Watch out y’all fitness enthusiasts, that gym instructor may be a quack

Friday February 28 2020

Kenya Sevens players Oscar Dennis (left) and Jacob Ojee work out a sweat at the Ruby Football Union of East Africa grounds gymnasium on November 1, 2019. Ever wondered if your gym instructor is qualified to train you? PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT |


For more years than I can remember, the end of the month of February marks the end of my favourite death watch.

I know this sounds morbid but stay your judgment and allow me to finish. Around the end of this month is when the surviving New Year resolutions die.
During the first week of January, implementing resolutions is marked with the gusto of a person starting off on the road to Canaan. It is advisable, in your own interests, to get out of this person’s way if you think it can’t be done. But going to Canaan is a very long and demanding journey and it requires continuous replenishment of faith.

This is where the problem lies because faith just takes a beating and there appears to be no return on the sacrifice. One by one, the travellers fall by the wayside. By the end February, survivors have energy for just one act — surrender.

Although I have not recorded my findings in a graph, my conclusion is that resolutions with the highest chances of survival are those made on a quiet month when no fireworks are exploding. Also, when there is no need for witnesses.

This, yet again, was what I found this week at the end of my New Year Resolution Death Watch 2020 after noting that gym numbers had stabilised to their usual 30 to 40 per cent after piercing the ceiling early last month when the word “detoxification” was used with the same frequency as that of “locusts.”

I have digressed even before I started. It is gyms, fitness and healthy lifestyles that I had set out to write about, not New Year resolutions. Walter Abmayr was a German national who was Kenya’s national athletics head coach from 1980 to 1985. At the end of his tenure, Abmayr left behind him a cadre of not less than 268 track and field coaches spread out across the country.


He was a diligent member of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, making him the go-to man when it came to data on athletics in Kenya. Abmayr is also the man who established the gym at the Nyayo National Stadium. At the time of its inauguration, it was truly a space age facility the like of which locals had never seen before.

Shortly before he left for home, I had two long interviews with Abmayr whose content I want to share today.

At that time, there appeared to me a proliferation of gyms in the country but in hindsight, if that is what I called proliferation, I am at a loss about what I would call it today. It appears to me that every building I enter has a gym. And that brings out important issues for us to think about in this era of fake products, quack experts and the all-knowing, handily available Mr Google.

One of the first things that Abmayr told me was that he wouldn’t recommend that somebody touches weights and exercise machines if he couldn’t run one kilometre in three minutes, two kilometres in seven minutes and three kilometres in 11 minutes.

“If he cannot do that,” Abmayr said, “I highly doubt his cardiovascular system is ready for the stress of weights. Chances for injury will be high.”

Abmayr was discussing a problem that was at its infancy but which has since grown to a level big enough to defeat any human intervention in Kenya today. Where are gym instructors trained? Who certifies their qualifications? Is there a standard curriculum that professional gym instructors cover? What are the subjects in that curriculum?

Do gym instructors have medical knowledge? Does succeeding in getting oneself a shapely body automatically qualify one to become a gym instructor?

Are gym instructors also dietitians? Do gym instructors guarantee outcomes of desired results? Does one gym routine fit all? Can one get rid of his unsightly potbelly and retain his legs if he likes them as they are? Ditto all other mismatching body sections.

Commenting on the mushrooming of gyms in the city as it truly seemed then, Abmayr told me: “There are some people out there who know something about weights. Through a process of trial and error over the years, they have gathered knowledge of the subject that is fairly good. Many of them, however, know dangerously little. They are not coaches. They are gym attendants whose job is to ensure that people don’t spoil the equipment and that the place remains clean. They can get unsuspecting fitness enthusiasts injured or maimed.”

Abmayr was quick to add that even those who knew how to work out with weights did not necessarily qualify them to be coaches. “It is,” he said, “one thing to know what is good for you and quite another to know what is good for another person.”

He observed that there were many physical education teachers who had injured schoolchildren by pushing them too far and many half-qualified coaches who had ruined athletes with wrong routines.

