This article is part of Club Industry's report, "America's Obesity Crisis and the Fitness Industry's Role in Resolving It." The report can be downloaded for free by going here.
Often, overweight and obesity are described simplistically as the result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Although this is a contributing factor, obesity is a multifactorial disease involving a complex interplay among environmental, behavioral, genetic and hormonal factors. With a multidimensional view of health and wellness and skills in behavior change, health coaches, exercise professionals and the facilities in which they work are in a unique position to offer much-needed support as key allies in the fight against obesity. Below are insights into how health professionals can help people who are obese.
Understand a Person’s “Why”
Exercise professionals and health coaches need a deep understanding of the psychology of health and fitness to help motivate and empower clients to create positive change in their lives. In addition to designing exercise programs, they must acquire the knowledge and skills to help clients craft strategies for successful lifestyle change.
All change must start from within. Before people seek help, they must establish why they want to change. A number on the scale is not a true goal. The true goal is what that person wants from life. How will losing weight impact their lives?
Understand the Science of Obesity and Its Complications
Added weight does not create pain, but it may exacerbate it. Individuals will never progress in an exercise program if there is pain with movement. Corrective exercise and improved biomechanics can lead to safer and better quality of movement that reduces mechanical stress on the body and promotes more physical activity.
Health professionals must understand the challenges these clients encounter when completing tasks that may appear simple. The cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems must work harder to move the extra pounds, which can cause a chain reaction of moving less and gaining more until the typical activities of daily life are nearly impossible.
Understand That Lifestyle Change Is a Key to Sustained Success
Plans that leave people feeling deprived are not sustainable. The combination of sensible eating and appropriate levels of physical activity contributes to improved cardiometabolic and overall health. The general sense of well-being and increased energy that come with sound eating habits and regular physical activity help people embrace healthy lifestyle choices for the long run.
Healthy lifestyles are developed over time by adopting a series of small changes. Begin by looking at priorities and helping members/clients identify a few realistic short-term goals.
The best diet or workout schedule is one a person can do for life. Measuring a healthy lifestyle by a number on a scale undermines the many components of well-being, such as healthier eating habits, finding a form of physical activity that is enjoyable, and learning to accept and embrace individual challenges.
Stress is a leading cause of relapse for people trying to change health behaviors. Stress depletes the energy people have available for self-regulation, a skill critical for sticking to a behavior-change plan. People often experience stress as fatigue and being “too tired to exercise.” In addition, coping strategies often include the negative health behaviors they are trying to change.
Understand the Common Misconceptions about Individuals Affected by Obesity
Research shows that weight bias runs deep in our society, as in “fat” is bad and “thin” is good. One of the largest misconceptions is that individuals impacted by obesity are lazy and lack the willpower necessary to change, when in fact obesity also often leads to the loss of self-efficacy.
It is important to be mindful of unconscious biases—particularly as they relate to communication. Avoid using terms such as “weight problem,” “fat” or “severely obese.” Instead, use more scientific descriptors such as body mass index and terms such as “excess weight.” Also, use people-first language instead of labeling people by their disease, which can be dehumanizing. Instead of saying “an obese client,” say “a client with obesity.”
Another misconception is that obesity is an issue of personal responsibility. Because behavior-modification strategies can help people lose weight, the assumption is that people with obesity are simply choosing not to engage in them. The truth is that many people aren’t aware of effective strategies and end up using ineffective ones (such as fad diets). Also, neurobiological factors affect appetite, cravings, how much we enjoy certain foods and even how much we enjoy exercise. If someone is struggling, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t trying or doesn’t care.
The promotion of physical activity as fun and inclusive helps change the perception our society holds about obesity and those affected by it. The images you use in your gym or advertising are important in promoting the perception of inclusivity. Be sure to use appropriate images that include portrayals of individuals with obesity enjoying physical activity and avoid any visuals that might perpetuate weight-based stereotypes. Physical activity needs to be framed as accessible and fun for everyone—not intimidating or exclusive.
Understand the Vital Role of the Health and Fitness Community
The most important role that exercise professionals can play is that of trusted advisor. Trust is earned by understanding the journey of the individual, which requires empathy. Develop strategies to meet members/clients where they are, not drag them to where you think they should be. Success starts with psychology, sociology and communication—the “art” of training. The “science” of training can take members/clients the rest of the way.
People should get an experienced exercise professional or health coach, find a supportive community of others with similar goals and engage family or friends. People who have a combination of expert and personal support get the help they need and, ultimately, experience long-term success.
As president and chief science officer, Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., FACSM, stewards ACE’s development of strategies to deliver exercise-science and behavior-change education in ways that are engaging and compelling, recruiting more people to become exercise professionals and health coaches and equipping them for growth in their respective fields. He leads ACE’s exploration of how science-based programs and interventions appropriately integrate fitness into healthcare and public health. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine's Obesity Solutions Roundtable, the National Association of Physical Literacy's Advisory Board, the Prescription for Activity Task Force's Leadership Council and Executive Committee, Exercise Is Medicine's Credentialing Committee and the International Consortium for Health & Wellness Coaching's Council of Advisors.