When I tell people that I am a Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach, the conversation inevitably turns to weight loss.
When I started out my business, I was told that I should gear my advertising towards weight loss, because that's what people are looking for, even if it's a case of drawing them in with a short term fix and turning that into a long term programme.
One of my specialisms is nutrition, and that brings the automatic assumption that dieting and weight loss is my bag.
And for a long while, I have had this uncomfortable juggling act going on. Knowing that my credentials and ability to help people lose weight is valued, but also knowing that this isn't how I feel comfortable operating.
You see, I don't appreciate weight loss as a singular goal. Eating more nutritious food and moving towards a healthier weight, yes, love that. Doing more of the exercise and activities that you love and finding you need a size smaller jeans? Smashing. Centring a diet and exercise regime around reaching an "ideal" weight. Sorry. Not for me.
What's wrong with weight loss?
Well, I'm not against weight loss. I'm still very happy for the weight I lost, because it made me feel better and helped a lot with my health, and I feel there's value in that for a lot of people.
The issue I have with "weight loss", is the prioritisation of aesthetics, a dress size, a scale weight, over genuine health.
When I studied to become a personal trainer, the first thing we did, was learn a definition of health, which was then broken down into categories, like:
- Physical health
- Medical health
- Emotional health
- Social health
- Spiritual health
- Environmental health
As a fitness professional, it is generally my scope to focus on the first, but like any good coach, I believe a holistic approach gives better results. More importantly, I consider it very important to avoid any detrimental effect on any aspect of my clients' health.
The front line of preventative healthcare.
Several years ago I remember listening to a leading coach being interviewed on a podcast. What stuck with me was when he described fitness professionals as "the front line of preventative healthcare".
Coaching nutrition often leads to weight loss, often dramatically so, but the purpose is to bring the client's habits closer to a diet proven to lead to good health. If someone is eating their protein, veggies and complex carbs, minimal processed food and getting their daily active time in - that's great. That's the goal. If they happen to have a BMI over 25 or the ability to "pinch an inch", I find it hard to be concerned.
Exercise has incredible health benefits, we shouldn't be writing it off as a route to getting smaller. "Getting back to the gym" should be an exciting prospect, not a punishment for taking up too much space in the world.
There's increasing amounts of evidence that weight, and BMI are not the indicators of health that we thought they were. It's healthier to be active and overweight, than sedentary and a "healthy weight". Losing weight and regaining it, common with "quick fix" diets, carries many health risks.
If we want to consider health, we have to consider the bigger picture, and I don't feel like I am really helping a client if I accept their request for weight loss at all costs.
Let's look at some real examples (paraphrased and based on questions from many potential weight-loss clients):
Client 1: "Sometimes I feel like eating a chocolate bar, and all I can think about is the chocolate bar, I can't concentrate on anything else. What should I do when that happens?"
Me: "eat some chocolate".
WHY WOULD I SAY THAT? Surely this runs contrary to this person's goals, how is this helpful? Well, this is the thing. It's not helpful to their weight loss goal. But this individual is describing a disordered attitude towards food. A craving that affects their ability to function to a point that concerns me. I'm not going to get a client bikini-stage lean like this, but taking care of my clients' mental health and cultivating healthy feelings about food is part of my core ethos.
I know some great physique trainers, who are comfortable with guiding committed people through the process of achieving their goals while safeguarding them to ensure that obsession doesn't become pathological. I'm happy to refer people to them if that's their goal. My comfort zone is in helping clients to reframe the way they view their body, and learn to love the body that allows them to enjoy the life they want to live.
Client 2: "I want to lose 5 lbs to get back to the weight I was 20 years ago. I'm on 1200 calories a day (I weigh everything, I'm good at this, I've tracked calories for 15 years now), I go to the gym every day. I want to do more, but I'm just so tired".
Now this client is in great shape. 5lbs from your nulparious weight when you're perimenopausal is nothing short of a miracle. What I want to say is "you're amazing, you are committed and you work really hard; but you are tired because you are overtraining and undernourished and while I know what it would take to achieve your goal, I'm not willing to put you through that because I won't be responsible for damaging your health. I wish I could take your strength and determination and turn that towards a drive for self care and appreciating just how fabulous you are right now".
Client 3: "I had a stomach bug last week, I felt awful, but I lost an extra pound so I guess it was worth it."
This shouldn't need an explanation, but you have no idea how often I hear it.
My favourite clients
I work with some fabulous people. Mostly I help women, usually mums, who want to get stronger, often because they are recovering from illness, returning to exercise postnatally or living with chronic illness.
I don't track weight.When I trained I learned to use calipers to measure body fat - but remembering how I felt, as a 36 year old mum partnered with a slim, fit 18 year old and knowing I'd have to have my body fat measured that day, I decided I would never put my clients through such an invasive measurement.
I stopped weighing clients within my first months of working as a trainer. They can weigh themselves, but I don't need to keep track. Body measurements and progress photos are optional, I suggest them "for posterity", in case we get curious further down the line.
Fitness for youI'm interested in helping people find ways to feel better in their skin. Elite athletes are amazing, but so are the people who do sports because it makes them happy. Everybody has the right to be active and enjoy their bodies. If you want to get in the gym and lift massive weights, but you happen to be overweight, I'm not going to tell you to lose weight, you do your own thing. If you want to eat better, but still want to eat cake every day. Well, pull up a chair at my table sweetheart because I'm happy to join you.
Maybe the healthy self that comes out of your brilliant, balanced lifestyle isn't Instagram perfect (is anyone?). Maybe you won't look like a fitness model (that's OK, they only look that way for a couple of days at a time, and they are miserable as hell for that duration). What you end up with, is a strong, vital, healthy body and mind, ready to go out and do your best, most badass stuff. That's something I can get behind!
I'm excited when someone contacts me and says "I want to get back into doing cool stuff with kettlebells" or "I want to take better care of myself". My heart sinks when someone says "I want to lose 10 lbs by May".
So I guess I am listening to my heart when I say "I'm sorry, I don't take weight loss clients".
For a long while I have responded to people approaching me about weight loss by explaining my process. I don't create meal plans (no fitpro in the UK should, it's out of scope and they aren't qualified to do so unless they are a registered dietitian on the side), I don't condone long term calorie counting, fad diets, detox or cutting food groups. Generally that conversation goes one way or the other. Either they are relieved to find an approach that doesn't insist they have to focus on their weight or learn a difficult regime, or they are disappointed that I am not offering the magic bullet.
Recently however, my response has become more blunt. If you want to get healthier, stronger and make positive changes in your life, I'm your girl - but I don't take on clients for weight loss.
It's a relief. There are plenty of trainers who will help you get lean. Whether it's a "quick fix" transformation or someone who specialises in physique. I'm not that kind of trainer.
I'm the kind of trainer who helps people celebrate and nurture their bodies. Who understands that "excuses"can actually be "life" and "responsibilities". That most people don't want to dedicate their lives to gym perfection, but they still deserve to be fit and healthy because that serves them. I'm the kind of trainer who recognises that a person's value, or indeed their fitness, has nothing to do with the number on the scale, or how they compare to other people; and that healthy people are happy, striving towards things that they love. And I love supporting people on that journey.