Is it time to hire a personal trainer?

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks into the new year, you may be starting to waver in your "get in shape" resolution. But there's someone who can help you get on track.

A qualified personal trainer can guide you safely through the process of getting or staying fit. And the services are more affordable than you might expect.

Some gyms offer members several free or discounted initial sessions with a personal trainer. And a growing number of employers are making it more affordable for employees to work out with one, or to take part in group-exercise classes.

Health experts increasingly urge Americans to up their physical activity levels as a way to prevent costly chronic illnesses or manage existing ones. Promoting exercise is part of employers' broader attempt to control long-term health-care costs, said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, a coalition of 369 large employers, based in Washington, D.C.

"Despite the recession," she said, "the interest in providing services, benefits and, in many instances, financial incentives to improve health has continued to climb."

Fees for personal trainers vary depending on where you live. Some offer small-group training sessions for two to eight people, cutting the individual cost nearly in half in some cases, said Todd Galati, director of academy for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit in San Diego.

A growing number of personal trainers also teach group-exercise classes, he said, allowing you to evaluate a trainer's style before deciding whether to pursue a one-on-one program.

"Fitness is part of health care," Galati said. "It's part of prevention and it's also part of rehabilitation."

If you're considering working out with a personal trainer, here are six questions to consider before hiring one.

What are my goals? Be as specific as possible, said Galati. Maybe you want to be able to play with your grandchildren for longer or shovel snow without being exhausted the rest of the day. Such goals, he said, are far more important to your health and well-being than setting out to get "six-pack abs."

Do I have any benefits or financial incentives from my employer, health plan or gym membership? Some employers offer a fixed-dollar fitness reimbursement, for example, and some health plans offer discounts on gym memberships.

What are the trainer's qualifications? Your fitness professional should hold a current certification that's accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, which tells you he or she has met criteria for building a safe and effective exercise program, Galati said. A trainer also should have professional liability insurance.

How much time and money can I commit? Know which days and times will work for you and what your budget is. Explore options for small-group training if that appeals to you.

Does the trainer engage and motivate me? A person who can inspire you to push yourself safely toward your goals is more likely to help you achieve them than someone with an impressive physique who doesn't communicate well, Galati said. The trainer also should help you establish a realistic timeline and set benchmarks to mark progress along the way.

Do I need medical clearance? If you have a health condition, check with your doctor before starting a fitness program.

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