Review: Equinox High Performance Living Symposium ’14

Last weekend Beth and I attended the Equinox High Performance Living Symposium. Yes, the same Equinox that has been expanding and opening gyms in most of the major markets across the US. While this review may be more interesting to fitness pros and those considering attending a future event, for the general reader this is a small peak behind the curtain (and also a small peak into the mess inside my head).

I’m pretty sure I asked for digital presentation slides #notgoinggreen

I’m pretty sure I asked for digital presentation slides #notgoinggreen

We weren’t sure what to expect from the symposium, but we heard about it from one of the presenters and it was going to be in our hometown of New York City. So we figured, what the hell.

$1500 later we were greeted by a series of emails and a schedule and format reminiscent of a Perform Better Summit. If Equinox is going to step into the continuing education market, they couldn’t choose a better model.

On paper the offerings were a mixed bag — some presentation were of can’t miss caliber, some seemed like they could go either way, and a few…a few we knew we weren’t going to attend. To be fair, this is only Equinox’s second year at this, so some leniency should be granted.

Day 1:

First impressions & Check-in:

The event was held at 10 On The Park in the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle.

10 on the Park

It’s a beautiful event space with a professional staff and great views of Central Park. A couple of the rooms were a little small for the size of the crowd and hands-on sessions suffered a bit, but otherwise it was a great choice of location.

The day began with a rather expensive looking hype video. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I couldn’t understand the excitement and outbursts of “Woooo!” from some of the Equinox employees — notoriously the worst compensated fitness professionals in the industry. I’d prefer to skip the hype, get to the education I’m paying for, and be compensated better. But, to their credit, they must be doing something right if they’re getting cheers instead of riots. Hopefully they’re using the footage for a commercial or something.

It became obvious during the opening comments that the weekend was geared towards Equinox employees. When asking where everyone was from they didn’t even offer a non-Equinox option. I was shocked, assuming that, like with most conferences, there would be a diversity of fitness professionals. I’m not sure what, if anything the Equinox trainers had to pay to attend, but the high attendance rate bodes well for Equinox’s future in personal training and says a lot about their corporate culture. There was virtually no representation from Soul Cycle or Pure Yoga (both of which are under the Equinox umbrella). Sigh. To my group exercise and yoga brethren out there: get some education and you’ll quickly separate yourself from your peers.

Equinox clearly has a better vision and mission than any of its big box competitors. Embracing the importance of recovery and integrating technology will allow them to pull ahead of the field in the coming years. Whether or not a company that size can successfully roll out meaningful programs in a field of changing technology that sometimes offer metrics of questionable value remains to be seen. But, they’re getting in on-time, and I don’t think any of the other big box gyms are.

1st Lecture

The first non-Equinox presentation of the day was by Dr. John Berardi (AKA, JB), owner of Precision Nutrition (in our opinion the best nutrition and nutrition coaching program out there).

PN logo

Little known fact: I used to intern in the nutrition department at a medical facility 15 years ago. I sent Dr. Berardi (then, Mr. Berardi) several emails with questions. He was awesome at getting back to me and providing great information without ever expecting anything in return. What a guy.

JB’s first talk, The Nutrition Solution: How to Foster Change, centered on change psychology. Let’s face it: fat loss is simple, but not necessarily easy. He explored strategies that increase client consistency and drew an important distinction between being well-educated and being a great coach. All of the knowledge in the world doesn’t help if you can’t foster change in another person.

There was nothing revolutionary if you follow JB’s work and Precision Nutrition, but it was a great review and, for me, a reminder to tighten up my use of language (I’ll be spending some more quality time with Motivational Interviewing).

motivational interviewing

Take away points:

  • Take responsibility for client outcomes — if they’re not listening to you, you might be the problem.
  • Even when prescribed life-saving medication, patients only take that medication about half of the time, so don’t feel so bad if some of your clients aren’t doing what you say… also, maybe double-check if they’re taking their life saving medications.
  • Long-term success comes by changing one habit at a time and make that change too easy.

2nd Lecture

We were torn between Dr. Jennifer Martin’s Science of Sleep and Michol Dalcourt’s 4 Quadrants of Movement Training. Sleep won, and the talk was fantastic.

Dr. Martin explained the 2-Process Model of Sleep Regulation and the interaction between circadian rhythm & the homeostatic drive for sleep. She went through how the stages of sleep impact recovery, nutrition, and physiological readiness. She included some change psychology to help nudge behaviors and maximize benefits for clients, and even did a relaxation exercise with the room. I’ve been using the exercise when I rouse in the middle of the night with great success. The gist: relax, breathe deeply, acknowledge your thoughts and let them drift away.

Overall, a fantastic presentation with applicable info on a topic still often overlooked in fitness.

