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Partners and Mentors

        My visit to the gym today reminded me of the reason why I believe our organization, Work Out Work Up Inc., is doing important work.

What is our mission? We want to find teenagers who are attending school in New York City and who would like to go to the gym to exercise but do not have the means to do so. We will try our best to match them (in terms of geography) to a gym that is near their school and that will accept them as members during after-school hours and approximately from 2 pm to 4 pm. We are also enlisting help from fitness professionals who will guide and motivate the students to work out correctly, safely, and efficiently.

Who are we? We are a team of six professionals, each one with a different career, different trajectory in life, and different daily routine. We all believe in helping others to be their best and we are all committed to making this program succeed. We see ourselves as facilitators in bringing together those who need to exercise with those who can provide the space and equipment for exercise. We are working on developing programs that will teach students the benefits of physical training both in terms of fitness, health, and well being but also in terms of developing one’s own character and confidence.

Our goal is to see these students graduating from high school healthy and full of ambition to tackle life either pursuing academics in college or finding a suitable profession where they can be successful.

        What triggered this train of thought today? As soon as I walked into my gym I saw Kelli, another trainer at Equinox, who has also been my partner (in addition to Lisa about whom I wrote yesterday). Kelli studied modern dance at UCLA and moved to New York City only a couple of years ago. She is full of energy and good humor. She radiates positive energy and taught me how to use the treadmill correctly since I am not a runner. It is thanks to her that I discovered that I could make this otherwise straightforward piece of equipment work for me. Moments later, I met Peter on the second floor. Peter was trained as a massage therapist at the Swedish Institute in New York and uses a holistic approach to teaching individuals how to train correctly for their body type. In addition, he has magic fingers that find everyone’s painful spot and treat it instantly. I don’t know how he does it, I truly believe it is magic. Peter’s energy and healing power gave me many a boost when I needed one, a few times actually during the last year and a half.

        While Lisa, Kelli, and Peter are all trainers at my gym I have a special relationship with each one of them. They are my partners and they are my mentors in teaching me how to maintain my fitness and health.

        Work Out Work Up is an organization with a similar ambition. We hope to be able to provide New York teenagers with the partners they need to learn something new about fitness. And we hope to provide them with a vast network of mentors who will also guide them in discovering themselves and their own abilities.

Post by Thomai Serdari

The language of physical training

        While I mainly work out on my own, there was a time when I decided to hire a trainer to learn how to exercise properly with free weights. Before agreeing on our partnership (because it is a partnership), what I thought I would get out of it was skills in proper form when training, since this is so important. In addition, I was hoping to learn a repertory of exercises to rely on when I work out on my own. Even though this was accomplished, I knew by the time our partnership came to an end that having a repertory is not enough by itself. One needs to know how the muscles work and how to challenge them on a regular basis with new movements and a variety of weights. I would like to return to this discussion some other time. For now it suffices to say that what I was expecting to gain by hiring a trainer was only a small percentage of the real value a good trainer brings to the table.

        Lisa, my trainer at Equinox at the time, works as a freelancer now, which is why we stopped working out together. My exercise time is limited to the time I spend at the gym and my schedule does not allow for additional training time with Lisa, which I now consider a luxury. Not that I ever took her for granted. The trainer-client relationship is already difficult because a trainer is a service provider. The service, which is of course physical training instruction, is measurable only up to a certain point. At least 50% of it has to do with the chemistry between the two parties and mainly with the importance the client places on the relationship. For many people this ends up being very complicated because they think that since they pay they are entitled to results for which, alas, they are mainly responsible. No matter how many routines the trainer develops, if the client does not pay attention and if she does not give it all her energy and focus, results will be very slow to materialize.

        My relationship with Lisa was wonderful. If she is reading this entry now I hope she agrees. Admittedly, we had a slow start because when I begin a project I want to know what to expect, what is the overall concept, what are the goals, and what is the strategy to achieve them. I like having the “big picture” first and then break it down to measurable and easy to accomplish tasks. I know that other people prefer taking it minute by minute because the “big picture” is something they cannot fathom. Be that as it may, I felt particularly challenged through my workouts with Lisa and eternally grateful to her for having pushed me to my limits. I felt the same gratitude twice a week and every time we trained together. I particularly felt it when I received a holiday card from her, six months into our partnership, in which she praised me for certain character traits I posses but also motivated me in a most personal way to keep it up.

