Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On Personal Training and Health At Every Size

I was going to be a Personal Trainer. I was going to pay my dues at a big box gym until I had the experience and clients to go off on my own and do what I wanted to do: Specialize in working with pregnant and post-partum women. I thought this was something that people really needed.

See, most easy-to-find personal trainers have never given birth to a child. If you walk into a gym in search for a personal trainer, or (in my personal experience) more commonly, when the person selling you the gym membership talks you into adding on a discounted training package and assigns you a trainer, your options are likely to consist primarily of young people really into standard forms of exercise and body building.
(Increasingly alternatives are cropping up, but I'm talking about what the average person is going to find in the den of trainers at the local gym.) And when I've searched for exercise for expecting or new mothers, usually the options seem to be yoga, stroller work-out groups, or group "boot camps" promising quick results. If you're into group exercise-that-cannot-be-confused-with-what-you'd-do-if-it-weren't-Good-For-You), any of those might be fun, depending on what you're looking for - but one-on-one? I don't see much advertising by trainers-who-are-mothers reaching out to potential-mama-clients. I used to be quite sure that this mama market was one that needed to be addressed, having heard women complain of being shamed for having a "baby pouch" or not immediately dropping weight, or being too hungry. I thought it would be great to be the trainer who would come to them so they wouldn't have to figure out how to leave their new babies. I wanted to be the trainer who could tell them that it is 150% normal to feel hungrier than you've ever felt before when you're breastfeeding a bebe and that you need to eat more than you need to fit back into your pre-preggo jeans. I wanted to be the trainer to tell them that if something hurts, don't do it! It's more important to heal and enjoy your baby than to try to imitate some ridiculous lie about stars who magically drop all their baby weight 82 minutes before they give birth. Etc.

And then I discovered the concept of Health At Every Size. And Fat Acceptance. And I was blown away by Kate Harding's The Fantasy of Being Thin. And I realized that, no matter how nice my fantasy was of helping mamas avoid maternal shaming, I was still ultimately supporting the machine that told them they needed to drop the weight in the first place. And that's when I threw my hands up and stepped back.

My mind is still a little blown by the idea of learning to love your body as part of you, rather than trying to force it into some pre-conceived notion of beauty. And increasingly those savvy marketers are swapping out the "shallow" notion of thin-to-be-beautiful with thin-to-be-healthy without actually including anything remotely health-promoting.

Oh, here's something fun to try: Find a personal trainer and tell them that you want to find exercise you'll enjoy, but you're not wanting to lose weight. It's not going to work, especially if you're completely honest about what you don't enjoy.

When you're studying to become a personal trainer, a big portion of what you have to learn is measurements because - bottom line - the idea of a trainer is someone who can help you make improvements. How do you know if you're improving? Measurements. Right off the bat, weight and body fat are huge. Then there's all the faster, stronger, higher stuff. Which is great if those are actually measurements you need to meet some goal that makes you happy. But if you're looking to just learn about forms of exercise that are available (to give you a better chance of finding something that you love and totally jumps your joi-de-vivre), this gets touchy and while you might find some awesome trainer who can help you, you're going to have to be pretty assertive to avoid practices that actually reinforce body hatred. I'm not a trainer and I'm not giving advice. I'm just suggesting that if you've gone to trainers and felt like it didn't work, it isn't your fault. The most important aspect of training (IMO) is knowing how to help people feel powerful and motivated, and if tables and measurable results stress you out and make you feel bad and you know you don't like gyms - the problem is not that you're a worthless lazy person who needs to learn to like the gym. The problem is that you're being guided from the wrong angle. There is nothing wrong with you if trying to accustom yourself to pain and humiliation does not, in fact, motivate you to enthusiastically increase your tolerance for more pain and humiliation. To me, that sounds pretty sane.

As many people promoting Health at Every Size will tell you, find what you love and work from there.

So, a few people have mentioned that they'd love to find a trainer who was into FA and HAES. I think this sounds awesome. At this point I've shelved/abandoned my PT ambitions in order to pursue medical anthropology,but I'd love to see a movement of trainers who help people actually pursue activity that they love without the body hatred attached. Is that in the scope of your average PT training and certification? Probably - but I do wonder how much would be better addressed by life coaches or something of that ilk. Also, I think there's a database of fat-friendly medical providers. It might be cool to have something of that nature for exercise-related professions.

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