You know when something is on your mind but you can’t quite articulate it? And then you stumble across a website or a blog – or (gasp) a real life person – who says everything you’ve been thinking, so that you end up nodding incessantly like one of those nodding dog toys (whilst resisting the urge to hug said person/computer)?
I had that a couple of weeks ago when I discovered the Body Positive Fitness Alliance. And now I have finally found the words to tell you why I am so excited about it. Spoiler alert: #partofthesolution.
As you know, things have been a bit quiet around here for the past few months. As well as being busy and on holiday, I was seriously questioning my role in the fitness industry. Not my job – I love working with my clients, and I know that I am having a positive impact on their lives in some small way – but my career and aspirations and other such grand things. I cringe at people posting their workouts on social media, I try desperately to extricate myself from conversations about fitness with anyone other than a client, personal trainer social media accounts and newsletters bore me to tears and, frankly, I spend less and less time actually “working out” myself. All a bit strange for someone who has chosen fitness as a career.
And yet, I still believe that fitness is important, and I stand firm in my vision to make it more approachable and accessible to everyone.
When we become personal trainers, we learn how to get people stronger, faster, fitter, leaner, better… But what if a client came to me – as many did – who wasn’t interested in those things? Would I be deemed a “good” personal trainer if I trained somebody for years and they lost no weight or body fat? Conversely, if a client came to me wanting to lose weight despite being at a healthy weight, what right do I have to question or ignore their goal, given than I am not a health professional?
At the heart of these dilemmas lies one fundamental question: What is health anyway? The World Health Organisation – who, you might suppose, would know a thing or two – haven’t amended their definition since 1948:
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
I love this definition. It embodies everything that I already felt about health and wellbeing, a lot of which was confirmed to me as I researched for my nutrition essays:
- There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and general health, and there never will be
- We know very little for certain about the human body and what it needs to be in a state of optimal health across a life span
- Physical health and mental health are inextricably intertwined, along with socioeconomic and cultural factors
While fitness professionals are not health professionals, we can have a direct impact on physical, mental and social wellbeing and, therefore, health.
Ideally, personal trainers would be encouraging mental and social wellbeing by being encouraging, positive, compassionate, and understanding of each client’s unique set of needs and preferences. So that quite easily takes care of a lot of the issues I raised above: as long as we work with a client in a way that makes them happy, allows them to lead a fulfilling social (and professional) life, we should be doing fairly well.
But aside from purely fitness-related goals, what role does a personal trainer play in a client’s physical health? A discussion of the effects of physical activity on overall health would take up several blogs to itself: various studies have dissected the effects of changing exercise type, frequency, volume, and intensity on morbidity; others have looked at body weight and body composition in relation to disease and morbidity; still more have combined one or more of these areas, or focussed on one specific disease such as type-II diabetes; and that’s without even beginning to talk about genetics and culture and socioeconomic factors. So let’s not pretend that personal trainers can really have too significant an impact on long-term physical health.
One of the very few things we do know about long-term health is that being active is important. Or rather, being less inactive is important. That distinction is crucial: what you do in the gym, or even whether you go to the gym at all, matters little. And it follows that what your body looks like matters even less.
Unfortunately, the “obesity stigma” is a very real thing, with very real effects that can be devastating not just to mental health but also to physical health. It’s easy to see how this would become a vicious cycle: an overweight person who feels discriminated against is not only going to want to avoid those areas that feel the most judgemental (like gyms), but they are also less likely to want to take care of their health due to resulting feelings of worthlessness, and that’s without even starting to talk about the effects of depression and isolation.
That’s where the Body Positive Fitness Alliance comes in. Yes, there is a place for personal trainers and fitness professionals who believe in a multidimensional approach to fitness! We can promote health and wellbeing by encouraging people to be more active – and we don’t need to measure their progress by how they look or their body composition.
I set out on my personal training journey two years ago with one firm vision: that everyone could be more active in a way they could enjoy, and reap the health and wellbeing benefits. I wanted to be the one who encouraged the most gym-phobic, exercise-averse individual to find something they enjoyed doing and to get lost in it. Not to bitterly drag themselves to the gym, not to track their weight and body composition ritualistically in search of self-flagellation (“I’ve put on weight, that’ll teach me to eat two slices of my own birthday cake!” or incentive (“Yes! My body fat percentage has gone down! I mustn’t ruin it now by over-indulging…“). I felt a need to help everyone reconnect with their own body and its unique strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and needs.
I felt this was important, but I couldn’t really have told you why. Then I read the Body Positive Fitness Alliance’s blog post entitled “The Problem with Gyms“:
A recent survey from the Physical Activity Council revealed that one in four Americans didn’t exercise at ALL last year. Not once, in an entire year! 28% of our population did not engage in what their bodies were DESIGNED for for 365 days straight. Let that sink in for a minute.
Gyms have always been weird to me, even as a gym owner. The thought of creating a space where we have to go and perform motions which imitate the work our bodies were designed to do on the daily simply because our daily lives have been reduced to sitting behind desks is a little existentially mind blowing for me, to be honest.
Of course, the figures relate to the American population, but I think it can apply to most of the so-called Westernised world. We know physical activity is important and beneficial to mental and physical health, and yet a large proportion of us are not engaging in it, probably because we don’t feel there are any appealing ways of doing this; either because we feel out of place in a gym setting, or have been led to believe it will take too much time or effort to achieve any benefits.
It is important to emphasise that an hour or two a week spent in the gym or consciously exercising is great, but for many people the physical impact will be pitiful compared to anything that could achieve by getting up and wandering around the office for five minutes an hour. And yes, that might be all it takes! More importantly, it might be all a person can manage to start with, and that effort shouldn’t be belittled. The time a client spends with me should be a) fun and b) designed to inspire and help them become stronger and fitter in such a way as to encourage daily movement (for example; getting fit enough to take the stairs, or reducing back pain so that walks can be taken in lunch breaks).
One last thing: body positive approaches often get sneered at as cop-outs, or soft approaches. I think this is grossly mistaken. In fact, I would argue that it would be far easier to get a person to lose or gain weight at any cost, than it is to provide fun sessions that are immediately rewarding and beneficial to long-term health, whilst being mindful of the individual’s physical and mental state, within their time and budget constraints.
I’ll leave you with thought, folks. There are still a lot of things I would like to say on the topic, a lot of studies and reviews to be unearthed and linked to, and in the coming weeks I’d like to share some of the lessons I have been learning on my new yoga journey. But in the meantime, do have a look at the following resources if you are equally passionate about promoting body positivity and forging a new fitness industry:
- Body Positive Fitness Alliance
- Disrupt Your Diet
- Health at Every Size
- Fit is a Feminist Issue
- The Militant Baker
Please share any other resources and thoughts in the comments! Thanks for reading, as always.