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!”