Overweight individuals are stigmatized throughout their lives, often by their own health care providers. Are you helping the overweight client to create health? Or are you creating a barrier to achieving it? With people worldwide being at their heaviest all time weight, there must be more we can do. Fitness centers are for fit people! Our equipment, our programs and our providers are all geared to the physically fit. Unfortunately, personal trainers are part of the impact on a culturally induced thin society. As a fitness provider, you are very important in creating a user-friendly environment for all shapes and sizes. There are many things you can do right now to help overweight clients feel comfortable and achieve success.
Have you ever struggled with your weight? If not, than what makes you feel you can empathize with your clients? Too many trainers become trainers because they feel they have a great body. I’m not saying you have to have been overweight to work with overweight clients, but you do need to keep certain things in mind. First, treat your clients with gentleness, concern and, above all, respect. Overweight clients probably have years of negativity behind them and are looking to you for a positive approach. Second, do not make an issue of their weight. Do not assume when an overweight clients comes to you that he or she is there to lose weight. Don’t automatically recommend weight loss or assume there’s a problem. Perhaps the individual is recovering from knee surgery, or maybe the goal is increased flexibility. Your client surely has not come to you for lectures or humiliation. It’s up to you to respect your client's wishes regarding weight. Don’t succumb to the myths of obesity.
Myth - All overweight people are self-indulgent and eat constantly.
Fact - Many overweight people eat too little and have very slow metabolisms. It is up to you to understand their personal eating behaviors before you make recommendations.
Myth - All overweight people are using their fat to hide problems or are emotionally unstable.
Fact - Many overweight people are genetically pre-determined to be that weight. Despite all the misconceptions, overweight people are no more likely to be emotionally unstable than thin people.
Myth - If they just exercised and ate less, they would lose weight.
Fact - There is no perfect formula for all bodies. What works for some will not work for others. There are many overweight people who exercise regularly but still do not lose weight.
We create uncomfortable environments and set clients up for failure with diets and exercise. To work with overweight clients, YOU may need to shift your paradigm about health. As fitness professionals, we tend to believe that happiness can only occur when ideal weight is obtained and that people only differ in size because of diet and exercise. This is simply not true. You can bring your clients great happiness simply from teaching them health. Fitness can be achieved despite a high fat to lean ratio.
Tips for Working with Overweight Clients
- Don’t weigh! If you do weigh, do it privately and don’t make commentary. It’s time to throw out the scale. You already know that they are overweight; you don’t need to rub it in. Many clients tell me they do it so they have a tool to show success. Your clients will know they’re successful by their increase in energy, endurance and by the way their clothes fit.
- Ask effective questions. Why they have come to you? What role do they want you to have? What are their past experiences with exercise? What did they like or dislike? Do you believe you can do it now? What challenges/obstacles are in your way? Ask and LISTEN! They will give you the keys to their success. Ask your clients to give you a list of every obstacle that may interfere with their health program. Then ask them to write a solution to every obstacle. This way, there’s no excuse they can give you to not continue!
- If you’re the Fitness Director, I highly suggest you hire trainers and instructors of all shapes and sizes. If you don’t know of any overweight instructors, than certify your own clients once they’ve achieved a high level of fitness. What better way is there to compliment their success?
- Try to take the elevator instead of the stairs. Yes, I said that. You have forgotten what it’s like to be really out of shape. If your client is out of breath before they hit the gym floor, they are going to start off feeling discouraged.
- Keep your gym cool. You tend to feel warmer when you’re overweight. If your clients are uncomfortable, they won’t come back.
- Put out fat-positive publications. There are many magazines out there for full figured people. By putting these publications out, you show your acceptance of all shapes.
- Make sure your equipment is ready for all sizes. Learn from my mistakes. I once put a 300+ pound client on a scale that only weighed up to 300 pounds. I think I was as embarrassed as he was. Have chairs in your assessment area without arms that may confine them. Make sure you have extra large blood pressure cuffs. Put them on equipment that will make them feel comfortable. Does your treadmill have side rails that will confine them? Is your bike seat wide enough for their derriere? Your best bet is to start the client off without equipment. Yes, walking and body exercises.
- When your clients think of workout wear, they think of lycra and thongs (and I don’t mean the kind on your feet). I worked at a spa that provided every client with workout wear consisting of a large t-shirt and baggy sweats. I think that was just great. It took the worry out of what to wear and took the focus off of the fashion. You probably can’t get your gym to do that, but why not provide each of your new clients with a t-shirt and baggy shorts? Or help your clients find clothing appropriate for them. Maybe have catalogues of workout clothes that are appropriate for all sizes. You need to be a model. Your client won’t identify with you if you’re bee-bopping around in the latest micro outfit. If you take your client to the pool, why don’t you wear a t-shirt and shorts in the water?
- So if you’re not talking about weight, what is your focus? How about better health? Energy? Endurance? Sleep? Mood? Get your client to identify healthful behaviors with positive results. Re-define strength. I feel strong when I can walk up the stairs with groceries and not feel out of breath. Someone else may define it as being able to pick up their grandchild. How do you define it?
- It’s time to exercise! Start your client out with baby steps. The best thing that can happen is they say they can do more. The worst thing that can happen is they feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable or too sore to come back. It’s up to you to increase activity very slowly. If they have been totally sedentary, don’t put them into a strength routine with three sets per exercise. Try one set. Instead of your typical gym routine, emphasize lifestyle activity. Yes, I’m talking about parking further away or taking the stairs. I’m talking about taking walks or playing a game of tennis. It’s imperative that you get clients to choose enjoyable activities, or they won’t stick with it.
No matter the weight of your client, motivate him or her by internal goals. Success will never be achieved if the goal is for a class reunion or for a demanding spouse. You can only change for yourself. Ask most trainers what populations they want to train, and I hear "athletes," "seniors" or "rehabilitation." I think it’s important to share the rewards of fitness with everyone. Obesity has become a global epidemic and a public health problem. It is estimated that 55 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese, and this trend is being seen in other countries as well. With this knowledge, I hope that more trainers will open their minds and training to all shapes and sizes.