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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!”

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6 Responses to “Are Women More Motivated By A Chubby Fitness Trainer?”

  1. Anneke says:

    my theory is that most people with a (slight) weight problem (like me) feel bad about themselves (which is the reason they/we don’t take better care of our bodies) and feel that they will be judged by the really thin athletic types. It’s actually my main reason for having misgivings about going to a real fitness instead of the fysiotherapy fitness I’ve been doing.
    That doesn’t mean I want a chubby trainer, because with a good trainer you know they just want the best for you and aren’t judging you for your weight.

    It’s actually a lot like why people are afraid to go to the dentist, they feel that they will be judged for the state of their teeth (which won’t get any better if they don’t go to the dentist…)

  2. Dr. Val Jones says:

    Interesting, Anneke. People may feel judged by a skinny trainer… but yet don’t want to work out with a chubby one. That’s quite a catch 22. I personally believe that a lot of skinny/athletic trainers are insecure about themselves too… So it’s probably best to just jump in and do what we can – to heck with what others think, right? 😉

  3. Carolyn Thomas says:

    I am surprised that you were surprised. This is merely about the universally uncomfortable “I don’t belong here!” reaction when one is surrounded by those who are clearly “not like me”.

    Indeed, I’m guessing that the very fact that you seemed surprised might be precisely why your gym owner friend was attempting to exclude you from participating in the gym’s plan.

    When I was touring a gym many years ago as a new member, I noticed signs posted throughout the co-ed weight room: “No Grunting. No Groaning. No Posing”. I thought it was a joke – until the gym staffer touring me around explained: “Most people find that very off-putting!” In other words, we don’t look at the elite athletes who are doing all that “grunting, groaning and posing” and feel remotely motivated to be like them. That’s why so many gyms offer women-only facilities, far away from those extreme workouts.

    The reality is that it can actually be de-motivating to many people, particularly middle-aged women of average size, to spend their gym time around ultra-fit athletic types. In my aerobics, weight training or Zumba classes, we have a wide range in shape/size of our instructors, but my favourites are the really fun, friendly, welcoming ones with great music – who look healthy but NOT like over-the-top jocks.

  4. Dr. Val Jones says:

    Thank you for your insights, Carolyn. I am always interested in learning about how others feel – it helps me understand them and become a better friend/colleague/fellow gym goer. Three years ago I had a “mid life crisis” and decided to start exercising regularly. I was a size 12 when I started, and now I’m a 6. But I still see myself as a 12… and so people who meet me for the first time don’t realize how far I’ve come and assume I’m some kind of athlete who has always been this way. I think that’s part of the surprise I feel when I’m lumped in with the “grunting and posing” set… because that’s NOT me at all. Nonetheless, having been on both sides of the coin (chubby and athletic), I can say that some folks just won’t like you either way – judgment and fear of judgment leads to bi-directional dislike in the gym setting. Regular folks may feel dislike for the ultra fit, and vice versa. I’m not sure how to “fix” this except to just be friendly and accepting of my peers… and over time I may win their acceptance too. 😉

  5. Kayla says:

    This was really interesting. I can actually relate to the women who do not want a super fit trainer. I never thought that that was an option, but it really does sound more motivating for me, personally.

  6. Dr. J. says:

    I tend to agree to a point with this premise. I think many “more experienced” (AKA older) women prefer working out with someone who is more fit than they are but not extreme with 6 pack abds and 6% body fat. Being healthy does not necessitate extreme fitness levels and sometimes that is lost with extremely fit trainers. How can a thin buff trainer who has never struggled with weight be empathetic with clients who are now struggling? Somewhat like a never smoker teaching stop smoking classes or a never alcoholic teaching AA. Unless you have been in my shoes how could you possibly know how much they hurt? I chose my trainers based on education (BS in exercise science at a minimum) and high level of certifications (ACSM, NASM. NSCA) as well as experience. but the overly fit thin ones are not who I would chose……………..and if you don’t think they judge you guess again. I have even asked a trainer to put more clothes on so we did not have to look at her 6 pack and veins sticking out of her too thin arms. She thought we all loved looking at her and wanted to be just like her. So I do not think the question is would I chose a chubby trainer over a thin one, But I do want a healthy one who is fit and that just might mean one who does not have 6 packs abds and 6% body fat but looks “healthy” and can motivate me to reach realistic goals.

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