Let’s face it: It’s really hard to take care of our bodies these days—at least, in the developed world. Few of us move like our ancestors did. No more chucking spears at mammoths, no more building our homes by hand, and very little good old-fashioned walking around to get places.
But the problems and inconveniences we have solved with our combustion engines, escalators, and riding mowers have been replaced by new ones. Our sedentary lifestyle has led to widespread chronic joint and back pain, heart disease, type II diabetes and even some forms of cancer. By far, the biggest share of the $3 trillion health costs in this country is spent on preventable chronic disease. Much of that burden would disappear if the American population was more physically active, and ate a more nutritious diet.
Because of this, until we can change our environments to favor natural movement and promote healthier food choices, many of us rely on advice and services from health and fitness professionals.
But the health and fitness industry is rife with problems. The hype, the body-shaming, the obsession with weight and body-fat—these things stand as barriers to people actually adopting healthy habits that they can maintain throughout their lives. Even so, this is the industry we look to when we decide we want to learn about our bodies—how they work, and how to take care of them, and how we can use them to experience enjoyable, natural movement.
So, if you have a trainer, or you’re thinking about hiring a trainer or some other sort of health professional, you want to be in the best hands. I offer here a simple test: three questions to pose to your potential health guru, to weed out the bad ones. And believe me, there are bad ones out there.
1: Do I Need to Lose Weight?
You don’t need to lose weight. If you’re an average American, you probably need to be more physically active, and you could probably tweak your diet in any number of ways. But your trainer should not be telling you that you need to lose weight.
The above sentiment may surprise, and even upset a lot of people. But the very fact that the idea of “not needing to lose weight” seems so radical is a testament to the brokenness of our health culture.
Despite our obsession with it, weight is a poor proxy for individuals’ health. Yes, on a population level body weight is associated with poor health outcomes like heart disease and type II diabetes. But less clear is the causal relationship between weight and many of these health problems. Some studies have shown decreased mortality rates associated with higher Body Mass Index, and that the type and location of adipose tissue is more important than the amount, in terms of its associated disease risks. Also, weight loss programs simply don’t work for most people, even in controlled experimental settings.
What is clear is the causal relationship between poor health outcomes and behaviors like not getting enough physical activity, eating (and drinking) way too much sugar, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables. People who are “normal” weight and exhibit unhealthy behaviors have far higher risk of disease and mortality than people who are overweight but eat well and get adequate amounts of physical activity.
Why is the fitness industry shooting for hard-to-achieve weight loss as its primary target, rather than just trying to get people to be more physically active and eat better every day? Learning to enjoy a daily walk and turning it into a lifelong habit will yield greater benefits, and is far more likely to succeed than trying to lose 10 pounds in a week.
So, if we’re just talking health, no, you don’t need to lose weight (again, we’re talking average Americans here). But you should be learning to incorporate more physical activity into your life, and it’s worthwhile to learn how to properly move your body. If your trainer wants to help you with that, and recognizes that any weight loss is more of a side effect of a healthier lifestyle, you’re probably in good hands.
2. Which supplements should I take?
Trick question! You don’t need to take any supplements!
Catherine Price is the author of VITAMANIA: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food (out in paperback April 12). In an email she wrote:
“A trainer at the gym shouldn’t be your go-to person for questions about supplements in any situation. (Their training is in exercise, not medicine.) If you’re worried about actual deficiencies in vitamins or minerals (like, say, vitamin B12 or iron), you should talk with your doctor about getting tested. And remember: there’s no such thing as a deficiency in body building powder.”
Price also pointed out that supplements are poorly regulated. No supplements are required to be tested for safety or efficacy. The diet industry can literally sell people magic beans that do nothing at all and get away with it.
Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and founder of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, agreed.
He cautioned that much of the time, if a trainer is pushing some kind of supplement, he or she is likely getting a commission or a kickback from that sale.
“The only person who should really recommend a supplement is either a nutrition professional or a doctor, and then only based on a specific condition that you have. The average person does not need any kind of supplement for fitness or weight loss, and if anybody wants you to take them, run,” he said.
3. Do I need a personal trainer?
This is perhaps the most important question, and it comes with a bit of nuance.
The goal of a good trainer should be to make sure that you never need a trainer again. Fitness professionals should be teaching clients how to take care of their bodies on their own.
My first gig as a young and naïve trainer was at a corporate behemoth I’ll call Schmally Schmitness. We were instructed to give our clients workouts that they would never be able to replicate on their own—literally instilling in them a sense of dependence. This is a fundamental problem with this industry. It needs people to keep coming back, so it has no interest in actually solving the problems it purports to address.
Health and fitness professionals should be working to graduate you, to help you exit the Fitness Industrial Complex, instead of continually pulling you back in.
So do you need a trainer? If you want to learn how to care for your body, they can help. And, having a good trainer can be a fun way to get a great workout and keep things interesting and new. But the very best trainers will be those who, when they’re done with you, can make sure that the answer to that question is “no.”