Dear Personal Trainer,
I bet you a significant amount of money (*checks bank account*, an entire British pound), that you will have said at least one of the following to a room full of people giving you disgusted looks as you announce another set of burpees:
- Keep going, think of the calories you're burning!
- You're earning your dinner
- Pain is temporary!
- If you stop now, you're only cheating yourself
- Excuses don't burn calories
- Blitz those bingo wings
- You don't get abs like mine without hard work
- No pain, no gain
These vary in efficacy. I've definitely unleashed a few of these and once I found a girl cowering behind a pile of mats in the corner as I coaxed a fitness class through an obscene number of burpees (true story... clearly my motivational phrases weren't quite hitting the mark). Over the years, I've started re-evaluating these generic and throw-away comments that seem to echo through the spin studios and across gym floors around the country. They do more damage than good. And frankly, it is lazy on the part of PTs - come up with some original and fun motivation as opposed to falling back on the age old body shaming tactics.
I have spent years working really hard to establish a healthy relationship with exercise and food but this effort has often been compromised by unwitting PTs and fitness instructors who have absolutely no idea about the consequences of their words during sessions or classes. Standing at the front of a studio, you have no idea what the people in front of you are going through. Even if you see the same faces week after week, you are unlikely to have more than a very shallow understanding of who they are, what their history is, what is going on with their mental health, and what their reason for attending is. Not once, in 8 years of gym membership and class attendance have I ever been asked by a PT or instructor about the nutrition side of my training. I'm not saying that if I had, it would have changed much, but perhaps if the trainer shouting at me about getting rid of my love handles or telling me to keep working to 'earn' my dinner had had an ounce of awareness that I was exercising having not eaten for 72 hours, she might have changed tactic.
It's not the responsibility of a PT to diagnose eating disorders, nor monitor nutritional intake of their clients or people at the gym (unless that's part of an agreed plan). It's not the gym's responsibility to prevent anyone with an eating disorder or a dodgy relationship with food from entering the building. But it is the responsibility of a PT to understand the potential impact of the words that come out of their mouth. Whether or not shouting about getting 'bikini-body ready' results in people pushing themselves harder through the last 15 seconds of mountain climbers or not, it perpetuates and reinforces the message that becoming thin is the most important reason for exercising, and also insinuates that no one in the room is already 'bikini-body ready'. (Every body is bikini-body ready. Just put on the bloomin' bikini gal.)
A few students at Bristol Uni - big up my alma mater, brought this issue to the fore when they passed a motion in June which commits the Sport, Exercise and Health staff, societies and external fitness instructors to 'undertake training around the harmful impact of weight stigma, diet culture and fatphobic language throughout student life and to develop a greater understanding of eating disorders.' The rather wonderful Abbie Jessop explains:
An example of diet culture would be: ‘let’s burn some calories’.
An example of fatphobic language would be ‘let’s slim those waists’.
This rhetoric is common in the fitness industry but is harmful to both those with eating disorders and those at risk of developing eating disorders. It communicates the toxic ideals of diet culture, notably that thin equals health and exercise is only a compensatory activity to burn calories. Not only are these incorrect, but viewing our bodies according to such ideals that revolve around food and exercise perpetuates weight stigma.
Furthermore, weight stigma is associated with a plethora of damaging outcomes which include:
greater body dissatisfaction;
an increased risk of disordered eating;
increased risks of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem;
lower rates of physical activity; and
greater eating in response to stigma in controlled trials.
The Sun and the Daily Mail picked up the story and published some laughable statements including:
'BRISTOL university fitness trainers could be banned from using "fatphobic" phrases like "work off last night's pizza".
Sport and exercise staff at the university will have to undergo training to avoid offending overweight people.'
Obviously I am not about to launch into a critique of the articles, it would be an absolute waste of breath/finger typing muscles. Nevertheless, the derision and utter-stupidity being emitted from this article is plain to see. Don't listen to Pierce Morgan - Abbie I think you're absolutely brilliant. Students at Bristol with an eating disorder (around 20%....) will undoubtedly benefit from this motion, as well as any student at risk of developing an eating disorder in the future. Also, so will everyone else because chipping away at societal expectations surrounding body image, athleticism and weight can only be a good thing. I do think it's fairly shocking that this issue hasn't really been raised before. When I completed my Level 2 and Level 3 PT qualifications, there was barely a mention of eating disorders, despite people with eating disorders probably becoming some of the most common clients for PTs.
I was also going to introduce the one and only ProjectHB (my unreal friend Carly) and also Leah Newton (my other now-real friend) and their project WorkED Out. This is already getting fairly long and I want to be able to give them the attention they truly deserve so I will wait to properly talk about their work and how they've both made such an impact on my health and my life in another blog post. But since their campaign is rooted in this particular space, I wanted to acknowledge their pioneering work here briefly. WorkED Out's mission is to 'empower fitness professionals to educate themselves in recognising, approaching & referring clients with eating disorders.'
Carly first introduced me to the concept of exercising and working out for FUN! Her classes are genuinely so enjoyable and I often work my abs more from laughing than from the crunches and sit-ups that we do. Never does she tell her clients to push harder to burn through those extra calories, never has she ever said anything like 'sweat is just your fat cells crying' (*disgusted eyeroll*), never has she ever mentioned weightloss in a class. But do people come back every week? Yep. Does she have a loyal following? Yep. Do people feel liberated and happy and free from the insidious pressures within the fitness industry and space? Yep. Has she changed my life? Yep!
So, dear Personal Trainer, thank for reading. Hopefully this has made you think. Perhaps you have genuinely never considered that you might be encountering people with eating disorders on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Perhaps you have also been indoctrinated by society's relentless promotion of unrealistic fitness and beauty standards. Perhaps you have been more focused on ensuring your clients hit their weight loss goals than building up their self-esteem, fitness and body confidence. Do you measure your success as a PT on the basis of your clients' transformation photos? Do you share these photos in order to promote yourself to potential clients?
From one PT (with a long history of eating disorders) to another, please come up with a more original, compassionate, and effective way of working with your clients. It's not hard, but it is revolutionary.
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