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Obese Clients: Are You Meeting Their Real Needs?

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, ÔÇÿCome 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, ÔÇÿDon’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.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Joy Keller

Joy Keller is executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and IDEA Fit Business Success, and is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor, yoga teacher (RYT 200) and Reiki Master.

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