by Beth Yarzab
You don’t need to fix your body, but it’s understandable if you think you do.
We are bombarded with messages that can trigger body dissatisfaction, every single day. It’s no surprise that you, or your clients, may be seeking ways to change your body shape. Many people are on a quest to adapt their bodies to align with the image our culture portrays as healthy, fit, and beautiful, even when that image is unattainable for most.
The pursuit of body transformation or a next-level fitness goal can become endless for both fitness professionals and the clients they aim to help. When rebounds happen, such as regaining weight, or losing muscle mass, body shame can creep in.
The story we hear in the media, and even from well-intentioned loved ones, is that to be appreciated and valued in society, we must constantly chase ways to “improve” our physique.
We all face incredible pressure to maintain the “mythical ideal” body type that is celebrated in our culture. With a desire to achieve a thin, muscular, or lean body figure ideal, we evaluate ourselves against unrealistic standards. This drive towards the unrealistic often leads to body appearance pressure and body dissatisfaction.
While the fitness industry is an incredibly positive sector, backed by the good intention of promoting wellness, the industry also contributes to negative body image issues, weight bias, stigma, and discrimination.
You may be familiar with what a negative body image feels like, either from personal experience or from working with clients who struggle. But what are weight bias, stigma, and discrimination?
Weight Bias can be defined as:
Negative attitudes towards, and beliefs about, others because of their weight. (Andreyeva et al, Obesity 2008).
A definition for Weight Stigma is:
Social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape. (Tomiyama et al, BMC Medicine 2018).
Weight Discrimination can occur when social stereotypes and personal biases lead to treating people at higher weights unfairly.
Our cultural preoccupation with body size, something we consider regularly when working in the fitness industry, contributes to weight bias, stigma, and discrimination. These issues can show up in the assumptions we make about higher weight clients and participants, including:
- commitment level
- comfort and experience in a gym space
Weight bias and stigma are also channeled through those of us with thin or fit privilege (being treated better, and/or having more power, due to body type or access to physical activity). We may feel fearful about gaining weight or seeing our bodies change as we age. This can occur at a subconscious level, fueled by the discrimination that people in larger bodies often face. Higher weight individuals are less likely to receive important health screenings for early detection of disease. They are less likely to be hired or promoted. Higher weight individuals face discrimination in all areas of life as well as harassment about body size, physical activity, and food choices that can lead to mental health issues.
Research demonstrates that despite the massive number of people who have attempted weight loss over the past 40 years, people living with the BMI category of obesity has increased approximately three-fold. Focussing on weight loss has not prevented weight gain (Gaesser and Angadi 2021).
Contributing to this issue is the prevalence of weight gain that occurs during repeated efforts to lose weight. Frequent episodes of losing and regaining weight, termed as weight cycling, has negative health consequences including increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases (Montani, Shutz and Dulloo 2015); pre-occupation with food, exercise, and body size that distract from other health determinants; low self-esteem and body image; eating disorders; weight stigma and discrimination (Bacon 2010).
Weight Neutral vs. Weight Loss Programming
A Weight Neutral approach is about supporting clients in sustainable behaviour change and enjoyable activity while detaching from a weight loss outcome. This approach recognizes that lifestyle changes in the areas of exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management are enough to improve health, regardless of if weight is lost. Having a neutral opinion about body size and shape shifts the programming outcomes away from appearance-based goals to habits that are often more maintainable for clients.
Being a weight neutral fitness professional means rejecting weight, size, and BMI as measures of health. We can focus instead on the more accurate indicators of health – such as Blood Pressure, Resting Heart Rate, and overall habits.
Weight loss isn’t a behaviour; it can be an outcome of behaviour – but not always. There are numerous variables that contribute to an individual’s weight and body size, so coaching clients with the old “calories in, calories out” model is not helpful. Calorie deficit programming often places blame on the client and their choices when weight is regained and pushes people into a negative spiral of shame and feelings of “failure”.
Moving to a weight neutral philosophy isn’t easy. We have clients and participants who want to lose weight and we should never discredit their goal. Fitness professionals do have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to meet clients where they are at while helping to reframe appearance goals into performance or quality of life pursuits. This means celebrating the non-scale victories and praising behaviours such as exercise adherence, not the body composition changes that can occur when someone starts a fitness program.
Recognize that there is a high likelihood that clients in calorie deficit will regain weight. This occurs when the body fights against starvation mode with higher levels of hunger and slower metabolism.
Being transparent with clients that this process is biology and not their “fault” can protect against future weight cycling. Even if weight is regained, their training progress in the areas of cardiorespiratory health, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and mobility are still wins. Emphasizing the intrinsic value of physical activity may help a client avoid the “failures” of weight cycling which are associated with a weight-centric approach (Gaesser and Angadi 2021). A weight neutral approach to fitness, and health, can help a client develop more trust in their body, instead of seeing their body as something to fight or control.
Our society has perpetuated the assumption that people in larger bodies are unhealthy and people in smaller bodies are healthy. A weight neutral approach helps to dismantle that myth and influences fitness experiences that are kinder, more welcoming, and inclusive.