."

But now this unsettles me.

I'm wondering how helpers feel if their clients or patients are not progressing or doing better or accomplishing their goals.

If helping us makes them feel good, how do they feel when we don't make progress or, worse, become injured?

"The whole patient care model leaves the caregiver out of the equation," Post said. "And I really worry about physical therapists," he added. "Physical therapists often work with patients who suffer from the kind of chronic pain that affects their emotions and demeanor, and these patients can be rough on their caregivers."

Ryce gets this, too. Like Accetta, he encourages personal trainers to find ways to enhance their own resilience, but they also advise them to focus on what the client wants and needs. "It's not about me," Accetta said.

The personal trainer might be visualizing the dramatic before and after picture, Ryce said, but that involves a lot of work and may not be the client's goal. When a reporter for Men's Health asked Bradley Cooper if he planned to keep the same workout regimen that got him ripped for his role in American Sniper, Cooper didn't hesitate for a second.

"Absolutely not," he said.

"Did you have a good workout?" Accetta asks me at the end of our sessions. I usually say yes, but one time I asked her if "yes" was the right answer.

"Once a client gave me a holiday card that included the note, 'Thank you for always making it possible for me to say yes.'"

"So 'yes' is always good, but the right answer is the real answer," Accetta said. "It's about you, and I need to know if I pushed you hard enough or too much. That's my job."

And it's our job to help our trainers, and others, get the most from helping us.

Tips for Helping the Helper

  • Understand your fitness and health goals and communicate them clearly to your trainer. That way both of you can talk about the difference between what you want vs. what you need to do.
  • Your trainer might be the only person who really needs to know all of your aches and pains. Although trainers have good intentions, it is so necessary that you, as the client, speak up and ensure that your trainer's skill set fits your needs so that the relationship is optimal. And if your trainer is unable to work with your medical needs, he or she can easily make a referral for you to work with someone who is better suited. Trust + Respect = Chemistry.
  • Know the difference between burn and pain and speak up when you've had enough or need to stop. Don't wait for your trainer to say when. But don't blame your trainer if you suffer an injury. Stuff happens even when everyone is doing everything right and both of you can learn from your injury.
  • As an exercise professional, your trainer is emotionally invested in you in a positive way but you've got to let you trainer be detached enough so he or she can make the best decisions for you. You'll get empathy but don't ask for or expect sympathy -- that's just not the trainer's role.
  • Give yourself plenty of time before and after your training session to warm up adequately and stretch. If you arrive late or have to leave early, don't ask or expect your trainer to get going before you've done the basics. It's just not safe.
  • Trust matters a lot to your trainer and he or she will work hard to establish it by assessing you honestly. Just don't mess it up by getting offended or by expecting your trainer to promise something that's not going to happen. Establishing rapport goes both ways.
  • Don't complain about the high cost of healthy food or personal training. And it doesn't matter what you do with your trainer in your training sessions even three times per week if you're eating crap and not getting enough sleep or hydration. Realize the value of what you're in and take care of your body.