Personal Trainers: Beware of My Mom!

Personal Trainer with bariatric surgeon Denver patient

I was in the Personal Trainers’ office at a local gym recently, and saw the following caption attached to some popular cartoon characters:

“I’m fat because obesity runs in my family.”

“No, you’re fat because no one runs in your family.”

One of the cartoon characters was laughing hysterically, the other was not.

I will reiterate where I found the aforementioned cartoon—in the Personal Trainers’ Office at the gym. These are the very people to whom we entrust our feelings of physical inadequacy or unattractiveness. These are the experts to whom we look for guidance in our fitness routines, diets, and, in some cases, relationships. How could they be so crass? So arrogant?

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but I have had several encounters with personal trainers who claim that overweight patrons are just lazy. As I mentioned in a blog several years ago, when I offered bariatric information and seminars to the clients of the Chief Personal Trainer at a major gym, he responded with, “I don’t see the problem. They just need to diet and exercise—calories in, calories out.”

Much to my utmost dismay, I have had numerous patients tell me their Personal Trainers are abusive, discriminatory, and have even fat-shamed them in their efforts to lose weight. I even heard of a Physician Assistant who specializes in weight loss, send two women crying from her office, after she accused them of drug-seeking, when they asked for a trial of appetite suppressants to help in their stalled weight loss efforts.

People who have never struggled with their weight will never understand why one person can eat a small serving of ice cream and gain 3 pounds, while another can go on a weekend pizza and fast food binge and not gain an ounce. Our genetics, hormones, medical conditions, and metabolism are all different from one another’s. It seems as if some people can talk on the phone to their mother for 10 minutes and gain 5 pounds (ahem, no hard feelings, Mom), while others can graze all day in front of the television without any weight effect whatsoever.

We are fortunate to have resources available to us that have examined the effects of specific exercises and structured diet plans on various body types. We can now tailor unique programs to patients that are struggling with more than 30 pounds of excess weight, without hurting them physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The often utilized, one-size-fits-all model of personal training does not necessarily apply to clients with a higher BMI. Coaches take previous injuries into account when designing diet and exercise plans, why don’t more Trainers design programs for clients with different weights? More importantly, why aren’t more Personal Trainers sensitive to weight as a disease process, rather than labelling it a symptom of laziness.

For example, most people are aware that the “Biggest Loser” philosophy of working out all day until you drop is not a viable option for people with jobs, school, families, limited finances, and preexisting medical conditions; however that model is often touted as the path to fitness. But not everyone knows of the struggles, injuries (physical and mental) and pain that the contestants of a show like that must endure. Case in point, calling the contestants, “Losers,” in and of itself, creates a culture of shaming—which has proven to be harmful, not helpful. Additionally, people that have 100 pounds of excess weight should not be thrown into grueling workouts that beat up joints, cause shin splints, and tear muscles. And they should certainly not be undertaking horrendous 4-hour workouts with only 500 calories per day of fuel (see HCG-type diets).

While I have had the pleasure of interacting with some extremely bright trainers, who dedicate themselves to working with the bariatric population, they have been the exception, not the rule. It behooves us to integrate the needs of our heavier patients in the Personal Trainer certification process.

Case in point: A patient that struggles with severe joint pain and obesity is in a vicious cycle. The orthopedic surgeon informs the patient that he or she cannot undergo a joint replacement until the patient loses weight. That surgeon then typically prescribes an exercise routine. Unfortunately, that patient is unable to perform those exercises because he or she has joint disease prohibiting the very activities that are being prescribed (“You’ve got to have a membership card to get inside”).

After a heart attack, patients undergo something called cardiac rehabilitation, a gradual increase in exercise to help strengthen a heart that has limited functional capacity. Cardiac rehab specialists do not throw recent heart attack patients into a hellacious regime of burpees and jump squats, because that would be harmful. Do those cardiac rehab specialists have cartoons in their offices making fun of patients with heart disease? Probably not.

The day after a total knee replacement for severe joint disease, the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist do not tell the patient to go out and run a marathon, because that would be harmful! Does the Physical Therapist have posters in his or her office making fun of people learning how to walk after a car accident?

According to the American Medical Association, obesity is a disease. In the same manner as in the aforementioned examples, a patient that struggles with 100 pounds of excess weight is also suffering from a disease. That patient should not be told to run on the treadmill for an hour and perform 5 sets of weighted pullups, the first time they show up for a personal training session. And they certainly should not be ridiculed (overtly or behind closed doors) for not being able to get rid of their disease. Where is the disconnect? Why is it acceptable to shame the patients trying to improve his or her weight, when no one is making fun of the stroke victim, or breast cancer patient. Almost every major health problem we face in the Western World, other than trauma and infectious disease, is associated with obesity. The incidence of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure are all increased as our weight increases. Yet, while no one is making fun of the cancer victims, many people continue to mock and discriminate against patients struggling with obesity. By the way, Personal Trainers of the world, those clients who you mock are paying your salaries!

I would like to see more collaboration between Bariatric Programs and Coaches to tailor workouts and diet plans to our specific patient population. My Practice collaborates with a number of Coaches that have undergone sensitivity training, education about the various bariatric procedures (It drives me up the wall when a Trainer tells a bypass patient to guzzle 20 ounces of water between cardio and weight lifting), and have exercise programs that are designed for patients that struggle with more than 30 pounds of excess weight.

Above all, we need to increase the awareness that being overweight does not equate to being lazy. Weight remains one of the last characteristics for which it is still socially acceptable to discriminate. As our obesity rates climb beyond 30% in many countries, skinny discriminators had best wake up, lest they be overtaken by the new majority! And do me a favor, Personal Trainers, take down that dang cartoon!

Let’s get healthy together!

Dr. Matt Metz, MD, FACS
Medical Director
Bariatric and Aesthetic Surgery Associates