Why NOT use the promise of flat abs to motivate clients into healthier habits?
By Patrick Mustain
A comment on a previous post (Maybe it’s time we stopped asking clients to lose weight) brought up some legitimate questions likely shared by many people working in the health and fitness industry. Basically, we should work with clients to help them reach their goals, and since some clients are motivated by successful weight loss, then why not let this be their impetus? If a lower number on the scale or toned arms gets them moving and eating better, why not let that be their ignition?
It’s a reasonable question, and the response was worth sharing:
True, many people are motivated by body aesthetics and weight-loss, and absolutely, in working one-on-one with a client, trainers and educators should start first with that person’s goals. In many cases a weight-loss goal may indeed be the path to helping someone adopt healthy habits (although, it is perfectly reasonable to attempt to educate a client about whether a goal is realistic, or coming from a place of wholeness versus insecurity. And, if coming from a negative place, it’s perfectly reasonable for a trainer to challenge those goals. There have been many times over the years I had clients come to me with goals that were simply unachievable, and I had to tell them: “I can’t help you with that.”). There are plenty of examples of individuals experiencing successful weight loss, and I by no means want to detract from those successes.
However, we’re very good at celebrating these anecdotes but ignoring the broader picture. Overall the numbers don’t look so good for our individualistic, body-centric approach. We’ve been doing the weight loss thing for quite a few decades now, and at a population level there are far more failures than successes in managing weight. If successful achievement of goals leads to sustained goal-directed behavior, as the commenter submits, then we are doing a majority of our clients a disservice when we focus first on unrealistic weight loss as a goal.
Any cursory look at the discourse and imagery surrounding health and fitness will show us that how we look is far and away the most important reason why we invest so much time, energy and emotion in exercise and dieting. However, the standards we have set and our definition of success live at the smallest tail of the distribution of what is actually realistic and possible for the majority of the population to achieve. As such, the more we as an industry perpetuate the idea that people should look a certain way, the more we are setting people up for failure and frustration. Most Americans do not meet recommended levels of physical activity. Most Americans do not eat recommended levels of fruits and vegetables. I suspect that one reason for this is that adequate physical activity and better diets tend not to be ends unto themselves. Rather, the weight-loss industry packages bastardized versions of healthy eating and physical activity—diet and exercise—and sells them as sure-fire tools to achieve the real prize: A beach body.
Right now, flat abs and a lower number on the scale are desires that drive people into our gyms and fitness classes, which is a good thing, right? Well, unfortunately there’s a whole world outside our gym walls that is doing everything it can to work against the health goals of our clients. We need to face the fact that despite our best efforts, this obesogenic environment is too great a barrier for the average person to overcome. For a sobering illustration of this, check out the Obesity Systems Map, from From the UK’s Foresight Program.
The more we focus on how we look and how much we weigh (again, not to completely dismiss a well-thought-out, one-on-one, reasonable approach to realistic weight loss based on attainable and measurable goals), the more we are making it difficult for people to adopt healthy, lifelong habits. The commenter pointed out that weight loss is an inevitable goal of many clients, due to our societal values. This is exactly the problem, since the evidence shows that by aiming for body aesthetics first, we are supporting goals not likely to be attained by most people. As fitness professionals we are in a great position to begin to educate our clients and to challenge that societal norm, instead of encouraging it. At the same time, we can be working to improve the environmental factors that lead to unhealthy outcomes in the first place. That’s what New Body Ethic is all about.