        You may be wondering what is so special about that. Well, for those who know me it is noticeable that I don’t talk much and certainly not about personal matters, certainly not about myself. During a conversation, I am much more interested in finding out about the other person. One question that comes up therefore is how did Lisa know so much about me? The other issue to consider is that she really worked me very, very hard and even though we were doing weight training my heart rate was so high that I regularly felt out of breath and not able to keep up with any sort of lengthy conversation. This is when I realized that exercise is a form of language and that the way we perform it reveals a lot about our personality and our point of view. I also realized that Lisa was a keen observer of her clients as any good trainer should be and fluent in the language of exercise. I benefited tremendously from this relationship both on a technical level in perfecting my routine and an emotional one in connecting with my own body and challenging myself through my own self-discovery.

Post by Thomai Serdari 

Sense of Place/ Sense of Self

        I am just back from a fascinating discussion with Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, a memoir of his short tenure as a staff librarian at Boston’s City prison. Steinberg, a Harvard graduate, has written for the Boston Globe, The New York Review of Books, Salon, the Paris Review, and the Daily Beast. I volunteered to attend because my friend and fellow NYU Stern alum, Ellen Singer, organized the evening, which in addition to the author reading and discussing excerpts of his book included a lively Q & A session moderated by Ari Goldman, Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of several books.

        Riding the subway to the Upper West Side on this intensely humid and warm October evening felt notably unpleasant. The folding, made of metal, chairs at the basement of Ramath Orah felt welcomingly cool but unfriendly. Then, a variety of things happened. I visited a prison library and met a few of the inmates. I attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding and was brought onto the dancing floor amongst guests who were pushing a lot. I learned to write in the air using my hands signaling letters in reverse. I heard the thumb of a hardcover book, smuggled into a prison cell, and cut into pieces to create armor for its new owner. I saw hundreds of pieces of yellow paper with scribbles and funny laundry lists on them stuck in between pages. And then it dawned on me.

        There are two types of spaces: the first type is assigned a function of circulation; the second type denotes the function of stagnation. Schools, prisons, and hospitals belong to the first type. There is constant traffic of people passing through these places. Schools allow circulation that is heavier on the entry side without compromising the exit too much. In our (privileged) world, people are encouraged to go to school, find themselves in school, and somehow hope to exit the educational system. Prisons and hospitals work a little differently. There are criteria in place that determine who will go to prison or to the hospital. But once in, one’s life is more or less determined and the chances of coming out are pretty much spoiled. This is how I understand the first type: a funnel that has people believe that they circulate—even if their trajectory is cut short for one reason or another and their life turns stagnant.

        The second type of space simply is. The only determined movement within it is this of things: books, special items (such as antiques or paintings), and (yes… this is what I am getting at) training equipment. Chances are one is allowed to step foot in these spaces, be a guest and leave. There are no predetermined ideas of how long one should stay, what should she learn, what others should expect from her. This place, which is usually well organized and follows some internal logic, makes no demands on its visitor, imposes no expectations to meet, no numbers to hit.

        No. A library simply is. A museum is. A gym is. Each one is a repository. Contrary to the funnel that forces people in or out, the repository is a pause, a moment of reflection, and a call to connecting with oneself in creativity, freedom, and confidence. This is when a space becomes a place. When trial and error are encouraged, when sequence loses its importance, and when the only voice in one’s head is one’s own. Which library do you own? Which museum? Which gym?

        Needless to say, my ride back home was a breeze.

Post by Thomai Serdari (We welcome guest posts. Email us at:


From Core to Vision to Bliss

        Are you familiar with Bliss (, the spa that opened in 1996 with a single location in New York City’s Soho? By now, the company operates from multiple locations in New York City, the US, but also Barcelona, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai. In fact, their dedication to perfecting their services at all levels has caught competitors’ attention. What differentiates Bliss from other businesses, however, is the belief that the client is at the center of their universe. At least, this is what I took away from a brilliant presentation Bliss’s president, Mike Indursky, a most intelligent, articulate, and stirring marketing professional, gave a few days ago at the Stern School of Business. (

        I am mentioning this here because Mr. Indursky made a poignant remark about his strategy in developing the business successfully. He used imagery from the human body and said that right now his company is still working on its core. By this he meant the variety of products and services that form the core of the business. He then continued by saying that without a strong core a company cannot succeed and therefore it will not be able to articulate a vision for the future. Even if a remotely defined vision exists, it is not easily attained unless the core of the business is in place.

