I’m going to cut right to the chase here as this is a topic that has been bubbling up in my mind time and time again over the last year I have been a full-time self-employed personal trainer.
Fitness is about perspective.
No matter how scientific some trainers and coaches and writers act or claim to be, it all comes down to a subjective opinion of what fitness is.
I am increasingly troubled by the tunnel-visioned approach to fitness that most personal trainers and other industry professionals exhibit. More often than not, the only goals mentioned are weight loss, “toning” (which most people don’t realise is achieved by losing fat whilst building a smaller amount of muscle than you’d see on the cover of Flex magazine) and creating the “ideal” body.
What is an ideal body? An amateur CrossFit enthusiast probably displays a more “ideal” body than an Olympic shot-putter or even some of the best swimmers in the world, but I bet the latter two wouldn’t dream of swapping their precision-tuned physique for one that turns more heads in a tank top. Then again, remember Rebecca Adlington’s body image issues? How are we living in a world where somebody whose body performs to the highest level it is capable of does not feel comfortable with their own physique?
I am saddened that anyone who has dedicated their lives to people’s health and wellbeing would focus only on the appearance of their clients’ physique. We have a duty as personal trainers to get people fitter and healthier – for many, this does mean losing a little bit of body fat; for some it might mean building some muscle mass to prevent or rehab injury; for others it might simply be to reconnect them with their bodies.
I’m not saying that as personal trainers we should lecture every client who expresses a desire to lose some body fat on how beauty comes from within. But an individual who is comfortable with their shape and size exercises far more efficiently and consistently, and eats far more sensibly, than one who believes their body is worthless.
This particularly resonates with me at the moment as I have been leaner and I have been fitter. I believe this is a side-effect of my restraining myself from returning to my passion which is Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) in order to focus on other things in my life at the moment. I would love to go back to training for 90 minutes 5-6 days a week, but while that was all well and good for a low-level employee in a 9-5 job who could run away at home time and forget the day’s trials in a blur of forward rolls, sweat, and heavy cotton, it’s not quite so applicable for a newly self-employed personal trainer who wants to focus on delivering the best service to each client.
I miss BJJ for the sport itself, but a part of me also misses those heavy doses of strength and cardio it gave me, making it effortless to maintain my “ideal” physique. However, I can’t deny that I feel healthier than I have in years. I am not constantly exhausted, I wake up without a sore throat and blocked nose far more frequently than I used to, and I am not plagued by various skin infections. I don’t spend my day worrying about what to eat when and which train I need to catch to get to training on time, and trips away to visit family aren’t wrought with the stress of missing training. I can make slightly more spontaneous and regular plans with friends, and I get home with enough time to actually speak to Ben.
Nevertheless, I am possibly stronger than I have ever been. Surely though, surely I must be far less fit, and yet I was able to run for an hour (then another 30 minutes and 20 minutes with a short bout of walking) with no shortness of breath and at a faster pace than I ever had for that length of time.
So I have to conclude that I am fit and healthy, I am strong, I am nowhere near being overweight by any standard, my clothes fit well and I am generally pretty well-proportioned. And yet there are an infinite number of exercises or sports you could throw at me that would finish me off – but then again, at my fittest and strongest and most aesthetically pleasing I wouldn’t have outlifted a bodybuilder, and I certainly can never see myself winning a running or cycling race. While at times I have been terrifyingly efficient on a cross-trainer and held my own on the dreaded VersaClimber, the mere thought of a 500m effort on a rowing machine has always made me feel nauseous.
I have to ask again: what is an ideal body? Is it the one that looks the best – and if so, who is judging? Is it the one that performs the best – and if so, what is being asked of it? Who are any of us to judge what body anyone else should have?
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that losing weight is not a valid goal. Aside from positive health benefits associated with lower weight, improved self-esteem is a vital component of happiness and wellbeing. While it would be great if media could stop hammering us with notions of aesthetic ideals, it’s not going to happen overnight and for many, the damage is already done. So as a personal trainer I have no problem helping people lose a little bit of weight that causes them anguish, whilst ensuring that their bodies become ever more efficient and healthier overall.
Moreover, it is irresponsible of personal trainers to claim that anybody can achieve the body of their dreams. Firstly, this comes with the unspoken notion that the reason you don’t possess the body of your dreams is because you haven’t tried hard enough yet. Secondly, factors such as age, gender, genetics, and medical conditions along with often unrealistic expectations can mean it is often impossible to completely resolve the two.
Everyone can become fitter, stronger, healthier, and happier. Can everyone become Mr or Ms Olympia? Or Rihanna? Or Rich Froning? Well… no. Sorry. Even just thinking about those four physiques du jour you can see how wildly different they all are, so I hope you understand it is logic rather than cynicism or pessimism which makes me declare it impossible for many people to achieve many physiques.
With a shift in emphasis away from “emaciated” bodies (i.e. low muscle, low body fat) towards “lean” or “toned” bodies (i.e. moderate-high muscle, low body fat), many people have been fooled into thinking that society has become more accepting of different shapes and sizes. In fact, it has just singled out a new must-have body type. While it may look healthier, it both hides and creates just as many unhealthy relationships with food, exercise, and life in general.
If you truly believe that losing weight is the one thing that will make you an all-round healthier and happier individual, by all means pursue that goal. But remember that your achievements in life are not limited to your body fat percentage figure, how much you can lift, or how far or fast you can run – and be wary of any personal trainer or any other individual who makes you feel like they are the benchmarks that define you as a person.