First of all, I love Bryan Krahn’s writing. He’s entertaining, smart and to-the-point. He’s a fitness professional who gets it. His name also makes me think of Byran Cranston from Breaking Bad, which makes him even that much cooler.
But I took issue with his tongue-and-cheek blog post published last week called You’re Fat Because You’re Stupid after seeing it featured on the Personal Trainer Development Center‘s website. I see what he’s doing, and all of his arguments are totally valid; but isn’t calling people who overcomplicate and oversimplify body recomposition or expect weight loss to be quick and easy “moron[s], fool[s], [and] slack-jawed mouth-breather[s]” a form of shaming? Just because people with weight to lose turn to scapegoating (it’s the gluten that’s making me fat! Wait, no — it’s my fatiguing adrenals and leaky gut!) and the latest diet fads does not make them stupid. Diet fads, consumerism, sensationalist headlines and fear-mongering is stupid; the people who buy into them are not. As syndicated fitness columnist James Fell says in this awesome post that was also featured on the PTDC’s website, “Shaming over body weight is stupid. The evidence that the obesigenic environment and capitalism run amok are the primary culprits in the obesity epidemic is overwhelming. Being obese is rarely a choice people make. In most cases, being lean is a choice, and a damn hard one to follow through on.”
So why do we continue to buy into this stuff and ignore the advice from smart trainers like Krahn and Fell?
Steven Ledbetter (aka Coach Stevo), who is a CSCS and has a master’s degree in health psychology, thinks it may have something to do with our perception of self and our goals, and what motivates us intrinsically. In this transcript from a podcast interview with Evidence Mag on habits versus willpower, Ledbetter discusses how he quickly came to realize that having a coaching certification was not enough to help people reach their health and fitness goals. After obtaining his CSES and getting hired at a gym, he met with his first client, a 79-year-old women whose doctor said she needed to lose 15 pounds. “I said that shouldn’t be a problem,” Ledbetter explains. “With these changes in diet and exercise, I know we can make some headway. She just cut me off. She said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what to do. I just can’t make myself do it. I’m paying you to make me do it.’ I actually had the thought, ‘the only qualification I have is I know what to do and I can tell you how to do it. That’s the only thing I know how to do. I don’t know anything about how to make you do it.’ That was the big moment for me. I realized I needed to go to graduate school. I needed more tools than I had to help people, because I saw my clients’ failures of motivation as a failure of me as a coach. I was missing something.”
Now this doesn’t mean we should all go out and get a masters in health psychology (though I personally believe more education in habit-based coaching and psychology would be very helpful) just to coach clients properly and safely. However, as I mentioned in this blog post last week, we as personal trainers and coaches should be mindful of the way we speak to our clients and what we have them do, and should be careful not to judge. Though the “tough love” approach can motivate some people, it’s definitely not right for everyone. In fact, I’d argue anything that makes a client feel badly about who they are right now is more harmful than helpful, even if it makes them drag their butt to the gym after work instead of heading straight home and into the pantry for a bag of chips.
So what can we do as personal trainers, coaches and fitness writers to get people to stop believing all the garbage advice and products they see advertised on social media, on TV and in magazines without shaming or perpetuating guilt?
Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for that. As Fell can tell you, a sensible, measured approach to weight loss is hard to market, and calling out snake oil-selling quacks on the Internet for the good of science and humanity can lead to hate mail and “12,000 words of unreadable, mouth-frothing nonsense” in retaliation that, quite frankly, isn’t worth anyone’s time nor energy. We’re living in an obesigenic culture and everyone wants to sell you the next best thing that’s going to make fat loss fast and easy, even if it is a total scam.
One thing I do know is that we can better serve the people that DO come to us for help and advice. I think personal trainers and coaches are needed now more than ever to help fight the obesity epidemic. According to Ledbetter, “we are really fucking terrible at finding out what our [habit behaviour] triggers are on our own, without some sort of objective, third-party help. People are really bad at knowing what triggers that behavior.”
I believe we can be that objective, third-party help. Maybe we don’t all go back to school to get psych degrees… but maybe we can research habit-based coaching, educate ourselves about self-determination theory and learn from coaches who are doing it already. Good coaches know how to write progressive strength training programs, know how to teach proper lifting form and can tell clients what to do to get abs. Great coaches know how to make you want to do it.
P.S., here’s a great resource from Ledbetter for trainers interested in habit-based coaching.