Strategy 1: Recognize and Respect the Unique
Qualities of This New Majority

There are several ways fitness professionals can make individuals of all sizes feel welcome and comfortable in the fitness setting. First of all, recognize how difficult it is for someone with a negative body image to take that first step into an environment that feels alien and intimidating. Imagine how you would feel walking into a facility full of people who look very different from you. Then think about what a difference it would make if someone made you feel immediately welcome. Here are some ways to do just that for your heavier clients.

  • Devote a well-staffed section of the club floor to “new exercisers.”
  • Offer more classes for beginners, and market these as “introductory” sessions.
  • Devote a portion of the locker room or dressing room to those who want more privacy. If space and budget permit, offer a few private stalls with curtains or doors. Don’t install mirrors in these areas, since these fixtures can make members more self-conscious.
  • Avoid using “before” and “after” imagery on marketing posters and brochures, as this tactic can be intimidating to people who are weight sensitive. Instead, make sure you include images of larger people being physically active.
  • Maximize the diversity of the trainers and instructors you hire in terms of age, gender, body type and ethnicity.
  • Encourage heavier members to use free weights or cables rather than machines, which are often designed for smaller people and require some agility to navigate.
  • Recognize that floor exercises, such as sit-ups, may not be the best choice for heavier clients, who have trouble just getting up and down; moves like these might be more comfortably done at home.

Keep in mind, too, that larger clients are not all alike, in terms of either comfort level or fitness ability. For example, although some heavier individuals do lead sedentary lifestyles, others regularly compete in triathlons. That’s why you need to look beyond labels and stereotypes to recognize the unique qualities of every client, regardless of size. The way to do that is to listen carefully to each client and to hone your communication and rapport-building skills.

Strategy 2: Strengthen Your Communication and Rapport-Building Skills

Sadly, the prejudice that heavy people feel is no illusion; it is real, frequent and potentially very damaging from a psychological perspective. The belief that others look down on them as weak, lazy and gluttonous is often internalized to such an extent that they begin to view themselves in these terms. Disrespect for obese people is so widespread that it is considered one of the last socially “acceptable” prejudices.

Unfortunately, fitness professionals sometimes contribute to the disrespect. For example, take the case of IDEA member Sharon Snyder, a self-described “plus-size woman.” When Snyder wanted to start training for a triathlon, she struggled to find “fitness professionals who could work with me appropriately and respectfully and who really understood what it was like to be in my size of body. More often than not, I found skepticism and judgment from fitness professionals, who wanted to put me on a diet rather than help me prepare for the triathlon.” As a result of her experience, Snyder created a company called Bumblebee Fitness, designed to help women of all sizes achieve their fitness goals in a judgment-free environment.

Sadly, Snyder says she still sees a lot of disrespect for heavier clients throughout the fitness industry. “Heavy people have a hard time just seeing thin people in the gym,” she says. “And [because most] fitness professionals have never been fat, there’s a culture gap.”

One way to bridge this gap is to build client rapport. In interpersonal interaction, use these principles to focus on your clients’ needs:

Ask and Listen. Don’t assume that you can assess a client’s history or ambitions based on his or her appearance or body type.

Collaborate With Your Clients. Work together to define goals or develop viable strategies that will help your clients continue with their fitness regimens. Never dictate weight loss goals to any client.

Be Prepared for Resentment. Recognize that heavier clients may—consciously or unconsciously—resent you at first, feeling that thin people “get all the breaks” or “have it easy in life.”

Remain Respectful. Look clients in the eye, not the belly, and avoid terms like overweight and obese. Instead, use terms such as heavy, larger, plus-size or novice exerciser. Your clients will appreciate such subtleties and consider them a sign of respect.

Be Empathetic, Not Condescending. Because weight issues are closely tied to emotional issues, you may occasionally feel more like a counselor than a fitness trainer or instructor. Obviously, in such cases, you should be aware of the boundaries regarding your scope of practice. However, you can stay within those boundaries and still be empathetic. Avoid lectures and criticism, and be cautious about sharing your own personal struggles. If you haven’t “walked a mile” in the shoes of your heavy clients, don’t pretend that you have. Never say, “I know how you feel,” because you probably don’t.

Strategy 3: Help Clients Set Realistic, Achievable Goals

Once you have established a rapport with your heavier clients, you are in a better position to help them clarify what they really want to accomplish, both in and out of the health club setting. Research confirms that people with a clear sense of their objectives not only accomplish more but are also psychologically and physically healthier (Emmons & King 1988). Unfortunately, clients’ goals and expectations are often unrealistic and un-achievable in terms of quantity, ease and life impact.

