Body image is certainly an issue with some clients, and personal fitness trainers can positively impact these individuals if they use some sensitivity. For example, I would not suggest invalidating any client goal. If an individual is overwhelmingly focused on body image, then validate those concerns. At the same time, attempt to redirect the client’s goal focus to other areas exercise will benefit, such as energy level, stress reduction and disease prevention. Then set both long- and short-term goals in those areas. Eventually, with persis- tence, the client will begin to feel a sense of accomplishment, self-efficacy and self-worth. These feelings will do wonders for the person’s self-image, regardless of whether large objective changes are made. I recently conducted a research study of obese women (body mass index [BMI] > 32.5). Although initial testing revealed they had poor body image, just maintaining a moderate exercise pro- gram twice a week for 12 weeks made them feel much better about them- selves. When we conducted physio- logical testing, neither weight, BMI or circumference measures changed much (due to the light initial exercise prescription given to ensure compliance). However, just the act of persevering at exercise greatly benefitted their body image. This outcome resulted in positive mood, heightened energy levels and increased body-area satisfaction. Although we deferred noticeable physical progress for a time, we built the exercise habit, created a supportive environment and improved self-image substantially. (To review the complete study, see Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 322-36.) In summary, when a client is con- cerned with body image, try to refocus goals without discounting original ones, set the person up for success with manageable exercise amounts, and track perceived progress as much as actual progress. I think a trainer sensitive in this way will become known as a professional who provides much more than typical services to clients in need.
Steering clients away from body image concerns can be tough for trainers, because so many people associate fitness with appearance. One of the best ways to help clients overcome their body image woes is to challenge the assumption that physical fitness and appearance go hand in hand. Fostering positive body image is difficult when you dwell on how exercise makes you look. Besides, people who meet one appearance-related goal often find another aspect of their appearance to be unhappy about. Trainers who emphasize fitness as a process rather than a means to an end can help clients transcend common body image hang-ups. When clients want to work the abdominals for aesthetics, remind them that a strong core-with or without the sought-after six-pack look-decreases injury risk, improves posture and enhances performance. Make the more practical goals your main focus. Praise clients on how much weight they are lifting or improvements in exercise duration or intensity before you make a big deal about changes in their appearance. Stay away from comments that insinuate exercise is punishment for holiday eating or taking a vacation. Educating clients about body image and body fat is also paramount. Unfortunately, many people equate being thin with being fit. Research suggests that people of almost any shape and size can be fit. Physical fitness does not mean achieving an “ideal” weight or body-fat percentage; certain individuals are naturally predisposed to be heavier than others. Discuss this information with your clients. No matter how hard some people try, they will never healthfully reach and/or maintain the stereotypical “thin physique.” Be honest with clients about realistic appearance- oriented goals. Finally, as a trainer, you must exemplify a positive body image. Complaining about your own body in front of clients is not productive or professional. You may even exacerbate your clients’ in- securities. If you, as a fitness role model, gripe about your body, how can you expect your clients not to do the same?
As trainers, I believe we have a responsibility to de-emphasize the sometimes overzealous attention the media gives to the external advantages reaped from fitness and instead concentrate on the internal benefits. Discuss with clients how most “media fitness” is computer enhanced and does not always display models with average, realistic bodies. A model with 4 percent body fat?! Ask your clients how healthy and fit they think this person is in real life. Reiterate to your clients that fitness is individual and genetics play a role in individualized results. Whether our clients’ goals are to maintain or to improve their fitness levels, remind them that fitness works from the inside out and consists of training breath, mind and body. Goals such as better balance, improved muscular strength and definition, increased awareness and control of breath, improved functional stability and increased proprioception all begin inside. How we track fitness progress also impacts body image. Tracking should include subjective, nonquantifiable factors instead of just weight amounts, numerical measurements and fitness tests. Also, use open-ended questions to assess results: “How do you feel now compared to a few weeks ago?” “Tell me how your clothes fit now compared to a month ago.” These questions avoid promoting body image hang-ups because they focus on fitness from the inside-on what the client can do and feel, instead of what the client can see. Trainers can manipulate their clients’ workout environments as well. Avoid displaying magazines and posters that depict “perfect” individuals. Instead, post pictures of actual clients in your facility. In addition, consider how you use mirrors in your studio. People who feel self-conscious about their body often are uncomfortable facing mirrors. Instead, develop your clients’ proprioception by helping them concentrate on internal awareness. Finally, trainers should be aware when clients display a preoccupation with body image to the extent that it inhibits their quality of life. Although our job does not include being a counselor to clients with body image disorders, recognizing when a client may need a referral to a trained mental health professional is very important. For more information about body imagery, check out these Web sites: CalStateLA.edu/faculty/nthomas/index. htm and GuidedImageryInc.com.
One of the greatest potential opportunities we have as personal trainers is to significantly improve the quality of our clients’ lives. We can positively impact them by reinforcing that we should take full responsibility for the health and fitness of our bodies. You cannot put a price on health- without it we have very little. With this in mind, I recommend that trainers focus their clients on the “big picture.” Of course we all want to look better, but if you take good care of your body it will reward you by taking care of you. When you feel good, you look good-it’s a natural by-product. I’ve found that having my clients repeat different positive affirmations helps remind them of these simple truths. For example, I have them repeat phrases such as, “Each workout brings me one step closer to my health and fitness goals,” and “My body is a temple, and I treat it with love and respect.” Another good approach to helping clients get past body image hang-ups is having them set realistic short-, medium- and long-term goals, which ultimately will lead them to overall health and fitness improvements.
As fitness professionals, we are conditioned to rely on numbers to determine baseline information and assess client progress. If a client comes to you with a weight-loss goal, the first thing you are apt to measure is her weight and body-fat percentage. You will likely discuss the areas of her body she most wants to change and then design a pro- gram around this information. What this really does, however, is feed into the whole body image thing-that exercise is done to achieve the “perfect body.” I feel there needs to be more balance. Recently, I conducted research for an article in which I asked women, “What does body composition testing do for you? Does it motivate you to do better or does it do the opposite?” The answers were quite surprising. As trainers, we are lead to believe that testing clients and having them keep logs and track progress naturally spurs them toward achieving goals. The women I surveyed had quite a different perspective. I received answers like, “It deflates me,” “It depresses me,” “I don’t need to be told a specific number to know that I’m fat,” and “I hate it.” In her 1999 book, The Fitness Instinct (Emmaus, PA: Rodale), Peg Jordan says only about two of 10 people are actually motivated by logs, charts and numbers-about the same number of people who exercise regularly, according to the latest U.S. Surgeon General’s report. Coincidence? I don’t think so. As trainers, we tend to focus too much on the numbers and not enough on the people we are hired to train.So how do we become less number- oriented and more people-oriented? Communicate with your client. Ask how he feels about having his body fat tested. Is it a mandatory part of your assessment? If so, make sure your client knows this at your initial meeting, because you may not be the right trainer for him. Determine together other ways to track progress. What about flexibility or strength? How are his clothes fitting? Can he run up the flight of stairs to his office without becoming short of breath? Most clients will tell you they seem to have more energy and just feel better when they exercise.As a final point, be careful about the image you portray. Does your demeanor make it clear that having a great physique is your number one priority? How do you dress? What posters are in the workout area? Make sure you project a professional image and foster an open, communicative relationship with clients. Bring the “personal” back into personal training.