Eliminate weight-loss centered messaging from your fitness programs to improve enrollment, retention, and improved health outcomes.
COVID-19 turned the fitness industry upside down and forced every gym, personal trainer, and group fitness instructor to re-evaluate their programs, systems, processes, and business structures. As we’re slowly getting back to normal (…or maybe I should say: as we’re learning how to establish a new normal), refining our values as professionals to better align with our personal values, being intentional with creating the type of culture we’re seeking to build among our communities, and taking up-to-date research into consideration should be a part of this “new normal”.
If the last two years taught us anything about marketing our fitness services, enrolling participants in our programs, and retaining them as members, it’s that we have to get creative. We must become okay with the ever-changing landscape of the fitness industry. We need to prioritize both innovation and excellent service…and with change being the norm, it’s also the perfect time to begin examining our old beliefs and assumptions about health, fitness, and bodies.
Most (if not all) group fitness instructors I know got into this business because they genuinely want to help people live a healthier lifestyle.
The problem, though, is that we often assume becoming “healthier” occurs simply by losing weight through diet change and exercise. As group fitness instructors, we DO have an amazing opportunity to help others improve their health; but it’s imperative we begin to recognize that health is not limited to simply what we eat and how we move.
It also encompasses mental, emotional, and social health; all things that can be fostered through participation in group exercise classes and facilitated by instructors. However, when we centralize weight loss and physical body change in marketing our programs, we’re directly contributing to diet culture.
Diet culture is a belief system that values thinness and equates the pursuit of health as being morally virtuous. It’s also a system of oppression that harms marginalized people who don’t meet the “fit” ideal. When we’re using the promise of weight loss to promote and sell fitness programs, not only are we upholding this oppressive system, we’re also using manipulative marketing tactics and false advertising. Studies have shown time and time again that intentional weight loss is not sustainable long-term for most people.
- In a meta-analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies, more than half of the lost weight was regained within two years, and by five years more than 80% of lost weight was regained
- ⅓-⅔ of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets and various studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change
- A growing trans-disciplinary movement called Health at Every Size (HAES) challenges the value of promoting weight loss and dieting behavior and argues for a shift in focus to weight-neutral outcomes
Because of this, it’s important that group fitness instructors consider what shifts can be made in program marketing and delivery to eliminate a weight-loss focus. When we prioritize practices that are, instead, founded upon helping others cultivate authentic health, we’re facilitating a safe fitness environment that reduces the likelihood of: yo-yo dieting, weight cycling, disordered eating and exercise behaviors, and weight stigma – all things that are directly related to poor health outcomes. In fact, in very recent study, it was proven that employing a weight-neutral approach that focuses on increasing cardiorespiratory fitness and/or physical activity is directly associated with greater reductions in mortality risk than is intentional weight loss (Gaesser, Angadi, 2021).
Yo-yo dieting and weight cycling negatively affect the health of our clients and our bottom line.
Yo-yo dieting and weight cycling are not only direct predictors of negative health outcomes such as increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and elevated blood pressure, this trend also translates over into what we see on the business side of things in terms of gym enrollment and fitness program participation.
Consider how we often see fitness participants return every single year at predictable times: in January, for example. It’s no secret that fitness programming makes up a portion of the $72 billion weight loss industry, and from a business perspective, it’s simply supply-and-demand: we, the fitness professionals, can supply the promise and hope of weight loss because the demand from consumers is extremely high.
Results not guaranteed, though!
Although we see an increase in participation (and therefore: income) when participants are motivated by the idea of weight loss, we also see the opposite (a decrease in participation and income) when the initial motivation wears off. According to IHRSA, 4% of the new year gym members quit by the end of January, 14% quit by the end of February, and 50% quit within 6 months.
Is it actually a sustainable business model to continue on with the cycle of relying on one month (January) to boost our annual income budget based on when people are seeking to lose weight?
Maybe: If we actually plan for this type of income fluctuation. And: if we’re okay with basing our entire business model off of shame, manipulation, and upholding diet culture.
But, if we begin to shift away from a weight-loss-centric approach within our fitness programming, it’s possible that we would see this translate into a business model that doesn’t rely on January to make or break our bottom line, while also serving our clients in a way that is actually going to benefit their health, long-term.
