An Open Letter to Fitness Instructors Who Want to Help Their Clients:
Thank you for the instruction, guidance and leadership you display here in this gym, studio or outdoor space. As trainers or instructors, you are the best resource for people looking to feel motivated, empowered and safe. Your genuine enthusiasm is palpable, and your pep is extremely helpful, especially for those early mornings. I know you likely are in this role because you want to make a difference, and help others feel their best. I too believe movement can be a powerful form of self-care. That’s why I have written this letter. I write this as a call-in, and I hope to come off as respectful, rather than accusatory.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I work to help people improve wellbeing, while focusing on nurturing a healthful relationship to food. We work together to emphasize satisfaction, preferences, and awareness of internal cues. As we tap into a person’s direct experience, I find my role as ‘the expert’ takes a backseat. I do a lot of listening, and we try to identify barriers to improved wellbeing. Throughout my work with clients, I’ve come to learn that many people have a disordered relationship with exercise. They have a very black-and-white approach to physical activity, and this can contribute to disordered behaviors, as well as an outright resentment for movement.
So, here is my ask: We have to be thoughtful about the language we use and the messages we share when we encourage and motivate. And especially, when we discuss bodies. As an instructor, motivator, coach, friend, please consider encouraging people to move their bodies because of how it makes them feel. Please ask people to consider how movement helps with energy levels, how it can play a role in reducing stress, or how it contributes to sounder sleep. How accomplished will people feel when they finish moving their body? How can you help to empower your clients without putting the emphasis on making their bodies smaller, or making up for some food choice they’ve made, or will make?
This sort of language for motivation is commonplace in many settings, so I’d like to highlight some behaviors that are considered disordered by eating disorder experts. Disordered eating is often on a spectrum, and is increasingly normalized in our current culture. We need to be aware of what we are encouraging with our words. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, compensatory behaviors, or the idea that you need to earn or burn food with physical activity, is considered disordered. Therefore, mentioning an upcoming holiday, and implying that eating will be problematic on that holiday, is disordered. Encouraging people to work harder to “earn” their food or calories is disordered.
What would people rather hear instead? A recent poll resulted in an overwhelming plea for inclusivity and the need to highlight the benefits of movement for enjoyment and wellbeing. So many people shared they move their body for pleasure, and because it feels good and improves mood. People shared that they would love to hear more reminders that they can (and should) listen to their bodies for guidance. People said they valued considering how capable their bodies were, or how certain movements could help improve balance or prevent injury or strain. People in bigger bodies mentioned that they want to feel included and treated with respect - when the chatter is constantly about becoming smaller, the emphasis of movement shifts away from wellbeing. And some people shared they’ve been grateful for instructors with perspective to recognize that the instructions or movements may need to be tailored for people in varying body sizes.
What do people want less of while they’re moving their bodies? They’d like fewer comments about calories burned, compensating for holidays, the weekend or ‘bathing suit season,’ and less talk about earning or burning specific foods. Interestingly enough, these responses reflect what the research shows. If you’re interested, I highly recommend you consider the science of Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating and long-term weight regulation.
Having a healthy relationship with exercise is an incredible gift - it’s a fabulous way a person can take care of themselves. When I first learned about the non-diet approach and paradigm, it was difficult to recognize how I had contributed to a compensatory culture in the past. It was hard to learn and look inward, but I am now so grateful for a better understanding so I can truly do no harm. Maya Angelou gave us all some grace when she said ‘do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’
I’ve written this letter to help begin a dialogue, as I had many people reach out and say they’re not sure how to best convey their thoughts around this topic. Please look for the nuance here - it’s entirely possibly that your fitness environment is doing all these things very well, and I thank you for the positive influence you have. It’s also possible there is room to be a bit more thoughtful in your messaging, and consider how it may impact the people in the room.
If you’re interested in a respectful conversation, I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for your time, and thoughtful consideration as we work to restore the joy of movement.
Kathleen Meehan MS, RD, LDN
Please feel free to print this letter and share as you feel it will be helpful. If you'd like a PDF copy, please send me an email.