Obese Clients: Are You Meeting Their Real Needs?

by Joy Keller on Aug 23, 2013

Do you think obese people are lazy? Weak-willed? Do you get frustrated when they can’t do what you ask because their girth gets in the way? If you think you know obese clients, think again. We talked to obese (and formerly obese) consumers—and the fitness pros who work with them—to find out how they feel, what they think of the fitness industry and how we can better help them become healthy and vibrant.

Do Fitness Professionals Get It?

“[Fitness professionals] may understand how being 5 or 10 pounds overweight may feel, and how you have to stay on top of that, but few understand the powerlessness experienced by those who are more than 50 pounds overweight,” says Lisa Williams of Lawrenceville, Georgia. “I think it’s difficult for them to realize the self-talk that goes on in an overweight person’s mind [and] that constantly keeps them in a defeated, negative mindset.”

Gwenevere Bridge of Asheville, North Carolina, sees a fundamental disconnection between clients and trainers: “I don’t think most fitness pros have the slightest clue,” she says. “Most of them have always been athletic, and their bodies are light and strong. They spend their time either trying to top their own fitness, by tricking out their routines, or just blithely maintaining a [fit] lifestyle, which is where the overweight person would like to go.” Bridge, who is working with a personal trainer, believes fitness professionals should look at obese bodies as “injured” because of “restrictions” caused by excess fat.

Pat Perretta, whose weight loss path led him to a career as a personal trainer in New York City, says that unless a fitness professional has endured years of emotional turmoil because of obesity, the condition is difficult to understand. “The challenge is not exercise programming; it’s developing a trusting, nonjudgmental, understanding rapport,” he says.

Manning says being obese is like “starting at the bottom of the mountain.” “You make slow gains and most likely hit obstacles and have a few setbacks,” he says. “I was always on top of the mountain looking down, and it's so much easier to say, ‘Come up, you're not that far—it's easy’; but it's not.”

The Often-Overlooked Program Component

When asked about their biggest obstacles to adopting a fitness lifestyle, most people we interviewed didn’t cite lack of motivation, will or time. For many, the emotional aspect of facing a life-threatening condition was their greatest challenge.

Susan Robertson of Lawrenceville, Georgia, lost 130 pounds, but it came at a cost. “The hardest thing was giving up the comfort foods that brought me satisfaction and joy,” she says. “I ate my emotions and became numb to the pain of life. To lose the weight, I had to change how I dealt with my emotions. My trainer says, ‘Don’t eat your emotions; move your emotions.’”

“Think Emotions First”

“The most important thing for trainers to understand—whether the person has been out of shape [his or her] whole life or has gained a significant amount of weight after having been fit—is think emotions first,” says Bridge. “[Obese people] have been crushed. Maybe once, maybe repeatedly. They don’t know your world. They know embarrassment, ridicule, sabotage, abuse and pain. They don’t want any more pain. But truly soft, out-of-shape [clients are] going to know pain again as they become fit. It’s unavoidable. They’ve been running to the couch and the cookie to escape pain, and they have become experts at hiding. If you push them too hard, too fast, without enough kind, fun motivation, they will also run from you and their health again.”

Celeste Reeves, a personal trainer and owner of Functional Fitness Personal Training in Lawrenceville, Georgia, agrees that emotions play a major role in programming for obese clientele. “Those emotions cannot be ignored,” she says. “I recommend my clients with depression or deep issues go to a counselor.”

Reeves advises fitness professionals to complement their degrees and certifications with wellness or lifestyle coaching training. “Getting my certification as a wellness and lifestyle coach has helped me take my personal training to the next level,” she says. “I think anyone who wants to work with obese clients should do wellness coaching. It makes you a better listener. You can’t just tell your clients what you want them to do; you have to ask them what they’re willing to do and then create a plan around that. If they aren’t willing, they aren’t going to do it.”

A New Focus

Like Reeves, many fitness professionals have learned through years of experience how to successfully meet obese people where they are. Their best practices may be the fuel you need to help your clients break through barriers, real or otherwise.