The unfortunate reality is that we might be hesitant to adopt a weight-neutral model with our fitness businesses because it certainly goes against industry norms. It’s scary to try something new, especially when it’s the complete opposite of how we’re accustomed to operating. When we address these fears in regards to shifting the paradigm of our fitness programming, we are also faced with untangling our own internalized capitalism and anti-fat bias.
Ultimately, it all comes back to intentionally choosing to create a culture that aligns our personal values with our business practices. When we make the decision to eliminate a weight-loss focus from our fitness programing, we’re drawing a line in the sand that will likely cause us to lose clients and members who don’t resonate with this value system.
And that’s okay.
When we take an active stand against practices that uphold diet culture, contribute to weight stigma, and perpetuate disordered eating and exercise behaviors, we’re laying the foundation to create safe fitness spaces where all bodies can feel included. Experiencing weight stigma directly results in folks choosing not to participate in group movement environments. This self-exclusion among those who have been faced with weight-based discrimination is an indicator of less physical activity as a whole (Bombak, 2015).
Additionally, feelings of discouragement and disappointment when weight loss is not a byproduct of adopting a new movement routine disincentivizes people from continuing on with an exercise routine (Thedinga, Zehl, Thiel, 2021). This is why it’s so important to shift into a weight-neutral focus within our fitness programs and begin to promote movement for more.
WHERE DO I START?
- If we value creating movement spaces that are welcoming, safe, and inviting for people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, eliminating the goal or promise of weight loss from our fitness programming/marketing is a great first step.
- In addition to eliminating weight loss-based messaging, it’s important to actively promote all of the other benefits of physical activity that aren’t tied to weight loss such as improved strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Reduced stress. Socialization. Our clients and participants are so used to associating exercise with weight loss; consistent conversations around dis-associating the two things need to be prioritized.
- It’s imperative that we continue unlearning old beliefs around health and fitness by learning directly from others who have personally experienced body-based discrimination in both a medical and exercise settings and those who promote movement for all types of people. We can do this by purchasing their books, programs, and courses and by elevating their voices as leaders in the fitness industry.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of places to begin:
- Ragen Chastain: speaker, writer, dancer, marathoner, ACE Certified Health Coach & Functional Fitness Specialist, in training to be an iron-distance triathlete, activist, real-life fat person
- Meg Boggs: author of Fitness for Every Body, influencer, speaker, advocate for fitness inclusivity
- Aubrey Gordon: Author of What We Don’t Talk About when we Talk About Fat, Maintenance Phase Podcast Host, writer, speaker, community organizer
- Chrissy King: writer, speaker, fitness and strength coach, and a powerlifter with a passion for intersectional feminism and creating a diverse and inclusive fitness industry
- Sonya Renee Taylor: Author of The Body is not an Apology, award winning poet, activist, and leader
- All Bodies on Bikes: a movement to create and foster a size inclusive bike community
- Fat Girls Hiking: a fat activism, body liberation & outdoor community who takes the shame and stigma out of the word fat. Their motto “Trails Not Scales” focuses on self-care in the outdoors.
It’s also important that we assess where we can create opportunities for folks to engage in physical activity that is: approachable, realistic, and sustainable. Unfortunately, many people quit new movement practices before they’re able to experience the long-term benefits because of the expectation that exercise has to be intense and extreme. Positive physical, mental, and social health outcomes can be achieved through exercise, regardless of whether or not someone exercises every single day or loses, gains, or stays at the same weight.
Interested in digging deeper? Enroll in Shame-Free Fitness.
Shame-Free Fitness is a new continuing education course for fitness professionals who strive to be the change within an industry centered around diet culture. This is a course specifically designed for group exercise instructors, personal trainers, group fitness coordinators, gym managers, and other fit pros who value serving their members in a way that’s free of guilt, shame, manipulation, and weight-loss centered messaging. Registration opens again in January 2022.
Bombak, A. E. (2015). Obese persons’ physical activity experiences and motivations across weight changes: a qualitative exploratory study. BMC Public Health, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-2456-0
Gaesser, G. A., & Angadi, S. S. (2021). Obesity treatment: Weight loss versus increasing fitness and physical activity for reducing health risks. IScience, 24(10), 102995. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2021.102995
Thedinga, H. K., Zehl, R., & Thiel, A. (2021). Weight stigma experiences and self-exclusion from sport and exercise settings among people with obesity. BMC Public Health, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10565-7