While many of us may be uncomfortable using the word “fat” to describe others, there’s plenty of loud dialogue going on about overweight and obesity in the media. In fact, it’s hard to escape it.

Large people have had it with this firestorm and have become vocal about it. Two months ago, a group representing the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) launched their annual convention in Newark, New Jersey, with a protest against what they call the medical establishment’s campaign against obesity. Mary Ray Worley of Madison, Wisconsin, a spokesperson for this 35-year-old nonprofit human rights organization “dedicated to improving the quality of life for fat people,” says that fatness has been painted by medical professions and the media as the “next worst thing after terrorism.” She hopes NAAFA can be a “viable force of sanity in the midst of hysteria.”

Reading about this reminded us that fitness professionals face a multidimensional challenge daily. You must not only be sharp in your practical experience, but also hone your emotional intelligence to recognize the sensitivities of new and reluctant exercisers. You must successfully balance these skills so as not to risk “preaching” away timid exercisers by adding to the annoying—yet sobering—chorus of obesity facts and figures churned out by the media. The fitness industry should strive to be the safe harbor in the storm. Perhaps personal trainers, fitness instructors and program directors can help Worley and her fellow NAAFA members by shifting the relentless focus on fatness to a healthy conversation about how to achieve fitness.

How, exactly, can we do this? Sharon Snyder, an IDEA personal fitness trainer member and owner of Bumblebee Fitness, a San Francisco company specializing in working with plus-size clients, shares the following pointers from her experience.

  • Don’t make assumptions about fat people: They may or may not be fit, but you can’t always tell by looking.
  • Talk to, and about your clients with respect and compassion. If you’ve never been fat, realize that you don’t know what it’s like to live in a fat body. Listen and learn from your clients about the issues they face.
  • Be sensitive about the language you use when talking about a client’s body. Avoid using words like “overweight” and “obese.” Those are clinical terms, and tend to categorize fat people as “other.” The very act of using clinical words pathologizes fat people.
  • Understand that even coming into a gym is a big deal for most large people. Support and encourage their efforts and focus on the positive.
  • Keep the emphasis on fitness. Don’t weigh or measure your clients. Weighing and measuring clients reinforces issues around fatness and weight loss. (For supersized people, the act of being weighed and measured can be particularly horrifying: many scales can’t accommodate high weights, and measuring tapes may not be long enough.)
  • Don’t impose limits on clients because they’re fat. Encourage them to test and push their own limits (safely).
  • Encourage the use of heart rate monitors to help your clients accurately assess their own intensity and set a level of intensity and exertion that’s appropriate for them (rather than focusing on speed). Through using a heart rate monitor, they can also note changes in their resting heart rate and recovery heart rate—both important measures of fitness and health.
  • Be honest and upfront about biomechanical issues that are impacted by girth. If you say, “This exercise may be difficult for people with abdominal girth,” they’ll usually get it —and respect you for acknowledging the issue without being shameful or embarrassed about it.
  • Cheerlead even the small steps for all people who are deconditioned.

We encourage you to temper your passion for exercise with compassion. It may be the best formula yet for reaching out to those who need us the most.

Yours in good health,

Kathie and Peter Davis