I am astonished that the questions I asked Abmayr in 1986 are the same ones I have today except that the problems have grown in complexity. Today, there are literary hundreds of fitness apps for one to download which lead one down on an adventured filled do-it-yourself route. At your own risk, of course.

First, you don’t know about the competence of your gym instructor and there is nobody to ask. And whatever happens to you if Google’s advice goes badly wrong is your business; Google doesn’t accept liability for his prescriptions.

There is still another problem: you might turn to a duly registered medical practitioner or facility whose bon fides are all above board and well known to the public only for it to emerge that you are in a trading floor and not a hospital. You might get admitted just so that somebody can meet their daily targets.

More than I have ever known, there are many people today committed to a healthy lifestyle. But all sorts of handicaps are placed on their way. The business of keeping the residents of Nairobi fit in a safe environment has been left to private investors.

The City County long left its social halls to go to seed. Many people are desperate to cycle to work and school — but the roads are a veritable tryst with death.

Away from gym instructors with suspect qualifications and a hostile recreation environment, what are the medical hazards of running to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Let’s look at two cases. Frank Glieber was a sports commentator for a major American television network. He collapsed and died while jogging at an exclusive health club in North Dallas in the US.

And James Fixx, famed author of a best-selling book, “The Complete Book of Running,” collapsed and died while jogging in Vermont. The two deaths, which happened not too far apart, raised widespread fears that jogging might indeed be dangerous for people. The fears were fuelled still more by the knowledge that these were veteran joggers, not sedentary couch potatoes who had suddenly been struck by the urge to do a run.

But Kenneth Cooper, a US physical fitness authority, dismissed any dangers in running. The two deaths, the physician said, only underlined the need for a sensible, supervised programme of exercise. They died, he said, not because it was dangerous to run, but because they were running the way they shouldn’t.

Dr. Cooper, author of the book “Running Without Fear,” ran the Aerobics Centre where Glieber died. He said: “Frank was doing everything opposite to my recommendations. You can make recommendations to a patient but you can’t force him to change his lifestyle.”

Glieber’s heart, a check-up showed, had deteriorated and his weight had gone up from 93kg to 111kg. He is also said to have had a high cholesterol level.

Said Dr. Cooper: “We advised Frank of the potential severity of his problem and recommended him to lose weight, watch his diet, resume his exercise programme and come back in four months. But Frank got busy and didn’t do anything. He missed that appointment and two others.”

Glieber gained eight kilos more and then told his wife he was going to resume his exercise routine. He then drove to the Aerobic Centre, had no check-up and straightaway started jogging.

His normal routine was to jog 400 metres, then walk another 400. Other joggers noticed he was having difficulty. Then they saw him collapse as he began on the fifth kilometre. And that was it.

Fixx, the other one to die, had been running 96 to 112 kilometres a week. That was far too much, Dr. Cooper said.

“If you run more than 20-25 kilometres a week,” said the doctor, “you are doing it for something other than cardiovascular fitness.”

A post-mortem on Fixx showed that he had suffered three ‘silent’ or barely noticeable heart attacks during the two months before his death and stress tests, which he refused to submit to before his death, would have exposed the problem. Glieber had such tests done on him, but he refused to heed the doctor’s warnings.

What was Dr. Cooper’s advice for the do-it-yourself lay jogger? “Go slow and progressively. Listen to your body. Have some medical supervision, especially if you are over 30 or 40. I would recommend medical clearance for the people over 35, make it mandatory if you are 40 and I urge a maximal stress test every three years.”

By selecting as a victim James Fixx, the most famous apostle of long-distance running of his time, fate had conspired to commit the supreme irony. But that does not make running dangerous. Dr Cooper said of the two men: “Running did not kill them. Heart disease killed them.”

In the interest of public health and safety, I would like to see gyms regulated. But I know much better than to hope. I once ran a journalism training school and I was loathe to see competitors whose classrooms were situated next to posho mills, abattoirs, welding workshops and such like doing booming business undisturbed.

The regulator just threatened them with fire and brimstone and did nothing. That is why even today whenever they are warned of impending closure, their proprietors just yawn.

These days I understand whenever I hear a Kenyan say: “I have left that matter to God.”