health

'I've been a fitness professional for 9 years. I'm horrified by some of the things I've seen.'

This post discusses eating disorders and may be triggering for some reasons.

Dear fitness professionals:

We all have one thing in common: we want to help people. From CrossFit, to spin, to yoga – we want to help people to be the best version of themselves.

But have you considered that someone being the best version of themselves doesn’t mean being the smallest version of themselves?

How often in the fitness industry are we led to assume that people are exercising purely to change the shape of their body? We celebrate weight loss as though it’s more important than the moral character of a person. And, of course - it’s not.

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Next week is Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week. 

I want to take this opportunity to share my experiences as a fitness professional and encourage you to consider how you can respect all bodies that exist (and belong!) in the fitness industry.

Over my nine-year fitness industry career, I have faced many barriers to achieving a body-neutral approach in my work. 

I have been met with bosses who told me I must weigh people when they join the gym, even though the clients’ goal is to raise money for a charity in a fun run.

I have had master trainers suggest I use terminology about “earning food” in my classes. 

I have had the displeasure of promoting “beach body” challenges to a group of people who are already susceptible to disordered eating. 

Luckily, I am at a point in my career where I can just simply say no – and I can ask my employer why these practices still exist and how we can move forward – for the sake of everyone. 

We have a moral obligation to build a culture of respect and acceptance, rather than driving people towards a negative body image and disordered eating.

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So here’s what I’m asking my colleagues in the fitness industry to please consider:

Think twice before giving dietary advice, or better yet, just don’t give it

Firstly, I want to highlight this: Dieting is the single most important risk factor for developing an eating disorder. 

Disordered eating refers to a wide range of abnormal eating behaviours, including binge eating, dieting and obsessive calorie counting. 

When you think of this definition alongside “cheat meals”, “meal plan” and “macros” – things that we don’t give a second thought to in the fitness industry - you can quickly see a correlation. 

In most cases, as a fitness professional your role does not need to (and probably shouldn’t) involve giving nutritional advice. 

The best advice you can give your client, especially if you identify any form of disordered eating – is to go to a health professional such as GP or dietitian. 

Yes, some people want to lose weight. As a fitness professional, it is important we find out why.

Our role is to delve deeper and ensure their 'why' is balanced and reasonable and not coming from a disordered place. 

Of course, you don’t have the ability to tell a person they can or cannot lose weight. However, you can support your client by ensuring you are not reaffirming their disordered thoughts and, refer them to other health professionals. 

Understand why saying - “Have you lost weight? You look great!”- is potentially harmful

  • The client may have an eating disorder, or, are experiencing disordered eating (or another mental illness)
  • The client may be or have been physically unwell
  • The client may be in a harmful situation where they do not have access to food
  • You shouldn’t be commenting on other people's bodies
  • You are reaffirming that “smaller is better” (it’s not!)

Ultimately, there are probably a hundred other things you can compliment them on that matter a lot more than their weight. 

Understand that movement does not need to equal weight loss

People of all body types, sizes and shapes exercise for many different reasons. I have no doubt that you know, as a fitness professional, all of the incredible benefits of exercise. 

But, why, is the fitness industry so focused on the way the body looks? Other great reasons people exercise include:

  • Increased energy and improved mood
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved relationship with their body
  • Rehabilitation from an injury or illness
  • Building stronger bones, muscles and joints
  • Reducing risk of illness/disease including heart attack, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and high blood pressure

Please remember, there are benefits of physical activity that don’t involve weight loss. 

People will often confuse these above benefits as benefits of weight loss – which is in most cases, untrue. 

Let’s aim to celebrate these reasons, respect that everyone is there for a different reason, and that sometimes it has absolutely nothing to do with the way someone looks.

Yes, you can be a fitness professional in any type of body

I’ve heard it many times – “wait, you’re a fitness instructor?”. 

Perhaps this is because I don't look like a 'stereotypical' fitness trainer - and this is totally okay. 

The shape or size of someone’s body does not dictate their ability to be a fitness professional, nor, does it determine their worth in the fitness industry (or in any area of their life). 

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There is not only a place for all body shapes, sizes and types as clients, but also as fitness professionals.

It’s up to you to make the change

Hopefully, this has got you thinking about some changes you can make in your line of work. I’ve included some tips here:

  • Think about your language: “beach bodies”, “toning”, “problem areas”, anything about “earning” food and losing weight generally – these terms can be really harmful, so avoid them broadly.
  • If someone asks a question specifically, respond with care – these questions may be coming from a place of disordered eating.
  • Re-consider marketing/branding – can you include different body shapes/sizes/types in your promos (and whilst you’re there, people of colour, LGBTIQ+ and people with disabilities too!)
  • Be on the look-out for signs of disordered eating and/or eating disorders, know what your company policy is (or make one!) and make yourself aware of available support services that you can recommend.
  • Reframe that “six-week program” that the gym offers (everyone has one!) and think about how you can make this morally responsible.
  • Consider your day-to-day practices – do you really need to weigh clients when they join? 

Recommended resources:

Book: Food isn’t Medicine by Dr Joshua Wolrich

Book: Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon 

Instagram: @soheefit – Sohee is a coach who has recovered from an eating disorder, she shares great insights.

Website: Eating Disorders Victoria – Disordered Eating and Dieting

Podcast: Willing To Be Wrong by Dr Joshua Wolrich

Support lines:

Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE), webchat or email [email protected] available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEST). 

Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline on 1300 550 236 or online at www.eatingdisorders.org.au/find-support/eating-disorder-helpline/

Rachel is a group fitness instructor and Operations Manager at Eating Disorders Victoria. Rachel is passionate about creating an inclusive and encouraging fitness environment and challenging the disordered behaviours often encouraged within the fitness industry.

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