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Are Women More Motivated By A Chubby Fitness Trainer?

I was taken aback by a recent conversation I had with a gym owner. She is interested in encouraging middle-aged women to come to the gym for beginner-level fitness classes and was planning a strategy meeting for her staff and key clients. I asked if I could join and she said that I was expressly un-invited. Slightly miffed I asked why that was so – after all, I’m a rehab physician who has devoted my career to getting people moving.

“You’re too advanced.” She said. “Beginners wouldn’t relate to the way you work out, we’re really more focused on creating a less intimidating environment for women.”

“You mean, like the Planet Fitness ads? The ones where athletes are not welcome?” I asked, confusedly.

“I don’t like those ads but the idea is the same. Beginners feel deflated by working out with people who are in far better shape. They don’t even want their instructor to look too fit.”

“You’re kidding me. Women would actually prefer working out with a chubby trainer?”

“Yes. In fact, I’ve had some women come to the gym and actually request NOT to be paired up with some of our personal trainers specifically because they look too fit. They are afraid they will be asked to work too hard, beyond their comfort zone.”

“So why are they coming to the gym in the first place?” I asked. “What is motivating them if they don’t want to work out hard or change their bodies in the direction of athletic-looking trainers?”

“They’re just interested in staying the way they’ve always been. Maybe they’ve started putting on weight after they hit their 40′s and 50′s and just want to get back to where they were in their 30′s. They’re not interested in running marathons or lifting the heaviest weights in the gym. They don’t want to be pushed too hard, and they prefer trainers who look healthy but not extreme.”

Medically speaking, it doesn’t take extreme effort to be healthy. Many studies have shown that regular walking is adequate to stave off certain diseases, and weight loss success stories (chronicled at the National Weight Control Registry for example) usually result from adherence to a calorie-restricted diet and engagement in moderate exercise.

In a sense, these women who “don’t want to work that hard” are right – they don’t have to perform extreme feats to be healthy. However, I am still fascinated by the preference for “average looking” trainers and the apparent bias against athleticism. This must be a fairly common bias, though, because national gym chains (like Planet Fitness) have picked up on it and made it the cornerstone of their marketing strategy. “No judgments” – except if you’ve got buns of steel, I guess.

When I choose a trainer I am looking for someone who embodies the best of what exercise can offer. An athlete who has practiced their craft through years of sweat and effort… because that’s my North Star. Sure, I may never arrive at the North Star myself, but I like to reach. And that’s what motivates me.

But for others, having a professional athlete for a trainer may be a mindset misfit. If your aspiration is to be healthy but not athletic, then it makes sense to find inspiration in those who embody that attitude and lifestyle. The important thing is that we all meet the minimum exercise requirements for optimum health. According to the CDC, that means:

* 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week


* muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).

How you get there, and with whom you arrive, is up to you. Chubby or steely – when it comes to health and fitness the best mantra is, “whatever works!”

Dear Special K: I Have A Better Idea For Your Real Women Ads!

Kellogg’s Special K cereal brand has long been known for its iconic slim woman in a red bathing suit. In a bold, Dove-soap-like new ad campaign, they have decided to feature “real women” – which apparently means women with larger BMIs – in red bathing suits. A Special K spokeswoman explains,

“We want to encourage a responsible attitude when it comes to body image and to show that losing weight isn’t just about the way you look or a certain size you need to conform to, but more importantly about the way it makes you feel.

The fact that we are using real women for the first time of a variety of shapes and sizes is the perfect way to encourage women to think differently about losing weight and not just focus on the numbers on the bathroom scales.”

While I certainly appreciate the intent, I think there may be an even better way of achieving the objective of avoiding an over-emphasis on the bathroom scale. Instead of normalizing and accepting overweight bodies, why not show what women of the same percent body fat look like? That might be a healthier way to help us wrap our minds around the fact that (for example) 21% body fat on one woman might look very different than 21% body fat on another… Of course body fat alone is not a perfect measure of health – cardiovascular fitness doesn’t always correlate with it. But it’s a potential new way of normalizing healthy bodies rather than accepting a new overweight standard.

In fact, with the upcoming summer Olympic games, it might be fun to show the many faces of fitness. Women athletes at the peak of their performance look very different from one another. How about putting them all in red bathing suits?

Anyway, I thank Special K for opening the discussion – and I encourage us all to strive for optimal health. But as a physician, I believe that we shouldn’t accept overweight bodies as a new health standard. Good health does come in many shapes and sizes, but not in high levels of body fat.

The Truth About Weight Gain

Consuming excess calories increases body fat, regardless of how many calories come from protein. High-protein diets do affect energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, just not body fat storage.

To evaluate the effects of overconsumption of low-, normal-, and high-protein diets on weight gain, researchers conducted a single-blind, randomized controlled trial of 25 healthy, weight-stable adults in an inpatient metabolic unit in Baton Rouge, La. Patients were ages 18 to 35 with a body mass index between 19 and 30. The study was headed by George A. Bray, MD, MACP.

After consuming a weight-stabilizing diet for 13 to 25 days, participants were randomized to diets containing 5% of energy from protein (low protein), 15% (normal protein) or 25% (high protein). Only the kitchen staff who supervised participants while they were eating knew the assignments. There was no prescribed exercise, and alcohol and caffeine were restricted.

Patients were Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

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