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10 tips for the body positive fitness professional

I've been thinking a lot recently about what it takes to put all this body positive stuff into action, as a trainer. So I thought I would share some thoughts because that can be useful.

It's something I am very mindful of, when I talk to clients, or when I write about what I do, and I thought it might be helpful to break some of it down, for my own reference. Like ground rules if you will. Not because rules are essential, but because having a clear "policy" on these things makes it easier - the less individual decisions I have to make in a day, the better my day is! So here goes.

1. Never assume that a potential client wants to change the way their body looks.

It's a super-easy trap to fall into. If someone who is not particularly lean approaches a trainer for nutrition advice, statistically, they probably wanted to know about fat loss. We meet so many people who want to know about that, it becomes a reflexive response.

But it also sniffs a little of some big assumptions.

I couldn't tell you how many times I have heard a woman relate a tale of how she was strength training happily in the gym, and a trainer approached her offering to help her "shed those extra pounds". Pounds she was perfectly comfortable with until that moment. It's really common in fitness for women to be offered weight loss as the default. Why not be original and go for something else?

So why not do what good coaches do best? Ask an open, neutral question, and really listen.

Which leads me into the next point....

2. Never assume the client's goals

For business and marketing reasons, we tend to categorise our clients. It helps us understand how to reach out to people. Most trainers have a niche or a few areas they know they work best with (mine is diet survivors, pre/postnatal women and chronic pain/hypermobility). But once those people have turned from possibilities to, well, real people it's time to start listening to them.

I was reminded of this recently on a trainers group, where someone asked a question about a new client, who was a transgender woman, wanting to know if there was anything they should consider. Many of the replies immediately went to things like working on aesthetics: working glutes, laying off arms....building a more stereotypically female shape. But it was never stated that she was interested in aesthetics. Perhaps she was happy with her shape. Perhaps she wanted to be healthier, or improve her athletic performance.

To look at a client and assume that they want to work on a particular area means voicing a judgement that you have deemed that area somehow lacking. Let them tell you what they want to change, then you can decide where to go from there. Very few people have ever stood before a personal trainer and said "OK, this is me, what do you want to change". So we shouldn't be responding as if they did.

"I'm training fluffy"

3. Or their motivations

Let's imagine we have a bunch of people and they all want to "lose weight". Why?

  • They want to look a certain way or fit into a particular outfit
  • They want to feel better about themselves
  • They feel physically uncomfortable with their size
  • They have been told by their doctor that they should lose weight for health reasons
  • They are into rock climbing and want to improve their power:weight ratio
  • They need to cut body fat for physique competition
  • They are competing in a sport that requires them to meet a weight class restriction

Each of these instances would need to be treated differently, both in programming strategies and coaching methodology.

4. Don't tell a client how to feel about their body

I received an email the other day, from a company that specialises in female body transformation (that's a really fancy way of saying weight loss). The email was trying to encourage women to sign onto their programme, by telling them how awful it would be to stay as they are. It used phrases such as "flabby and miserable". I had to go and have a lie down until the wrath dissipated.

Don't tell people how their body makes them feel. If they feel badly in their body, they know it, so why not tell them how they might feel *after* being on the programme. If they weren't feeling badly, well, they either are now, or they are really angry and just unsubscribed.

5. Don't speak negatively about a client's body, past or present

Most fitness professionals have enough tact not to stand in front of a client and point out their flaws. I say "most" because I have seen it happen, and it's as cringeworthy as it sounds.

It's really easy though to slip up when you are looking at progress photographs or before/after images. I have a bit of discomfort with before/after images. They can be a great tool and a great source of pride, but it's so important to remember that the person in the before picture is a real person too, and they deserve respect.

As someone who has been through some major weight changes myself, I find it quite awkward when I'm told how much "better" I look, because it implies that there was something wrong with me before, but people weren't mentioning it like it was some terrible secret.

Also there is always the chance that they might put weight on again at some point.

6. Speak positively about all kinds of bodies

It's that classic thing, you say mean things about one person, and other people start to wonder what you say about them. Being non-judgemental about people's bodies is a universal commitment. It means being compassionate to your client, to people in the media and to yourself.

If all else fails remember: If you've nothing nice to say, say nothing.

7. Avoid using derogatory language about body shapes.

Our culture is full of all kinds of awful ways to refer to body parts and make use feel bad about them. Using them reinforces a lot of cultural body shaming and a lot of negative self-talk in a client.

Using straightforward, neutral language sounds more professional and models a more forgiving attitude.

8. Be prepared to coach body positive patterns to clients.

Often clients start out with some shocking things to say about themselves. Sometimes they have habits that reinforce negative feelings they have about their bodies, like reading certain magazines.

Drawing their attention to this, and encouraging practices that can help them develop a healthier mindset. Using the right kind of praise and encouragement can draw attention to the progress they are making, and add real value to their achievements.

9. Be supportive of diversity in fitness

Images in the fitness industry are notoriously one dimensional. Making sure that people of different shape, size, age, gender and race get to see people like them, smashing their fitness is a real passion of mine.

Stock photo galleries are full of the notorious slim blonde in a sports bra. Ads in gyms are covered in lean, shredded (dehydrated, photoshopped...) models. And they are lovely, but not everyone can look like that, and not everyone *wants* to look like that.

So I make a point of hunting down the images of more diverse fit people, and sharing the achievements of athletes and fitness role models from all kinds of backgrounds.

Good health is for everyone, so lets look at all kinds of people doing what they love doing to be healthy.

10. Keep working at it.

Body shaming is rife in our culture, from the "circles of shame" in gossip mags to the doctors who tell overweight patients to lose weight before they will entertain that their problems might come from elsewhere. When you are surrounded by it, it becomes part of you and it's hard to break away from.

Slip ups happen. I've often caught myself talking to clients, or running a live cast and realised that I have said something culturally stereotypical rather than staying on track for my ethos. Every day is a new practice, if we keep chipping away, we can forge a more accepting world for all of us.

My nutrition coaching and programmes are all built around a body positive ethos - check them out!


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