For more practical suggestions, please see “Do Fitness Pros Understand Obese Clients?” in the online IDEA Library or in the July 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fit Tips , Volume 11, Issue 9

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Joy Keller

Joy Keller IDEA Author/Presenter

Joy Keller is executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor, yoga teacher (RYT 200) and Reiki level 3 practitioner.


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  • Natalie K

    Well the comments here are ridiculous. When we see an obese person, we are seeing someone who eats to much and exercises to little and that is that honest fricken truth. Oh you tried dieting and exercise and it didn't work? Hmm well lets see, if you normally eat 3000cal a day and burn off say 1800 a day then you'll be gaining. Oh but for your "diet" you cut back to 2500 cal a day and exercised 2000cal off a day. You're still gaining. Don't even try saying that calories mean nothing. They do, it's simple thermodynamics that has been proven again and again. Here's my challenge for you folks. Track every calorie you eat and every calorie you burn. Figure out your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and see what you're eating versus what you're burning. Be honest with yourself on what you're eating, look at the serving size, tally up every bite. You will be surprised. Now for those of you who are ok with being fat and think you can be healthy, well I guess have a nice 5 yrs, 10 if you're lucky on the rest of your life. This isn't a matter of belief. You won't wake up one day and feel like shit, your body is breaking down right now. Your heart, your liver, your pancreas, your kidneys, your joints, are all suffering under your weight. You're putting an unnecessary tax on an already crippled health system. You're taking more than your share in a world where people starve to death. You're not being oppressed, what you do with your body does affect others, and you're wasting your life. You don't have to hate your body, but you should learn to understand it can be better. There is a middle ground between being skinny and fat. Yes it takes hard work, yes it sucks at first, but it's doable. Nothing in this life worth having ever comes easy.
    Commented Sep 13, 2014
  • Nancy Brouillette

    Does anyone have any suggestions for my situation? I am a group exercise instructor and I teach a very energetic and athletic Step Aerobics class. My students range in age from mid 20's to mid 70's and the fitness levels vary. But the class is a big one and many of these folks have been with me for years. Recently three new participants joined and they are very large. I would classify them as obese. I was/am worried that the intensity of this class will ultimately discourage them but so far they have not missed a class and are actually progressing. But I see how difficult it is for them. I constantly suggest (to the whole class - not directed at them specifically) modifications to make the exercises more do-able. I want to talk with them about what their goals are but I'm a little nervous that it will be obvious that they are getting extra attention because of their size. I think this is a good opportunity to make changes in these students' lives but I want to tread carefully. Suggestions anyone?
    Commented Sep 25, 2013
  • Joy Keller

    I'd like to thank everyone for your comments. I wanted to point out that this is just an excerpt. The FULL article actually makes many of the points you all make about not using stereotypes, not presuming that a client needs or wants to lose weight, etc. This is a very important topic from many different angles and I wish you all had access to the complete article so you could create a more informed opinion about it. If you're interested in reading the entire article, please contact me directly. The bottom line, of course, is that fitness and wellness is for EVERYONE and fitness professionals should never presume anything about the person standing in front of them. Let's use compassion, sound exercise science and an open mind when dealing with ALL people.
    Commented Sep 11, 2013
  • Samantha Miles

    @Aaron Alan: Yes, that's right. On an article about how to best serve OBESE clients, it makes sense to disregard comments coming from people who are OBESE. Any other logic problems you'd like to solve for us? Also, there was nothing disrespectful about Ragen's comment. Assertive, yes. Disrespectful, no.
    Commented Sep 10, 2013
  • Aaron Alan

    The comments section of the article has been infiltrated by an obesity advocacy site and its moderator, herself a morbid obese. She tends to be very disrespectful to health and wellness professionals, including doctors, and she has incited her readers, very possibly predominantly obese, to comment here. On that basis, one may disregard those comments.
    Commented Sep 09, 2013
  • Rabbi Ruth Adar

