the HAES® files: Infiltrating the Fitness Industry

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Michelle Pitman, Certified Personal Trainer

TrainersgonewrongIt has been almost four years since I embarked on the journey of leaving my corporate gig and venturing into the fitness industry as a personal trainer. My coaching style has evolved over time while the fitness industry continues to “fight the war on obesity” and help people get “fit and healthy.” Oftentimes I cringe at the thought of labeling myself a personal trainer, as I am well aware of the images that go along with that….

In preparation for this post, I reviewed my textbooks and practical exam content to reflect on what it was I had learned back then. The course included four case studies and, not surprising, all of them had an element of a supposed need and/or desire to lose weight or change body composition. Here is just a sample:

  • Roger “… is overweight and would like to be able to prevent a heart attack. As a bonus to working out, he would not mind losing 5 – 7 kilograms…”
  • Molly “…would like to get back to the way she looked and performed in high school… She would love to lose five kilograms within the next two months because she will be attending a friend’s wedding at that time…”
  • And then, in the practical exam case study, Jerome was introduced. “His doctor recently suggested he start an exercise program due to the weight he has gained. He is not very excited about the exercise program but does realize he needs to do this for his long-term health. His main goals are weight loss, decreased waist line and improved overall health.”

Later, when covering the topic of cardiovascular activity, the topic of Molly’s goals and program design are evaluated:

  • “ Because Molly wants to lose weight, volume of activity will be important…”
  • “Since Molly is seeing her trainer once per week and changing her body composition is a goal, it is crucial that her training program focus on energy expenditure during the workout…”

We also learned that Molly enjoys volleyball but the textbook suggests encouraging Molly against participating in the activity that she enjoys because “…although volleyball has many benefits, the recreational league she will be joining may not play a major role in helping her achieve her weight loss goals due to the low level of intensity she will be playing at.”

Even back then, before I was a member of ASDAH, something in what I was learning did not sit right with me. Why was there this strong promotion of setting weight loss goals and creating programs that would help clients achieve those goals? Was this just a case of creating what the market inevitably wanted?

I knew that assisting people with their weight loss and body reshaping goals, like so many trainers encourage, was not going to be my MO. But I didn’t know how to frame that message or where to start, until I stumbled across an online course from Human Kinetics entitled Disordered Eating in Active and Sedentary Individuals by Marsha Hudnall and Karin Kratina.  I registered immediately. It was this course that first exposed me to the Health At Every Size® paradigm and I found myself wanting to learn more.

At the same time I started that online course, I was also setting the foundation for my new business by drafting a business plan. Part of this plan included a SWOT analysis of identifying a few local competitors and researching their strengths, weaknesses, along with potential opportunities and threats that could impact my business.

As I delved into my analysis I had two different thoughts come to mind:

  • “Wow, this is great! Nobody is offering anything like what I’ll be offering.”
  • “Am I differentiating myself to the point of failing? Will I ever be able to convince potential clients to buy into my approach?”

Yes, I knew there was need for a more refreshing approach. I knew firsthand the damaging effects of restriction and obsessive, weight loss focused exercise (see my previous guest post for that story). I had a feeling that people were looking for an alternative. But with every competitor that I researched, I noticed a trend. Whether it was a big box gym or a personal training studio, the mission was essentially the same. The business name and the wording in marketing materials might have been different but the consistent message read something like this:

“We’ll help you build the body of your dreams (oh, and improve your health too).”

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My analysis of one competitor revealed a tagline of “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” built into their branding, which seemed to indicate it might be closer to taking a similar approach to mine. However, upon further investigation, that notion was quickly dismissed as I read on to find the owner was also a distributor for Visalus (a nutrition supplement company with a strong focus on weight loss).

I felt like I might be fighting a losing battle and wondered if I would ever make it in this industry. There are local trainers that had sunk their teeth into the “get a beach body“ business and a 66 billion dollar diet industry to compete with. I started to seek out advice from fitness marketing experts only to be disappointed. Again, the assumption was if you are a personal trainer looking to generate more business, you have to promote and sell the idea of shaping, sculpting, toning and helping your prospective clients lose weight.

obsessive body recompositionI also knew that following the crowd would compromise my personal values and belief systems. I knew diets don’t work and exercise won’t last if it is attached to a weight loss plan. So, I continued writing my business plan with the overarching objective of coaching a balanced lifestyle to clients that would be open to the idea of finding a new, more positive way of approaching their health and wellness. And here I am, four years later, not necessarily earning a six-figure profit but content with myself for staying true to my mission and continually challenging the status quo.

