If you are like all the fitness professionals I know, including myself, health isn’t just a job; it is a passion. You truly believe that health and wellness have the potential to empower, enrich, and energize the body and mind. Passion is a good thing, until it isn’t.
We do our clients — and ourselves — a disservice when we let our passion overshadow the fact that any health habit — in the “right” set of unhealthy circumstances — can become toxic. “Health” too often becomes conflated with thinness, youth, and the mirage of perfection. Exercise is a healthy habit … until it isn’t. Being conscious of your nutrition and your weight can be productive … unless the awareness becomes all-consuming. The dose makes the poison.
Habits, beliefs, and actions birthed out of judgment and comparison can perpetuate underlying insecurities and support a lifestyle that is anything but healthy. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, 1 million Canadians meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness; 1 in 10 people die from their disorder. In my experience, official numbers only scratch the surface of the problem. In my twenties I came very close to developing life-altering RED-S — relative energy deficiency in sport. In my quest for perfection my caloric intake often did not meet my training needs. My story is unfortunately not the exception. I have never trained anyone who — after they learned to trust me — didn’t confess to dealing with some amount of body shame, disordered eating, over exercising, and/or dysmorphia. Someone might not meet the formal criteria of living with an eating disorder, but that doesn’t mean their inner world isn’t cruel and belittling and/or that they aren’t flirting dangerously with disordered activities.
As fitness professionals we must be attuned to these issues. We cannot burrow our heads in the sand like ostriches.
Obviously, know your scope of practice. I am not suggesting anyone become an armchair doctor. What I am saying is, be a safe container for yourself and your client, a compassionate and knowledgeable place to land.
Teach your clients that health is an aggregate of all their decisions, that “healthy” habits are only beneficial when they enrich their existence. Exercise is only a positive stress on the tissues when the body is given the ingredients it needs to recover. Without adequate recovery, the body will become exhausted, most likely injured, and overtrained. An unhealthy fixation on food and weight will leave clients, at best, with an unhealthy relationship with food and, at worst, in the hospital owing to malnutrition.
Develop a network that includes a sports nutritionist as well as a doctor who specialises in eating disorders and mental health. Refer as needed. Have resources at your fingertips. I am a big fan of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and Brené Browns’ book The Gifts of Vulnerability. If you think a client needs additional professional guidance, consider resources such as the National Initiative for Eating Disorders ([email protected]).
To ensure your client’s health quest stays healthy, help them find — to borrow from Aristotle — their “golden mean,” the Goldilocks zone where they can truly flourish — the zone where we make choices that are neither excessive nor deficient.
True long-term health requires us to be Goldilocks. If an individual acts rashly and drastically cuts calories and overtrains, they will become some mixture of malnourished, injured, and unhappy. On the other extreme, if an individual decides that they are too afraid to even try, they will quit without ever actually attempting to be healthy. If you have someone training for an athletic competition their Goldilocks zone will be different than a client wanting to be mobile and active into their eighties. Each person’s Goldilocks zone of health will depend on their unique goals, age, genetics, exercise history, and injury profile.
The key is to teach your clients to respect where they are now, their injury history, and where they want to get to. Teach them to be Goldilocks — to know what is “too much,” what is “too little,” and what is “just right” for them.
Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk. Make choices that truly serve your health vs choices that create an image that you believe will “sell.” Find your Goldilocks zone. Respect yourself enough to give yourself what you need. Burnout, overtraining, and exhaustion are not badges of honour. If you are struggling, get help. If you need a break, take a vacation. If you need rest, sleep.