Dear Personal Trainer, You can be Body Positive and Not Jeopardize Your Business (no really!) Here’s How…
March 18, 2016
Over the past few years, the body positive movement has been slowly but surely infiltrating the media, pop culture and, dare I say, retailers and marketing. And I LOVE it! Seeing more diversity of sizes and shapes of woman in the public eye is a hopeful sign that things are moving in a more size and fat acceptance direction. The best part is the momentum this much-needed movement has given me the guts to be more vocal in my stance and beliefs as a fitness professional. From confronting other personal trainers at gyms about their harmful messages to posting weekly “stop fitspiration” images on social media, I have slowly built up the courage to speak out against the incessant body shaming that is so insidious to the fitness and exercise community.
But if there’s something I’ve learned about change (especially creating change) it is this; follow the money.
Most fitness professionals businesses THRIVE on body shaming their clients and potential clients (both directly and indirectly) in order to make a profit. After all, studies show most people hire personal trainers or Pilates instructors and yes, even go to yoga classes because they hope to lose weight or physically manipulate their body in some way, shape or form. So why in the world would fitness professionals ever want to embrace the body positive movement and risk losing their biggest source of revenue? And even if they wanted to advocate body positive messages, wouldn’t they be too fearful of what other trainers and clients may think? (Just like I used to be…)
Since owning my stance on size diversity, fat acceptance, health at every size, etc., I’ve been met with a lot of push back to say the least. Altogether, I have left 3 different jobs in order to stay true to my beliefs and my commitment to working in alignment with those beliefs. To believe that size and weight are independent factors from health and well-being is indeed a radical idea in both the fitness industry and society as a whole. In fact, when I first created my business I was asked more than once if I was trying to put myself out of business (not in a joking way either).
Well, I can honestly say it hasn’t been easy, but my business is in its 3rd year and has grown each and every year since it’s creation. All of which was accomplished without compromising my values or beliefs, and I want other fitness professionals to know that they can do this too.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of 7 ways personal trainers can be body positive without jeopardizing their business (and even GROW their business)
1. Don’t Assume the Larger Client Wants to Lose Weight
Believe it or not, there are people happy in their body and they don’t look like a Victoria Secret Angel (I know, how could they?). When you automatically assume a prospective client wants to lose weight just by looking at them, you are not doing your job. One of the first things I remember learning as a trainer was to listen more than I spoke. It is the client’s session, not yours. It is a the fitness professionals job to motivate clients to the goals they want, not judge and shame clients into an agenda you have set out for yourself.
2. Ask your client how they’re feeling rather than judging their progress by the scale or other erroneous numbers that are so-called health markers.
When it comes to human beings there is something true across the board – we all want to be heard and understood. This cannot be accomplished through the scale. It can be accomplished, however, by asking more important questions like how they are feeling, what’s their energy like, do they physically have any aches or pains, etc. Chances are you might get a short answer in response but here’s the thing to remember - you might be the only person who asks them this all day. This question also communicates that they are much more than just a body; they are a human being with many layers and you understand and respect that.
3. Congratulate them for being kind to themselves (no matter what the act of kindness was)
Studies show when people are self deprecating and have low self esteem they don’t take as good of care of themselves as when they have higher self esteem or a higher sense or self worth. Since health and fitness are really all about taking care of oneself, it’s important that negativity toward oneself is limited. We are in the business of improving the quality of people’s lives and one of the best ways to do this is to encourage and congratulate self compassion and self kindness, even if that means they treated themselves to an ice cream cone.
4. Keep your clients’ focus on their habits NOT on numbers
One of the take home messages of the Health at Every Size movement is to focus on practicing healthy behaviors not on weight. Studies show that when people focus is on their weight loss goal weight or goal size, “failure” is a much higher probability. The same people fall off, get back on and then fall off the diet and exercise wagon again and again. Since consistency is key to really anything in life, including improving ones health, it’s incredibly important to direct your client’s attention to the areas that are more likely to keep them motivated and consistent. Studies show this is by focusing on behaviors rather than weight.
5. Leave your ego (and your personal opinions) at the door
We all have our personal preferences when it comes to what we believe is beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. But when it comes to helping others to take care of themselves and assist them in reaching a new level of well-being, your personal opinions about body size and “what looks good” (or not) are not important and even more so, voicing them are unprofessional. Keep your opinions about your client’s muscle tone, size, shape, etc. to yourself. It’s all about how they feel about themselves, not how you feel about their body. Ego gets wrapped up into our client’s progress when we allow the fear of others opinions to enter into our professional thoughts. The fear of what other trainers, instructors or teachers may be thinking if they happen to question why you haven’t been able to “help” your client because they aren’t losing weight or they don’t look any different is a real fear of many personal trainers. I used to think that if my clients didn’t lose weight, that meant I was a bad trainer, but really, what makes someone a bad trainer is if they think their only success marker is when their clients do lose weight.
6. Think outside the box when it comes to movement
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a sad and exhausted client with their trainer looking like they hate their life. The trainer is ordering their client to do exercises that, to be quite honest, look and feel humiliating and dehumanizing (crawling on all fours in between rows of cardio equipment is one of my all times favorites…). Making exercise a punishment for what you perceive to be a “flawed and broken” body is NOT how you make exercise or movement something a client adapts into their lifestyle. The first question that should come to your mind when establishing a routine for your client should be how can I make this as enjoyable as possible? Think outside of your traditional exercise-as-punishment bubble and teach the joy of movement not the torture of exercise. One of the biggest unspoken objectives of your job is to change your client’s negative beliefs about exercise. When a trainer degrades their client or “kills them” through impossibly complex or difficult movements, it only reinforces their belief that exercise just isn’t for them.
7. Don’t body shame yourself or others in front of your client
Whether you believe it or not, you’re a role model for your client. When you share with your client how you “feel so fat” after your cruise to the Bahamas and you appear to look no different from when you left, you’re not only making the client feel worse about themselves (if she thinks she’s fat, what must she think of me?), you’re also reinforcing the negative and harmful beliefs your client might already have spinning in their head 24/7 (i.e. relaxing and taking a break = fat and bad). And like I mentioned earlier, negative body image or a low sense of self worth only helps to derail any long term motivation or excitement about making exercise a part of their lifestyle. Body shaming others is even worse. The practice of body shaming other people (i.e. “how can she wear that? She doesn’t have the body to wear that!”) only strengthens the negative and judgmental voice in one’s own head and this eventually gets turned on the “shamer” themselves. Setting this body shaming attitude as an example for your client will only grow their inner critique and make them less them likely to want to practice healthy behaviors in the long run. Keep body-shaming comments to yourself and work on practicing mindfulness to catch these negative comments before they escape your lips.
Thinking that your client will stick around until they reach their goal weight or are happy with their body’s appearance is a nice thought, but it’s not reality. People make decisions based on emotions and if a client if feeling worse about themselves and their body than before they stated working with you, don’t expect them to stick around for long. Remember why you became a personal trainer in the first place. Most likely it was to help people feel better and improve their quality of life. It’s time to understand that this can be accomplished with or without the “perfect” body and reflect that in your work.
The body positive movement is here to stay and you can embrace the fact that all bodies are good bodies without fear of losing your business.