In The Locker Room with Debra Herzog, Executive Assistant, Personal Trainer

Debra Herzog, Executive Assistant, personal trainer, and movie star.

Courtesy of Debra Herzog

Debra Herzog, Executive Assistant, personal trainer, and movie star.

Debra Herzog balances her dual roles on campus as the executive assistant to the vice president and dean of students and one of President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s personal trainers . She started at Oberlin first as a personal trainer for President Ambar in 2018 and quickly moved to adding a role consulting for the Academic and Administrative Program Review. Herzog also teaches a YeoFit class called Presidential Bootcamp on Mondays from 5-6 p.m. Outside of her work at Oberlin, Herzog does professional acting work, playing a prominent role in the independent film The Enormity of Life which came out this April.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


How did you first get involved in training or fitness in general?

About 11 years ago I decided I wanted to focus on my own fitness. I had been really active in college — cheerleading track, swimming — but after so many years of working and three children, I’d put on some weight. And I was trying to lose it by running like a mad woman on the treadmill at home, but my body wasn’t changing. And I thought, “Well, my goodness, am I too old to get into shape?” And at this time I was only 40. I’m 51 now.

I started seeing a personal trainer and it completely transformed my life because I learned how to do appropriate cardio. My heart rate was too high. I needed to slow it down, so that my body had time for a chemical reaction so that I could release the fat into my system to fuel my system while I’m working out. My personal trainer taught me that. And she taught me the importance of moving weights around — strength training and what it does to reset your metabolism and make your body pretty. You want to have strength to your body and it also helps support your bone density and that’s important as you get older. And then we dove into my diet, she helped me understand how to clean up my eating, do the cardio and the fat-burning zone and then move weights around. And when those three things fell into place, it took about six months, honestly, working with her two days a week and then doing it on my own that I ended up losing 30 pounds. And I went from like 28 percent body fat down to 18 percent body fat. And I thought, “Well, if I can do this, I can teach other people how to do this.” I was already running my own company as an independent contractor, so I was able to set my own schedule. A part of my schedule became the fact that I wanted to train people in the gym. So that’s how I incorporated fitness training into my real world of business development. I did both. 


When did you start training President Ambar?

In 2018. Jennifer Bradfield — she’s the assistant to the president — texted me and she’s like “President Ambar needs a trainer, her trainer’s moving to Florida. Would you be available five days a week at six o’clock in the morning at the time?” And I was like, “Yes.” Without hesitation. “Yes.”

She had just gotten started on her fitness journey, she had lost some weight, but it hadn’t all clicked in her head yet. I saw it as an opportunity to help another woman in the gym. And also being the president of Oberlin College, I mean, what a cool deal to be able to come into a gym facility on a college campus.  

When I started out I was training her five days a week, but now she has her strength coach, and a crossfit trainer. So now I do two days a week. When I train President Ambar I get up at 3:50 a.m.. My coffee is already set, it’s already brewed. I do go to bed early the night before. I try and be in bed at like 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. at the latest, ’cause it’s a 30-minute drive and I want to get here about 10 minutes before she does. We now train at five. It used to be six and then we moved it to five. It’s early, isn’t it? But that really is the only time where she can work out and nothing else is interrupting her thoughts. 

She’s such a joy to be with in the gym. She works so hard and she’s such a fantastic person. I absolutely love it. 


So, on top of everything else, you also teach a YeoFit class for students and other folks in the Oberlin College community.

My first class was called First-Time Fitness and it was in the total body resistance exercise space and we would go through eight stations. We do 30 seconds of each station. And I had people coming in who had never worked out in the gym before. So they were just learning how to do bicep curls and shoulder presses, like very basic stuff.

Coming back out of the pandemic, knowing where President Ambar was now with her fitness, she had reached this level where she was down to the lowest weight that she wanted to be at, and she was developing muscles and was able to do things in the gym that she really wanted to. You know, we did the whole tire flipping competition. She talked to me about how she wanted to launch her Instagram account, @fitprezcta, to document everything and inspire people. And I kind of saw my class as an opportunity, because I have that relationship with her, to bring everything full circle. This full circle experience that goes through students and staff, faculty, and then alumni, and then back through the President, like we can show students what Ambar does. We can call it Presidential Bootcamp because it’s what President Ambar is doing. And it makes them feel like they’re a part of what she’s doing.


What do you like most about working with students in the gym?

I love the evolution that can take place in such a short period of time and a sense of accomplishment. Like when they walk in and they’re like very uncertain, “Okay, what am I doing?” They’re in a new environment and they don’t know what to do at the start of a class — grab a mat, grab some weights, grab a jump rope — it’s that uncertainty. And then when the music is playing and we’re going through the moves and you can see how quickly the confidence builds and the appreciation for what they’re doing with their body. I mean, what a basic thing to enjoy the movement of your body.

To see that realization and that mind-body connection happen and then to see the student feel success at the end of the class, it’s so cool. And then to see them come back, like, “Oh wow, you came back!” and they’re like “Oh yeah. I’m not going to miss it.” I wish I could teach more classes. I wish I had more time to be able to do that. I love it so much. It’s such a great feeling.