When it comes to performances in the gym, trainers and coaches love a good contradiction. We celebrate the strong and skinny, the young but skilled. We cheer whenever a woman picks up a weight heavier than 10 pounds, all in a well-meaning – if not patronizing – effort to democratize this thing called fitness. The gym is not the exclusive domain of genetically gifted dudes, is the message. You – yes you – belong here, too.
There's a blind spot, though, in this utopian vision. Chalk it up to an endless gale of misinformation and marketing, but fitness pros and gym rats alike can't seem to accept the baffling paradox that a person can be both fit and fat. Fat people are rarely portrayed in a powerful or competent light, especially when it comes to health and fitness messaging. They're the miserable "before" picture; never content with who they are, their current state of largeness is seen a transitory thing, a stop along the way to being thin and beautiful.
Prejudices, biases, partialities – whatever you want to call them, we're all guilty of harbouring preconceived notions of one form or another. The foundation of our industry is built upon the supposed fact that being overweight is bad. We've been conditioned to marshal all of our resources to eliminate the scourge of excess adipose tissue at all costs, including the use of manual calipers that clasp on to skin folds so we can measure with surgical focus just how fat you really are. We see an overweight client and the assumption is that person is out of shape, unhealthy and desperate for change.
It's time we change our perspective. According to a recent study conducted by York University's School of Kinesiology and Health Science, in which 853 obese individuals were subjected to a treadmill test to measure their cardiovascular fitness, even people at the top end of the Body Mass Index (BMI) can have a relatively high level of fitness and present many biological markers of good health (normal blood glucose levels, normal blood pressure, high-functioning lipid metabolism), as long as they maintain a consistent physical fitness program.
"We have to disconnect body weight from the importance of fitness," said Dr. Jennifer Kuk, the associate professor who led the study. "It can be more difficult for obese people to be fit, but you can still get the health benefits of exercise without losing weight."
As Kuk points out, even meeting the government-recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week only translates to one or two pounds of weight loss per month.
"Still, any amount of exercise – even 10 minutes a week – can lead to dramatic improvements in health."
Trainers have a responsibility to address the legitimate health risks (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis) that are associated with being overweight, but what if the overweight person who's hired you presents none of those issues? What if they already eat a healthy diet, sleep eight hours a night, walk 30 minutes to and from work daily and only want to learn some cool weightlifting techniques to add into the mix because they're perfectly happy with their body, thank you very much? Making weight loss the focal point of their fitness plan is only going to ensure you lose a client.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that every fat person on Earth is well aware of the negative health consequences of being overweight, that they've been told about them by every doctor they've seen, every person they know (and just as many people they don't know).
Rather than focusing on BMI (an outdated and flawed system), I suggest applying a more practical and universally applicable metric, one that I've appropriated from California-based trainer Chip Conrad: If aliens were to invade tomorrow, leading to a full-scale war of the worlds, would you be a physically useful ally in the fight for humanity? Could you march, lift, push and carry? Could you rise to the occasion and help lead us to victory? It's a lot more fun and engaging to contemplate this scenario than to imagine another dinner of steamed broccoli and grilled tilapia.
This is not to say that aesthetic goals don't matter, but maybe they should matter less than society says they do. Late last year, a Twitter friend wrote a piece for Vice that went viral about how his quest for abs ruined his life. I too shared a similar – if less soul-destroying – experience. My training philosophy has since shifted and is now centred on the journey rather than the destination. Focus on that, friends, and your body will change. Or maybe it won't, and that's okay. Sedentary behaviour is the enemy, not some perceived physical imperfection.