Looking back at my business plan, I am re-energized by the section where I outlined my vision for one, two and five year post-business startup.  Part of that vision includes reshaping the fitness industry, introducing a weight inclusive approach to fitness to the same organization I obtained my certification from initially. Can this industry be infiltrated? I think so. And here is what I envision:

  • Understanding the harmful effects of weight stigma, weight bias and weight loss programs would be part of the curriculum for every fitness professional certification program
  • Course content would focus on how to safely and effectively design life-enhancing, fun, exercise programs instead of being focused on the goal of reducing a client’s waist circumference or BMI
  • Fitness assessments would be less about measuring weight and body fat percentage and more about measuring intrinsic gains a client has made such as increased energy, reduced pain and more happiness
  • Marketing and inspirational messages would stop encouraging obsessive body reshaping ideals and include a variety of body shapes and sizes engaging in joyful movement

I’m an optimist and truly believe we can get the fitness industry to make the shift to a more inclusive, positive and HAES friendly environment. It might take time but it is possible. What are your thoughts? What might the fitness industry look like to you if our HAES community could infiltrate it?

Michelle PitmanMichelle Pitman, of Define Me Personal Training, is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and athlete who believes that EVERYONE should feel good from the inside-out.  With over 15 years experience, Michelle has coached and inspired others in realizing their goals. She does so with a sense of dedication, presence and, above all, compassion.  You can connect with Michelle via FacebookTwitter or by visiting the Define Me webpage.

11 Comments to “the HAES® files: Infiltrating the Fitness Industry”

  1. Great article! I’m a climber and the body hating (big body hating) of many in the climbing community is really upsetting. I also know lots of people who are totally put off exercise by negative attitudes towards their bodies. Thanks for writing this article x

  2. Wow, Michelle, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read your post, that the course that Marsha and I wrote guided you away from the horrors of the weight-based paradigm and helped provide a path for you towards a HAES approach. Thank you for sharing your journey, and your successes with HAES!

    • The course was great! It conceptualized for me what I felt was missing in the approach of so many trainers. So thank you :-)

  3. I echo the great article comment above.

    I know I feel better when I exercise, but it’s been proving hard to rewire my brain to separate exercise from weight loss and I often wonder how much better off I’d be if I never tied those two ideas together.

    I have been looking for an idea for a technical writing class I’m taking. I have to write a proposal for a research project and I was hoping to do something HAES related. I have to say, I’m very inspired by this posting, I think it helped me get the focus I was looking for. I promise not to steal any ideas from you, just inspiration.

  4. So out of curiosity, how do you get through the curriculum if you’re already a HAES convert? Do you answer what you’re supposed to, even though you believe it to be wrong?

    I am looking at a possible career change about 5 years from now, and one thought I’ve kicked around is becoming a HAES-focused trainer. I’m just not sure what all is involved, or what you would do facing all the non-HAES materials in the training/education for it.

    • Hmmmm…I would challenge any lessons regarding weight and health but with the caveat of “What the text says…”. The more we challenge the curriculum and provide evidence that contradicts what is being taught, the more apt the industry will be to change.

  5. HI Michelle, Want to echo Karin’s sentiments – Our profession has been in the serious throes of “paradigm paralysis” for a long time – but the more of us who get free from the “stuckness” the sooner we can shift the paradigm – great blog – keep up the great work – Jon

    • Thanks Jon! It’s the voices of so many here, in this HAES community, that are the source of inspiration :-)

  6. Michelle, thank you for writing this! I think your approach is something that the fitness industry desperately needs. Decoupling activity from weight loss is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, yet because my body is still mostly the same shape despite being much fitter and stronger, the professionals at my gym consider me an oddity. Your philosophy is a breath of fresh air. Thank you and I hope you find success with your business and receptive ears for your message!

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