Health at Every Size vs Weight Loss and Body Transformations
Approximately 10mins Reading Time
Brief Article Overview
- Although training for aesthetics (body shape and size) shouldn’t be the only reason to engage in exercise and healthy nutrition, weight loss and body transformations can significantly improve physical health and self-confidence.
- When working with clients we may need to challenge certain assumptions and set realistic expectations when it comes to healthy weight loss and body transformations.
- Scale weight is a useful health marker for those who are overweight and sedentary but is less reliable for leaner, more active individuals.
- Healthy ranges for body fat are wider than most people think and some body fat is required for optimal health.
- We should be aware of the sacrifices required to achieve very lean physiques.
- When coaching clients, our approach can be either more flexible or more rigid depending on the client’s goals, personality and lifestyle.
- Both flexible and rigid approaches are healthy in their own way but can become unhealthy if taken to extremes.
In a previous article, we described the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, in terms of its principles and interpretations. Some HAES advocates don’t believe that the pursuit of weight loss or body transformations are a healthy or worthwhile endeavour.
They argue that the desire to lose weight stems from arbitrary, culturally constructed standards for health and beauty. Because of this, an oppressive “diet-culture” is imposed onto overweight or obese individuals using weight stigmatization as a form of coercion. Some also believe that weight and health are not synonymous.
We see this position as a backlash against a health and fitness industry that is highly focused on weight loss as the sole reason to exercise and eat well. An industry that is currently failing overweight and obese individuals. HAES rightly identifies the “moralisation of weight” and the prescription of chronic dieting is both unhelpful and unhealthy.
As a personal training club, we work with many clients who want to lose weight and improve their physiques. We have extensive experience in the physical and psychological processes involved in achieving such goals. If our clients are able to separate their sense of worth from their weight, by decreasing the emotional impact of the number on a scale, then weight loss and body transformation goals can be healthy and extremely positive.
Today we will provide you with our position within the health and fitness industry, as it pertains to healthy weight loss and body transformations, and describe the rationale behind our approach with clients who come to us with these goals.
Weight and Body Image
The pursuit of weight loss has dominated the health and fitness industry for decades. The weight loss and weight management diet market size was valued at $192.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. Despite these significant profits, obesity is still on the rise and the statistics on long term weight loss maintenance and weight regain don’t make for optimistic reading.
It also seems that the pressure to lose weight and look good has never been higher. Social media platforms are fueling the fire by exposing users to extreme (sometimes fake) standards for beauty and distorting our ideas of what healthy bodies “should” look like. These photo and video-centric platforms have spawned the rise of the “fitfluencer”, whose entertaining and visually pleasing content can earn them money by promoting diets, products, supplements and training programs (often selling to the highest bidder).
We believe the industry as a whole is somewhat superficial. It currently lacks depth and wisdom, which is evident in the oversimplification of the complex interactions between weight, aesthetics, health and wellbeing. Fortunately, the standard of care and competency amongst health and fitness practitioners is on the rise. We have made it our mission to accelerate this process and share our expertise to help clients achieve their full potential with as much honesty as possible.
As a rule of thumb, in the health and fitness industry, “one size fits all” solutions should be viewed with scepticism. It’s common to see certain fitness communities impose their single-minded practices onto all those who sign up. We call this “fitness fundamentalism”. This can be identified with the belief that there is only one “correct” style of training or diet for all.
People seek personal training for guidance, and to avoid aimlessly drifting from one fitness fad to another, never actually seeing the results they desire. As personal trainers, we have to be skilled at diversifying our approach to meet our client’s needs. We should provide relevant guidance and achievable targets along the way, ensuring our clients continually make progress, whatever that progress may be.
Informed Decisions and Realistic Expectations
We believe it’s good practice to uncover the “deeper why” that underpins our client’s health and fitness goals. It’s common to assume that losing weight is the only way to improve health and wellbeing. For some, weight loss is a worthwhile endeavour that bears fruit on multiple levels. This is usually the case for very overweight or obese individuals. It’s important, however, to set realistic expectations and understand that weight loss (an outcome goal) occurs as a byproduct of daily actions and habits (process goals).
We should make it clear that losing weight is not absolutely necessary to improve health and wellbeing, although it may play a role in doing so. The process of healthy weight loss requires patience and consistency. It is not a linear process and will happen slower than most people expect and desire. Initial weight loss is relatively straightforward, but keeping it off in a sustainable manner requires a solid exit strategy into a well-planned maintenance phase.
Weight Loss vs Fat Loss
Scale weight is a useful and easy to measure metric for health status amongst sedentary, overweight individuals. It is limited however amongst leaner and more active individuals because doesn’t take body composition into account (the ratio of muscle mass to body fat).