Quantity. On average, heavy people typically say they want to lose one-third of their body weight—despite the fact that studies show that losing, and maintaining the loss of, more than 15% of body weight is rare (Foster et al. 1997). Los Angeles–based personal train-er Victoria Walton routinely encounters clients who have unrealistic expectations, such as losing 60 pounds in 3 months. Here is her tough-love response to help clients set more achievable goals: “If you want to lose 60 pounds in 3 months, you’ll need to find another trainer. My intention is to help you reach your goals safely in an amount of time that’s realistic.” This stock reply helps clients reassess their goals while also positioning Walton as a supportive, honest, no-nonsense resource. If your clients insist on setting a specific weight loss goal, ask them to stay within a target range of no more than 5%–15% of their current body weight.

Ease. Even though we all know there is no magic bullet for weight loss, it is only natural for clients to want to take the path of least resistance. Even savvy clients who know that weight loss will be difficult usually expect it to be a temporary process and look forward to going “off” their diet and exercise plan at some point. The reality is that permanent weight loss requires lasting effort and lasting lifestyle changes. You can underscore this point by reminding clients that successful weight loss depends on maintaining long-term lifestyle changes. To help instill the message, recommend inspirational books like Anne Fletcher’s Thin for Life (Houghton Mifflin 2003), which offers practical tips from real people who have made permanent changes.

Life Impact. From time to time, we all engage in “happily-ever-after” thinking. Who among us hasn’t thought, “My life would be perfect if only I had more money/got a promotion/met my soulmate/(fill in the blank)”? Heavy people often expect that losing weight will dramatically improve every aspect of their lives. While it is true that people who lose weight do feel better about themselves, weight loss isn’t a panacea that automatically improves one’s entire life. You can drive home this point by preparing clients for minor setbacks along the way and by reminding them of the other benefits of becoming more fit, such as improved overall health.

To help clients overcome common obstacles, it’s best to focus on what clients want to accomplish, both in and out of the health club. Clients who set avoidance goals, such as shunning a particular kind of food, tend to become anxious and depressed and feel less enjoyment when they do accomplish their goals (Elliot & Sheldon 1997). In contrast, approach goals, which emphasize positive outcomes such as adopting healthier habits or walking for 30 minutes each day, are mentally associated with happy memories and triumphs (Singer & Salovey 1996).

To clarify what clients really want, keep asking questions. Why do they want to get fit and lose weight? Some may want to run a marathon, while others may want to have more energy to play with their kids or to walk up a flight of stairs without panting. In each case, clarifying the ultimate vision will help you design an appropriate fitness program specific to the stated goals. This process is a boon to your clients, too, because they will have a clearer vision of their ambitions, which is far more motivating than simply knowing what to avoid.

Strategy 4: Help Clients Move Toward Their Goals

Once clients have a compelling long-term vision, help them craft reasonable, short-term strategies for getting there. Again, the best way to do this is to shift the focus away from weight loss and to emphasize improving fitness, enhancing stability and instilling healthier lifelong habits. If clients continue to dwell on weight loss, remind them that as a predictor of health outcome, fitness is usually more accurate than weight (Wessel et al. 2004).

At this stage of the process, clients need to understand the advantages of setting relatively short-term goals. Resolving to lose 30 pounds in the coming year isn’t motivating for most people, because a year is simply too long a time frame. The magnitude of such a goal can overwhelm clients, who may convince themselves that they can start in a few months, or even worse, forget about their resolution completely. It’s no wonder that more than 80% of Americans fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions for very long (Norcross & Vangarelli 1989)! Even elite athletes have been shown to perform better when they focus more on short-term goals (May & Veach 1987).

Short-term weight loss goals need to be specific and challenging, since research indicates that concrete and aggressive ambitions inspire better performance than easy goals, no goals at all or simply being encouraged to “do your best” (Wood, Mento & Locke 1987). For help on setting short-term goals, see “Sample Specific, Short-Term Goals” on page 49. Of course, all goals need to be customized for the individual and aligned with baseline performance levels.

Strategy 5: Help Clients Believe They Will Succeed

Even the most realistic short-term goals won’t work if clients don’t believe they can be successful. Unfortunately, heavy clients typically come to a health club having failed in previous attempts to lose weight—and consequently with an undermined sense of self-efficacy and confidence. Add in habitual self-criticism, a sense of shame, prejudice from others and the common (but misguided) belief that permanent weight loss is impossible, and you can see why these clients may doubt their ability to accomplish their goals.