Take away points:

  • REM sleep is related to learning and memory. Most of it comes at the end of the night, during hours 5 through 8 of sleep. Get to bed, or risk becoming an idiot.
  • Even if you make up for lost sleep your metabolism doesn’t completely recover.
  • We all should know this by now: light, particularly from electronics, before bed can mess with your circadian rhythm and reduce the duration and quality of your sleep. Get some blue light blockers, put the devices away, and turn the TV off well before going to sleep.
  • Unless you’re a mutant you need 6-9 hours of sleep each night. Each night. You’re not a mutant. Plan for sleep.
  • When you’re tired your brain uses complex task centers to handle simple tasks, literally reducing your ability to perform physically and mentally.
    5-6 days of less than 6 hours of sleep a night = significantly decreased mental and physical fortitude.
    3-4 days of less than 4 hours of sleep a night = significantly decreased mental and physical fortitude.
    1 night of no sleep = significantly decreased mental and physical fortitude.
  • Increasing time in bed from 6.5 hours to 8.5 hours in overweight adults led to 14% decrease in overall appetite and a 62% decrease in desire for sweet and salty foods.
    Go the fuck to sleep.

Great bedtime reading

Great bedtime reading

3rd Lecture

John Berardi again: On the Implications of Radical Diet Choices. (We can’t get enough of the guy.) Ironically, all of the “radical” diet choices discussed are fairly common these days, with many people vehemently attached to one camp or another. The presentation was entertaining, engaging, and an important audit of many commonly held diet beliefs. JB quickly ran through some of the flaws in the arguments for various diets. Ironically, the next day and a half of presentations included lectures from speakers whose nutritional philosophies do not bear up under the weight of current evidence.

After the lecture we managed to grab JB for a brief conversation. We mentioned that we were having problems with our nutrition tracking system. He provided a solution that was simpler and would allow for better compliance (which he is now calling consistency). We’ll be trial running his suggestions over the next 90 days. What a guy.

Take away points:

  • All kinds of different diet strategies work if you’re consistent.
  • There is no single best diet strategy, and this is obvious if you look at the population data we’ve accumulated.
  • We’re making the nutrition part, the easy part, too complicated, causing us to miss out on the important part: changing habits.


Because of our Q&A with JB we were a few minutes late for lunch. Whoever ordered catering radically underestimated the protein consumption of the attendees. Beef? Gone. Chicken? Gone. Lentil salad? Enough to feed a mid-sized colony of vegans.

Lecture #4

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, The Psychology of Behavior Change. If the name sounds familiar, you might have seen her TED talk on the main stage.

Possibly the best presentation of the weekend, Dr. McGonigal gave an entertaining and at times jaw dropping look into what impacts behavior, how we may be doing damage when we least expect it, and how we may be missing valuable opportunities to create positive change. It may sound crazy, but my days of telling clients that they’re doing great as they’re leaving may be over. Seriously. #Science

Her book is next in my queue.

I don’t know if I’d call myself chronically slothful

I don’t know if I’d call myself *chronically* slothful

Take away points:

  • We tend to believe that we can change in the future, but that belief reduces the likelihood of success. The most important day to act is today.
  • Setting big goals makes people feel good. It also tends to lead to failure.
  • Accepting that setbacks will happen improves outcomes.
  • There is no correlation between the number of setbacks experienced and eventual success.
  • Avoid moralizing habits and behaviors — they’re not good or bad, right or wrong. Moralizing reduces the likelihood of success.
  • Setup your environment to make new habits easier. It’s less about willpower than it is about the environment you’re in.

Lecture #5

Q&A with JB and Dr. McGonigal? Don’t mind if I do.

Entitled Dealing with Difficult Clients (a name they both eschewed), this was an open Q&A. It provided some examples of how JB and Dr. McGonigal coach change — this proved to be very much a Motivational Interviewing style.

They highlighted the difference between giving information and coaching. Are we missing valuable opportunities to help because we’re too busy providing information — sometimes even information the client has asked for?

This session also gave rise to a theme that would recur throughout the symposium. Even with top professionals, doctors of all variety, and some extraordinary educators, there was no consensus as to where the Personal Trainer’s/Strength Coach’s scope of practice comes to an end. While this may not be ideal I think it serves as a reminder to fitness professionals to read widely, think deeply, practice ethically, to have a set of principles that guide best practices, and to focus more on being a coach than a “physical trainer”.

Lecture #6

The Role of Biomarkers in Exercise Prescription. This was essentially a sales pitch for Wellness Fx. No real education, just a lot of talk about what the future can be like if clients will submit to a series of expensive blood draws. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still just be guessing even after spending dough and giving blood.) I’m all for out of pocket, direct to patient healthcare, but this was a ridiculous attempt to get fitness pros interested in pushing services on their clients rather than providing anything resembling education. Shameful. I should have gone to Thomas Myers‘ & Michol Dalcourt’s case study session instead.

Panel Discussion

The day closed with a panel discussion. I wasn’t expecting anything earth shaking, but it’s always nice to hear what those at the top are thinking.

The question of scope of practice came up again, and went largely unanswered again.

JB did stir up some controversy by stating that the personal training as we envision it today will be obsolete in five years. I tend to agree, but think most people misinterpreted the message. A move towards superior systems, better coaching (again, as opposed to “physical training”), integration of technology, and a multivariable approach to the client-centered training style will be the hallmark of the future. For some reason people seemed to hear that the profession would simply disappear.

Day 1 down. See you next time more ranting and raving about Day 2.

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