The attention personal trainers have historically given their clients was primarily physical. With increasing light cast on toxic diet culture and body dysmorphia, nurturing clients’ healthy mindset and cultivating body respect is increasingly becoming part and parcel of the fit pro’s role as a health and fitness coach.
The health and fitness industry from its inception has focused on the health-related fitness components of cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular endurance and strength, flexibility, and body composition. Contemporary training parameters that we measure and focus on today expound upon and even transcend the physical. Now, we prioritize behavior change, postural stability, mobility, daily function, balance, agility, speed and power, movement efficiency, and metabolic markers. In short, the job of a health and exercise professional has grown exponentially and continues to evolve.
One of the hot topics in the industry right now is body respect. This should come to no surprise to any trainer. How often have you been working with a client who has said, “I am fat,” or “I need to lose X pounds,” or “I wish my calves were bigger,” etc.?
Follow-up question, how many of you, as professionals, have had these same or similar self-deprecating thoughts? I’m betting we’ve all been there and still go there from time to time. These thoughts are heavily influenced by diet culture and the fat-phobic, perfection-glorifying messages that underpin that culture and its practices.
While we (most likely) will not completely eradicate diet culture (ahhh, to dream), we can help combat it by helping clients practice strategies that support body respect. We have the skills to help clients recognize cognitive distortions, shift their mindset, and modify the language they use to refer to themselves (we also have the power to do this for ourselves).
Body Respect Strategies
Honor hunger: One “red flag” of diet culture is the notion of restriction and “taking away.” This often leads to muting or ignoring the body’s natural hunger cues. Over time, the body becomes desensitized when those cues are not respected or honored. The simple message is this: honor the hunger cues and reach for a well-balanced snack or meal. Choosing to marry carbohydrates with protein and some healthy fat is more satiating than eating any of those macros alone.
Take breaks: At some point in human existence, we were taught that rest is a reward, and that productivity is the goal. Neither is true. Taking breaks is part of recovery and healing. We need physical breaks from exercise and mental breaks from the noise of the day. For your clients, integrate rest days into their program design and encourage mindful mental breaks throughout the day.
Wear clothes that make you feel good: The fashion industry is almost as frustrating as the diet industry. What’s “in” and “hot” is not for everybody or every body. We spend far too much time trying to fit a socially prescribed mold. For example, high-waisted jeans are a thing. I don’t understand and will never understand why they are a thing. I tried them. I hated them. I’m 5’2”, ergo wearing high-waisted jeans means my entire body except for my neck, is in the jeans. Just because it’s “in” does not mean it will make you feel good. Select items that make you feel confident.
Move in a way that feels good: Our goal as health and exercise professionals is to encourage people to move more, sit less, enjoy balanced nutrition, sleep, manage stress, and stay hydrated. Exercise and physical activity are two different concepts – one is planned and structured; the other is the opposite. Both are valuable. Both have a purpose. Clients should feel encouraged to engage in the type of movement that feels good, energizing, and progressive. Teach clients how to integrate more movement throughout the day with short activity breaks.
Cleanse your social media: This is the type of cleanse most everyone needs – a social media cleanse. So many negative and de-motivating messages are woven throughout the feeds we scroll through each day. Social media is also heavily image-based, and we see the insta-fit-fluencers and so-called “gurus” posing in booty shorts and shirtless pictures. The before and after pictures that tell us “it is not ok to change over time” are in no short supply. Encourage clients to take an inventory of what is in their social media feeds, what serves them, and what detracts from their joy. Then, unfollow.
Practice journaling: Journaling is an excellent reflective practice that allows for the processing of information and experiences. It also allows an individual to hit pause and really think about how they feel and what they need. Encourage clients to practice a daily reflection where they focus on how they feel (related to food, activity, stress, social, and sleep) and what wins they had for the day or week. Check-in with them at the next session and ask them to share their discoveries.
Set intentions: When I work with a client or teach a group fitness class, I like to take a minute at the beginning and ask each person to set an intention such as “to feel strong,” “to let go,” “to feel refreshed,” “to unwind,” etc. Then, at the end of the session, we take a minute to evaluate how connected we were to the intention we set and how that intention served us during the workout. The intention drives focus and supports connecting with a feeling or process rather than physical appearance or body image.
Our responsibilities transcend developing a workout program with appropriate reps, sets, and exercises. We have an opportunity to teach clients that being healthy and well includes more than physical attributes or achievements. The words we use to describe ourselves have power. Teach clients to treat their bodies like a temple and they will achieve greater success in all areas of wellness.