    I'm a 300 lb woman who has been working out happily with a personal trainer for the past three years. Prior to that, I had a long unhappy history of getting hurt in the gym, not because of my weight (it went up and down) but because I have a number of orthopedic issues from old injuries, and the associated arthritis. The big WIN for me in working with a personal trainer is that my trainer, Brittany Shaddle, took my fitness goal seriously (I want to get strong and build stamina) and has treated me with respect from Day One. There is never a suggestion that I am busted and need to be fixed. She brings her knowledge of exercise physiology and motivation, and I bring my body, and we work out. This has been a huge success for me. I am stronger and have better stamina (my goals.) Blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are all good. I have not lost any more exercise time to old injuries. Respect your clients, motivate them with positives, NEVER trash their bodies, and they'll do well if you know your stuff.
    Commented Sep 08, 2013
  • Samantha Miles

    Well, this is strange... I love sitting on the couch and eating cookies, and I never go to the gym, yet I'm 5'4'' and weigh about 100 pounds. Yet people don't seem to think I'm eating my feelings or hiding on the sofa... People tend to either assume I'm in great shape or that I'm malnourished. If someone can stay as skinny as I do without being particularly athletic and regardless of my eating habits, it stands to reason there must be people who eat quite well and exercise regularly who remain fat. We need to stop making so many assumptions about a person's overall health, fitness level, and lifestyle based on how they look. @Greg Keoc: how do you know she "struggles" to walk a marathon? Have you seen her do it? Do you train with her? Why would you assume that the "point" of participating in a marathon is the same for everyone? What really gets me is we have all these people talking about their exercise regimes and/or their careers as trainers WHILE being fat, and yet some people come back at them and try to tell them what they're saying is impossible. "Of course fat people don't exercise, or can't exercise the way thin people can, or be fit. I know this because I feel very physically fit, and I'm thin. Also, I saw a fat person out of breath once. Another time I saw one eating poutine." Everyone's experience is different, and it's not your place to speak for anyone's personal experience but your own.
    Commented Sep 08, 2013
  • Sparky TheWondergirl

    I have to tell you, being a fat person who exercises and having people who can't even lift as much as you, or run as long, or get into the yoga pose, is one of the most aggravating experiences ever. You get these smarmy comments that someone would direct to a beginner exerciser, like people think it's open season to comment and judge what you're doing just because you're a fat person in the gym or exercise class. If I was paying a trainer that treated me like that, or treated me like I was broken and damaged instead of finding ways to work with me starting where I actually am, that person would be SO FIRED. Whether or not it's healthy to be fat is immaterial to treating people decently and with compassion. If you as a trainer make a client feel broken and damaged that person is not going to want to work with you or come back. The best trainers and instructors I've worked with are completely non-judgmental. They assume everyone wants to get better at what they have to teach (dance, yoga, strength training) and they show modifications FOR EVERYONE (because sometimes thin people also need modifications) without making a big fuss over the poor damaged fatties and trying to psychoanalyze them. If that person came to you they are motivated, and if you make them feel crappy about where they're starting, you will lose them.
    Commented Sep 07, 2013
  • Jeff Weinacht

    Everyone saying that all these obese people aren't healthy are crazy!! Maybe 1 out 100 obese people are in good health the other 99% of obese people in this country are notin good health. Why do you think health care costs due to obesity is up to $300 billion dollars a year? Its not because they are so healthy. No matter how healthy you are being obese will break down your joints causing pain.
    Commented Sep 06, 2013
  • Diane Weiman

    Goodness what comments!! I am an exercise specialist as part of a multidisciplinary team at a hospital for weight loss surgery patients. What I can tell you for since I work exclusively with the obese day by day is that this is a special population indeed. The cause of obesity has different components: genetics, metabolism, environment, stress, economics and spiritual. It has been classified as a disease. There are proper approaches to exercise with anyone with a disease. It is wrong to accuse trainers to approach an obese client in a "special" way. But it is also important is that trainers understand there is a real person under the weight. Know what their desires are like anyone else and guide them in "steps" to get there. I use the word movement instead of exercise because movement is life. And yes, a majority portion of the obese patients I see are not movers in the way they need to be to have long term success of weight loss. In saying all this, I strongly believe no one and I mean no one really wants to be 50, 100 or more pounds overweight. To claim that one can be obese and healthy is dangerous thinking. The body was not created for obesity. Even though one may not have issues with diabetes and hypertension the day will come when that will change and it will be at a cost of health and emotional well being. I wish everyone the best of health.
    Commented Sep 06, 2013
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