        Mr. Indursky’s audience nodded in confidence affirming that they understood what he was referring to and that they could easily make the connection. Everyone makes the connection when such metaphors are used to describe products or processes. Why is it then that we have such a hard time understanding that the roots of the core/vision metaphor stem from our own structure and physicality?  Without a strong core humans cannot function. What is the core that defines human beings? Their body and their mind, elements we all possess in whichever form. Without a strong core there can be no vision. Without a vision there is no future. The best way to strengthen your core, literally and metaphorically speaking is to work out and appreciate your own energy and stamina, the greatness you can achieve on your own. Every successful person will confirm that a strong core eases the way to one’s vision and leads to a bright future. Working out methodically is just the beginning.

Post by Thomai Serdari (We welcome guest posts. Email us at:


Doing leads to confidence

    In one of my earlier entries I mentioned that I teach. I teach senior Honors students at NYU. They are working on their Honors Thesis and I am teaching them methodology and writing, particularly as they pertain to art history, architecture, and urban design topics. Today, I came out of class—dedicated entirely to presentations on each student’s topic—and realized that the value of presentations so early in the semester is that it forces students to summarize their work for their colleagues and communicate their ideas and concerns within a limited amount of time. The problem is that no one likes presenting. The truth is that they are doing a much better job than what they think and the reason is simple. Doing leads to confidence.


    This is a fact that I noticed only a few years ago and really, not too long ago. I realized that instead of saying “I would like to do this…” or “I wish I could do that…” I could instead announce that “I have started doing this…” and “ I am doing that…”  This is what got me to playing tennis. I always envied the agility of the great tennis players and the power of their stroke but felt intimidated and hesitated playing, especially because I had never held a racquet before. I did my research and found a great company that organizes tennis clinics and games in New York City and Miami. The strength of their method in teaching tennis derives from the simplicity of what happens on the court: the instructor throws balls at you and you are holding the racquet to return the ball to wherever the instructor has indicated. Running is involved. Stopping and changing direction is often required. Moving your feet a lot is mandatory. I had never connected in my mind the fact that tennis is not only striking the ball but also running to it or away from it. But being confronted with the balls the instructor was feeding at a steady pace, I realized I had to move and did it well because I had never considered running a challenge since it was not part of my definition of tennis. Ignorance led me to doing, and doing led me to gaining confidence about hitting the ball correctly.


    I saw a lot of this taking place in class today even though no tennis racquets or balls were involved, just pictures of art and architecture arranged according to students’ storylines. While I will never tell them that I intend to throw them into similar situations again where they will have to think quickly and on their feet, I strongly believe that what sports teach us about our abilities is ten times as powerful as any other medium. This is because we perform physical activities with our bodies and we tend to take our body’s abilities for granted. We often end up doing things because we never knew how challenging they are and as we do things we gain confidence about our ability to participate in any sport we choose. The same applies to life.

Post by Thomai Serdari (We welcome guest posts. Email us at:


Abundance in New York’s Real Estate

    Does my headline sound like a contradiction? I realize life is full of them. Do you happen to be a gym member? I am. Have you noticed the peak and valleys in members’ attendance? I have. That of course implies that I am a regular gym member so that I can observe this phenomenon throughout the year. Not that this is new. Even gym management knows about it and I would imagine, management could not care less. Why would they? The memberships are prepaid, either for the entire year or for the month. The fewer the members who come to the club the less the wear the equipment suffers.

