The fitness industry has long been a body image focused market. Selling the benefits of physical results made popular in the media by bodybuilders; trainers, and gyms from the 1970’s. Popular fitness presenters have also embedded this in to the generations, Jane Fonda from the 1980’s, Mr Motivator (Derrick Evans) from 1990’s, and more currently Shaun T, creator of Insanity.
Media plays a big part in our industry, and physical results are something we can see, that can be shown as a benefit of paying for gym membership or personal training. Marketing these results is powerful but can also be detrimental to the fitness member and personal training client. Most results portrayed in the media require long term dedication; training twice a day, and achieving weekly workout targets of 10-12 sessions a week that includes resistance; cardio, and active recovery. A training schedule for a trainer; a celebrity, and anyone who can fit that plan into full time work; family, and other personal commitments. This would be difficult for the average fitness member or personal training client.
Over the last 10 years our industry has begun to understand that promoting the other benefits of a healthy active lifestyle are just as important for bringing in new clients to their programs and facilities. We know exercise will release endorphins and promote feelings of happiness; confidence, enthusiasm, and energy. We also know that exercise can help reduce; stress, anxiety, mental fatigue, and depression symptoms. More importantly we know that exercise can improve people’s self esteem and self worth. These are powerful benefits of exercise that everyone can benefit from.
Our industry does attract a wide range of people, a fitness assessment does not always reveal the real reasons someone is looking to workout or underlying symptoms that have not been disclosed. Mental health is moving to the forefront of discussion in the workplace and becoming easier to talk about. Everyone will suffer some form of mental ill health at some stage in their lives, even if it is short term bouts. As a personal trainer, you are not a Dr; a psychologist, or occupational therapist but it is good to be aware of mental health symptoms in general and around body image.
Negative or Distorted Body Image
Body image refers to how people see themselves not how other people see them, it is their own perspective of their physical state. Negative body image refers to a distorted view of personal body image, often associated with eating disorders in both men and women, including bulimia, and anorexia. With fitness being one of the biggest trends of the millennial generation, more and more people are choosing to be fit and healthy rather than boozy and lazy. The age range in some gyms now spans from 16+ in large scale commercial gyms that have expanded immensely in the UK, providing low cost, high value gym access. Personal trainers; fitness instructors, group exercise instructors, and those in management or sales roles within the sector, have a duty of care to the industries members. Primarily to safeguard people from physical; emotional, and social harm. Our industry has a responsibility to safeguard members and each other from the detrimental effects of both unattainable results and unrealistic results. Attempting to achieve very low body fat levels and higher levels of muscularity consistently requires lots of sacrifice, even physique competitors and athletes have an “off season”. To achieve these extreme physical results, significant changes in diet and training must be made. These changes come with low mood; energy and can affect a persons mental state. Being “ripped” for extended periods of time, can lead to feelings of “depression”, commonly reported by numerous athletes in the industry.
Body Dysmorphia Disorder
Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition that can be influenced by media and made worse over time. The condition refers to people spending excessive amounts of time worrying about flaws in their physical appearance, sometimes flaws unnoticeable to everyone around them. People of any age can suffer from this condition but is commonly seen in teenagers and young adults, affecting both men and women. Having (BDD) does not mean you are vain or self obsessed. It can be very upsetting and have a real negative, time consuming impact on your life. Further reading on Body Dysmorphia can be found on the NHS website
Another condition that falls under BDD is Muscle Dysmorphia (MDD), also known as “Bigorexia” or “Reverse Anorexia”. This condition mainly affects men who have an unhealthy obsession to gaining muscle and being lean, they perceive themselves as smaller than they are and will continually train to gain muscle, this is a distorted view of their personal body image. People with MDD will train through pain; injury, take risks with their health, suffer mood swings, anxiety, and prioritise training over important family commitments. This condition crosses the line from healthy training and what would be considered competitive, structured bodybuilding to, a negative preoccupation that will have an unhealthy impact on their lives.
Relationship Between Body Weight & Body Image
A normal healthy weight range can be perceived as overweight by someone with a distorted body image. This is common with anorexia and bulimia. Muscle Dysmorphia is the opposite of this, they perceive themselves as smaller or lighter than they actually are. People who perceive these personal images of themselves will communicate that they did not realise they were as big or as small as they were until they see a picture; video, or a reflection of themselves. These occurrences help people understand and come to realise a truer reflection of their body image. Clearly if the media displays bigger; leaner, smaller, or altered images, people who suffer these conditions will continually struggle until they are shown examples of their true image against what could be considered normal and healthy people.
Contributing Factors to Distorted Body Image
Leading problems with Body Dysmorphia conditions relate to the Media, comparison to well marketed and digitally altered imagery is unattainable. Our peers can influence our ideas of what is attractive. For example, we are told at any early age that men should be strong; fit, and muscular. Conditioning the male brain to work towards that. Body image conditioning is very common in sport, specifically gymnastics where athletes are encouraged to lose weight to achieve the aesthetic look and the balance between power to weight ratios for high performing, explosive movements. There are many other contributing factors but these are common within our industry. Social media has exaggerated the reach of this type of influence with numerous fitness accounts by companies and individual “social media influencers”.
Supporting People With Body Dysmorphia
We must not forget that as a Personal Trainer or fitness instructor (you are not a Dr), the role of a personal trainer is to provide informed information that is comparable to healthy and unhealthy results, to ensure people are aware of what is considered healthy and unhealthy and encourage practices that will have a positive impact. We are there to build relationships and advise clients if required that they are moving towards an unhealthy state. Once you get to know a client you will have the ability, in confidence, to suggest that they may need to see a professional, a cognitive behavioural therapist. A GP will refer someone to a (CBT specialist) if there is a requirement. CBT teaches you to be aware of your thoughts, helps build positive thought processes and how to manage your thoughts. Specifically it will help a person obtain a true perspective on themselves and the world around them.
Being aware of mental health is highly important in our industry, it is the duty of care of everyone working in the industry to support those suffering or those who are at risk from becoming unwell due to distorted perceptions of body image. If you recognise signs or symptoms within your clients or members in the gym, get to know them, learn about their exercise history and habits. At a low level you can begin to influence healthier habits if this is required. Once you have a relationship and it is required, you can provide the client or member evidence that they may need to consider changing their unhealthy exercise habits, or suggest they see a Dr before any longer term damage is done.
PT Skills delivers a range of courses and CPD for personal trainers. Available options include online level 2 gym instructor and online level 3 personal trainer courses as well as part time study. PT Skills can support you to become a level 3 personal trainer or level 2 gym instructor.
If you would like to learn more about nutrition for fitness and exercise to turn your passion into career with a personal training qualification, please visit our website for details on our Diploma in Personal Training; level 2 fitness instructor or level 3 personal trainer qualifications, or any of our level 2 awards for Instructing kettlebells, circuits, and suspended movement training.