Weight loss and fat loss are two different things. Poor nutrition and suboptimal exercise practices can result in weight loss, but at the cost of decreased muscle and bone mass, vitality (energy, mood etc.), metabolic rate, strength and fitness. This is an unsustainable and unhealthy form of weight loss. Optimal exercise and good nutrition will result in maximising fat loss without sacrificing all of the above. This is healthy weight loss.
Body Fat and Health
Where possible, tracking body fat percentage (bio-impedance or callipers) will paint a more accurate picture of health status, as it is excess body fat (not weight per se) that can increase one’s risk of ill health.
Excess body fat (obesity) is defined as >25% for men and >30% for women. The biggest health benefits are gained from dropping out of the obese into the healthy ranges for body fat, which vary widely between 8-25% for men and 15-30% for women.
Beyond this, it’s perfectly possible to be fit and healthy, even in the upper ends of these ranges, depending on lifestyle, exercise and nutrition practices.
When it comes to body transformations, using body weight alone can be somewhat misleading. Gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time (which is possible, especially for beginners) may result in no change on the scales, some may even gain weight. This is why we track body fat, as well as body circumferences to get a better indication of physique changes.
A picture paints a thousand words, so photos can be a powerful way to see progress and provide extra motivation. We usually leave this decision up to the client, but if they do, we recommend using the same lighting, angles and time of the day to get the most accurate representation of progress.
Here’s an example of how weight can be misleading. You can clearly see a successfully body recomposition, where weight remains the same;
The Costs of Getting Lean
Losing fat for health and getting lean for aesthetics are two different things. It’s common to assume that being really lean (very low body fat and visible musculature) is the epitome of health, but it comes at a cost. The hyper-controlled and restrictive nature of the lifestyle that’s required to achieve such results come at social, psychological and physiological costs. Don’t get us wrong, you can stay in fairly good shape all year round, but getting very lean comes with significant lifestyle sacrifices that most aren’t willing to make.
The guys over at Precision Nutrition have written a great article explaining the costs and benefits of achieving certain levels of body fat percentage. The aim is to attain the skills that are required to manipulate these cost/benefit trade-offs at any given time.
Non-Scale Metrics for Health
As we’ve mentioned, initial weight loss is relatively straightforward, but the rate of weight loss will slow down the leaner you get. At lower body fat percentages, scale weight stops being an accurate metric to track progress. If weight is the only thing you’re tracking, when it plateaus or even increases, this could be perceived as a failure, which can lead to demotivation and frustration. But we could simply be missing other forms of progress by not highlighting them.
There are lots of “non-scale” metrics for success that we can use to gauge health, fitness and wellbeing. This provides a multimethod, multitrait matrix for success that is not contingent on weight loss alone. The added bonus here is that sustained weight loss will likely be a byproduct of achieving some (or all) of these non-scale metrics.
The Common Purpose Approach
There are two general approaches we can use when working with clients, no matter the goal. A rigid approach and a flexible approach. Both provide structure, progress and metrics for success. The difference between them comes down to the program specificity and margin for error. The more rigid approach provides highly specific targets, with small margins for error, for example when a client is trying to achieve peak physical shape.
The more flexible approach provides more general guidelines, which have a slightly wider margin for error. This is for those who want to get in good shape and achieve a well balanced, healthy lifestyle without feeling too restricted.
The specific approach will ultimately depend on the client’s goals, personality and lifestyle. There is a healthy zone in which both approaches can operate. However, health is a matter of degree and we must recognise that these approaches can be taken to less healthy extremes.
Competent personal trainers should recognise when clients start to exhibit unhealthy behaviour patterns and intervene before they become pathological.
Ultimately, the Common Purpose approach is evidence-based and client-centred. This means that goal setting and decision making is a collaborative effort, in which the client’s wants and needs are met with the trainer’s knowledge and experience. The client’s goals are always respected, but we must be able to challenge certain assumptions and set realistic expectations where we feel necessary.
Furthermore, we should be able to transition between flexible and rigid coaching styles to complement the client’s personality, goals and lifestyle at a given point in time. Quality trainers are also able to observe unhealthy behaviour patterns and intervene when necessary.
We firmly believe one’s aesthetics or bodyweight doesn’t (and shouldn’t) represent one’s self-worth. We also believe that weight is a limited (but not useless) metric for health. Body composition paints a better picture in terms of progress in the realm of health and body transformation. There are also many other benefits of regular exercise and healthy nutrition that are not solely contingent on weight loss or body transformations.
We should always try to understand the motivations behind all of our client’s goals (finding the deeper why). Beyond this, anyone who chooses to pursue a specific goal from an informed standpoint should be able to do so, without judgement. We highly recommend that this pursuit is guided and supported by experienced and qualified practitioners.
If you’re interested in starting your health and fitness journey with us…