Developing Positive Body Image: Using Psychology in the Gym

One challenge you can expect to face in your career as a personal trainer will be the disparity between clients who feel very confident in their own skin and clients who face a lot of body dissatisfaction. When these clients approach you with body image issues, or when you notice them yourselves, you may feel like it’s not your responsibility to address it, or that you are not equipped to talk to someone about their body image.

That couldn’t be more false. As a health professional, you can be a source of strength to your clients who need to hear truth about the unattainable appearance they may be pursuing. There are a few ways that you can educate, motivate, inspire, empower, and encourage your clients towards a healthy body image. Psychology is one of the best places to start.

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Psychologist Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory is one that is becoming well known in the health and wellness industry. With cognitive dissonance, we can see a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions. When there is an inconsistency or dissonance between attitudes and behaviors, changes need to be made to eliminate the dissonance. When there is a dissonance between attitudes and behaviors it is most likely that attitudes will change to accommodate the behaviors.

This may sound abstract, but you can probably see plenty of examples of cognitive dissonance in your client interactions. For example, you have a female client who says a statement such as, “even though I exercise regularly, I feel so fat.” The problem here is that her attitude is that she is unhealthy, but her behavior reflects that she is engaging in healthy behaviors. There is a dissonance between the two.

Another example would be a male client who says a statements such as, “I feel good about my fitness level as a distance runner, but I started lifting heavy weights because girls don’t like runners.” The problem here is that his attitude is that he enjoys running, but his behavior reflects that running isn’t important to him. These conflicting thoughts and behaviors can sometimes lead to disordered eating, and unhealthy relationships with exercise. Can you see now why this may be a problem for body image?
Most of us have an image in our minds or in front of us (via social media, film, friend groups etc.) of the ideal appearance of a man or a woman. Some people are highly motivated to reach this appearance ideal. For women, it may be to look like a photo-shopped version of Jennifer Aniston. For men it may be to look like someone on the cover of a Calvin Klein catalog.

To some of you, this may sound like a righteous motivation to exercise and eat healthy, but the problem is that this ideal appearance is not attainable, sustainable, or healthy. These photo-shopped, airbrushed versions of people aren’t attainable. Even if your client achieves their ideal appearance, they aren’t likely to be satisfied and stop there. There will always be more improvements to be made and flaws to fix, and that is not the life of someone who has a healthy body image.

So what can you do to help your clients develop a healthy body image?
1. Ask Questions that Reveal Dissonance

Helping your clients to see the inconsistencies in their thoughts and behaviors will help them to realize why they may be struggling with body dissatisfaction. You can start by asking questions like:

What do you think the ideal man/woman looks like?

Where did this appearance ideal come from?

What will it cost you to pursue this ideal?

These kinds of questions will help them to realize that the ideal is man-made, unattainable, and costly.

2. Help to Develop a New Set of Attitudes and Behaviors

Help them explore ways to resist pressures to conform to an appearance ideal. For example, suggest that they:

-Stop looking at so many fashion magazines

-Spend less time on social media

Discuss how to challenge personal body-related concerns. For example, suggest that they:

-Stop making negative comments about their body

-Start complimenting themselves for attributes that they love

Help them learn to talk more positively about their bodies and respond to future pressures to conform to an appearance ideal:

-Write kind notes to others

-Develop more positive body-talk in the workplace

-Empowering their friends to develop a better body image

3. Make Your Training Space a Safe Space

-Be mindful of the way that you talk about your own body as a trainer. You are the example.

-If you have your own training space, place encouraging posters or notes with quotes that encourage body satisfaction and health.

-Celebrate your clients for achievements that aren’t related to their appearance.

-Redirect negative body-talk.
You may not be able to change every client into some that absolutely loves themselves and showers everyone else with compliments. You may even struggle with body image as a personal trainer, but it’s never too late to start shifting your perspective and learning to have a healthier mind and body.

 

Do you have more thoughts about body image and fitness? Come share it with us on the NFPT Facebook Page. If you’re an NFPT Trainer, join the community group, it’s where other trainers like you get connected.

About the Author:

Hanna Danielson A.S. in Exercise Science. She is a Kinesiology and Health Promotion student at the University of Wyoming. She has over two years of experience working in wellness, experience as an intern in the areas of senior citizen strength and conditioning, and has made contributions to LiveWell. Hanna’s greatest passion is working with people who want to better themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. She believes that we are all stronger than we think and she aspires to extend patience, communication, knowledge, self-motivation, and confidence to her clients to help them discover their strength. For more from Hanna, connect on social media: @hdfaithfitness