The Chicken and Egg of Physique Goals and the Fitness Profession

I was listening to a conversation between a couple of trainers this week, and they commented that most of the clients who come in to see them do so because they want to improve their physiques. The main goal is fat loss, building muscle or both. And it sounded to me that the unspoken argument was, “we’re not promoting diet culture, we’re just providing the service that people are asking for.” Which, in the immediate example, I think is probably true. I can believe that the vast majority of folks walking into a gym or signing up for personal training are looking to change the appearance of their bodies first, and then after that in importance, perhaps also improve some health markers, reduce chronic pain, whatever.

AND I want to ask why is this the reason people come in to train? Yes, maybe it is currently that way, but should it be? And who isn’t showing up because that message doesn’t resonate with them? Who is being excluded by a culture that is built upon physique goals? For all the people who brave going into a trainer with a weight loss goal, how many people are out there not engaging in fitness because of the focus on weight loss? And how many people are being excluded because they don’t believe their trainer will respect them regardless of their size?

And there are many healthy reasons for us to exercise that have nothing to do with changing our body size. One of my favorite speakers on this subject is Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who is a doctor and obesity specialist in Canada. Here is a video of him speaking with physical education teachers about the non-fat loss benefits of exercise.

I recognize that I could be called out as a hypocrite on this subject. After all, didn’t I recently post about physique goals and considering myself a “bro?” Yes and yes. But if you think it’s hypocritical for me to discuss physique goals while also expressing concern that we are over-emphasizing physique reasons for training, I would like to kindly suggest you’re approaching the issue in too black-and-white a fashion. I think it can be both-and. I’m not asking fitness pros and trainers to NEVER talk about fat loss, muscle gain or body recomposition. I just don’t want them to assume it’s the goal or that it’s a healthy goal for everyone. I want them to let their clients take the lead, and I want them to point out other benefits at least as often as the physique benefits the trainee may be hoping to attain. That’s why I also talked about what really motivates me to keep lifting, which is mostly the mental and non-physique physical benefits–feeling better in my body, not just about my body.

If we can create a culture around fitness that allows the client to define the goals and benchmarks for success, we open up the field of fitness to more people. I want to believe that all of us who love physical activity are hoping to share that joy with others, and most of us do not find it intrinsically motivating simply to have visible abs. These are truly unfulfilling goals in the long run. Don’t we want people to find the joy of movement, the power and empowerment of strength, and the ease of living in a healthier body that is accustomed to regular use?

So how do we(2) make that shift if most clients are coming in with physique goals? Maybe start by asking your clients what their goals are and really dig into the deeper whys. Even if they say they want fat loss, what is the deeper meaning of that to them–better self-confidence? Less pain in their joints? Improved health to keep up with a grandchild? When you’re motivating and pushing your clients to perform, consider encouraging them to focus on the positive feelings in the moment and afterwards of accomplishment and empowerment. Please avoid making negative or combative comments about bodies like “let’s tackle those thighs” or “goodbye batwings.”(1) Check in with your clients regularly to see how they’re feeling–is the work helping them to actually feel better in their bodies or does it feel like punishment? And while we’re talking about it, let’s please avoid the “you ate it, negate it” trope always and forever.

If we only sell exercise and fitness as tools of fat loss and physique attainment, it seems to me only logical that only folks looking for those changes will be comfortable seeking out exercise and fitness resources. Whether or not current fitness professionals are responsible for this focus is really beside the point. We live in a world where we are told the most salient reasons for exercise is to change the appearance of our bodies, and unless we all start talking about it in a more nuanced way, we’re leaving out folks who for a wide variety of reasons do not have those goals. As far as I’m concerned, there are healthy and appropriate reasons to have physique goals, and there are healthy and appropriate reasons not to. We’re all healthier for enjoying regular physical activity, and it’s on us to help people celebrate all the positive outcomes along the way.

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Have thoughts on how we can make fitness more inclusive for folks with other goals besides physique change? I’d love to hear from you! (Here is our comment policy)

(1) Both actual “motivational” quotes I’ve heard from trainers or fitness instructors.

(2) I’m an educator, not a trainer, but I still feel it is my responsibility to be very mindful of my use of language around health and fitness goals. Most of the students I work with have absorbed the cultural norm to assume the primary purpose of exercise is physique management, and I’m always working to counteract this narrative and emphasize other benefits when I can.

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