Help them rebuild their confidence by emphasizing achievable, near-term fitness goals rather than elusive, long-term weight loss goals. The best thing you can do is something you are already doing: helping them achieve a higher level of physical performance. Being able to lift more weights and exercise for longer periods will do more to build their confidence than any pep talk you could provide.

In other words, nothing succeeds like success. That’s why many trainers emphasize client gains in terms of performance rather than pounds lost. “Performance improvements happen faster than weight loss,” says Jim Karanas, group fitness director for Club One in Northern California. “It builds confidence when clients see quick results in the health club, such as how many watts [of energy] they can put out, and in their lives, such as being able to walk up stairs more easily.” If clients are capable, encourage them to pursue physical challenges, like walking a 5K race or taking a challenging weekend hike, as these can be excellent confidence boosters as well.

Strategy 6: Establish Rewards When Clients Reach Their Goals

Losing weight is hard. Keeping it off is even harder. Persistence is critical to maintaining confidence and healthy lifestyle changes. The best way to strengthen a client’s persistence is to use one of the most fundamental laws of psychology: the law of effect. Simply put, this law holds that any action that is rewarded is then strengthened and more likely to recur. Research has long shown that establishing formal rewards for personal success—a process known as contingency management—is effective during weight loss efforts and other related lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation (Kirschenbaum 1987).

Unfortunately, relatively few people ever bother to reward themselves for progress; in fact, people tend to do the opposite (Prochaska & DiClemente 1985). This was the case with one of our own clients, who shall go by the name of “Karen.” After 2 weeks of healthy eating and regular exercise, Karen didn’t make it to her training session one day and instead indulged in a two-scoop ice-cream cone. Instead of rewarding herself for her solid progress and forgiving her minor setback, she spent the next week berating herself for “breaking her diet” and had a hard time rebuilding her self-confidence.

The compliments and encouragement you give your clients are powerful rewards that should not be underestimated. But what may be even more powerful in the long run is teaching clients how to reward themselves. Self-reward systems can be informal, such as treating oneself to a movie or shopping trip after achieving a near-term goal.

Clients can also use a more formal technique, such as the deposit-and-refund method. In the example above, suppose that Karen’s goal was to lose 10 pounds. Using the deposit-and-refund method, she would give a good friend $500 (the deposit) and ask him to return $50 of that money for each pound she loses (the refund). This technique rewards success and makes instant gratification a positive force for change (“If I lose just 1 pound, I’ll get an immediate reward”). What’s more, this method has also proven effective in aiding weight loss, even after the formal reward period ends (Jeffery et al. 1983). For many heavy clients, merely going to the gym is an accomplishment worthy of a reward, so encourage them to base their refunds on the number of workouts they complete, the length of the workouts and so on.

If clients minimize their successes, continue beating themselves up over minor setbacks or don’t follow through with their self-reward plans, you need to consider that they may have “unspoken” goals. Despite having agreed in principle on near-term fitness-related goals, they may still be harboring an unspoken desire to lose 30% of their body weight. If you suspect this is the case, you will need to help them re-evaluate what it is they really want to accomplish.

Strategy 7: Teach Clients How to Measure Progress

In the October 2004 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal, we detailed the many benefits of helping all clients measure progress toward their goals (see “The Science of Self-Monitoring: Helping Clients Achieve More by Helping Them Measure Progress Toward Their Goals,” pp. 102–3, from which this month’s Fitness Handout on p. 111 is derived). But being able to measure progress is even more important with heavier clients, who tend to view success in all-or-nothing terms. Plus-size clients who think in strict black or white terms are especially vulnerable for what is known as the snowball effect— a vicious circle in which they suffer a setback and then consider themselves a failure, which in turn “snowballs” into a major relapse and a total collapse (Curry, Marlatt & Gordon 1987). Teaching clients how to measure progress in broader terms makes them more aware that some days they will make strong progress and other days they will make less—and that there will be many shades of gray in between.

Putting this concept into action is easy. You can start by leveraging the data you already collect during client workouts. Create some charts and graphs that summarize the progress clients make during cardio workouts and weight training, and then review the results with your clients. Seeing the detailed progress over time accomplishes many of the objectives outlined in this article: It keeps clients focused on fitness-related numerical improvements rather than pounds lost. That is a rewarding feeling; it boosts confidence; and it helps clients take inevitable setbacks in stride.

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The LEARN Program for Weight Management by Dr. Kelly Brownell. This 5-component program (encompassing lifestyle, exercise, attitudes, relationships and nutrition) is based on sound science but is assembled into a practical and easy- to-use workbook.