    Tonight it hit me. There I was on my treadmill, six treadmills (yes! six treadmills) away from the next gym member during the 5:30 to 7:30 time slot that, in theory, is the busiest one. Where was everybody? The floor with the free weights was not too populated either in spite of the new rope that appeared only two weeks ago hanging from the ceiling inviting everyone to test their climbing abilities. Compared to last week’s excited chatter of the trainers and gym members who gathered around the rope in awe (and in secret hope that they could climb that rope as fast as Jack Shephard climbed out of a dark, bottomless well in LOST’s final season—if not faster), tonight’s silence, pierced by the occasional and timid “cling-cling” of the free weights used by a member on the bench next to the window facing Lexington avenue, was striking. This got me thinking.

    Since I moved to New York in 1995, I have joined several gyms. First, there was The Racquet and Health Club on 12th Street off 5th Avenue. Then, there was the NYU gym on Houston Street, followed by Lucille Roberts on 5th Avenue and 14th Street (I was very poor at the time but I thought that finding an inexpensive gym was a necessity), followed by the NYU gym on 14th Street, followed by the New York Sports Club on 14th Street, followed by Synergy in Astoria, followed by The New York Sports Club on 59th Street, to, finally, Equinox, my current haven on 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue where I have been going since 2005. So many gyms have given me such a consistent experience over the years. I am referring to the valleys of gym attendance, those long periods of time when New York gyms—built on expensive real estate—remain empty or, at the very best, so scarcely populated that the receptionist, completely exhausted by boredom is ready to hug you as soon as he swipes your membership card.

    From a financial point of view, this type of real estate is like gold. From an economic point of view however, I cannot help but think of the waste. Such an abundance of prime quality square footage goes to waste unused, deserted, silent and sad when so many who need to access it have never heard the “swoosh” of the rowing machine or the “sweesh” of the cable machine. Ah yes! Life is full of contradictions.

    Post by Thomai Serdari ( We welcome guest posts. Email us at 

Diets and Emotions

A Frenchman who lives in New York City with his family, Olivier joined our board to offer his legal expertise. In the meantime, he has expanded to other areas, including searching the French headlines for interesting pieces on exercise and fitness. A couple of weeks ago he sent me an article published in the French daily Le Monde on Dr. Pierre Dukan’s diet. A primarily protein-based diet, the Dukan nutrition plan differs significantly from Dr. Atkins’s, which includes too much fat. On the contrary, Dr. Dukan’s method seems to develop around the concept of four phases, the combination of which is a structured but simple long-term, real-food regime that ensures one’s metabolism works flawlessly.

I am not interested in diets. I am not trained to understand whether they are good or bad for one’s health. But the Dukan diet’s popularity in France piqued my curiosity and I decided to read about it. I discovered one fascinating fact. Dr. Dukan dismisses calorie counting, mainly because it sets “quotas, doses, and portions but it forgets that the people having to follow it are flesh and blood, made up of emotions and instincts.” (Louise Atkinson, “The Ultimate Diet: The French have kept it a secret for years. Now the protein rich Dukan Diet is coming to Britain,” The Mail Online, April 19, 2010)

Emotions and instincts are our motivators for mostly everything we do in life. While dieting usually makes us feel “bad” when we cheat (and therefore stirs up feelings of worthlessness) exercise makes us feel “good” (and worthy) because we are able to achieve something, to reach a goal. In fact, thinking back at my numerous short trips to the gym when my schedule gets way too heavy for me to handle long workouts, I remember stepping down from the treadmill and feeling sad because I have to go. This comes as a surprise every time considering that I, like everyone else, develop my enthusiasm for exercise while I am at it and not beforehand—but I do have my rare moments of pure athleticism when I simply cannot wait to leave the office and go to the gym. Other times, I recognize the feeling of slight annoyance when I must set my dumbbells down and leave the floor just when I could try a new routine. When I exercise the only quota I set are those of time. Time is the only constraint that is measurable. I never measure how many calories I burn to compensate for my eating. But I always measure how many loops I can climb in 30 minutes at a certain incline, and how many new exercises I can learn when I weight train. This is what I retain from Dr. Dukan’s regime: don’t count calories, allow yourself to feel the need to eat and experience your emotions. If you have not allowed yourself the pleasure of a challenge during physical exercise you are depriving yourself of a broad range of emotions, all positive, all inspiring, and all propelling you forward to an ever fearless version of yourself. As for Olivier, he is a fearless cyclist.

Post by Thomai Serdari. (We welcome guest posts. Email us at: