As health and exercise professionals, we often work with clients who have weight-loss goals. But are we doing a disservice by supporting clients in reaching intentional weight loss goals.? Research shows that the current weight-focused paradigm does not produce leaner or healthier bodies. Studies show that most of the time, long-term intentional weight loss is not successful. So why are we supporting something that has such a low success rate?
We should also be aware that this approach can be harmful to many individuals. It can contribute to food and body preoccupation, disordered eating and workout habits and repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, and taking a weight-loss approach can create stigmatizing and discriminatory practices toward individuals with larger bodies.
Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of research related to adopting a weight-neutral approach. Not only does this approach potentially reduce the harms that are sometimes associated with a weight-focused approach to health, but it may also create more long-term success and improved health outcomes.
What is a Weight-neutral Approach?
Taking a weight-neutral approach involves working outside the confines of weight loss or the pursuit of thinness as the main goal. The goal is to respect the body and learn how to cultivate healthy habits. Unlike traditional approaches to weight loss, weight is not used as an indicator of health. Instead of focusing on weight, the focus is on behavioral changes that will help clients improve health at every size and improve health outcomes.
Helping clients of all sizes reframe their weight-loss goals from outcome-based to behavioral change can help increase motivation, enjoyment and participation in physical activity in both the short- and long-term.
One common misconception is that this approach is anti-weight loss, but there is a difference between weight loss and intentional weight loss. When the primary focus is not weight loss, our clients can remove themselves from weight loss as the primary goal and separate size, or weight from health. They can take an approach that focuses on behavior change, health enhancement, eating for wellbeing, and moving more to enhance life and not weight outcome as a measure of success. Adopting new habits may result in weight loss, but adopting healthy habits will have an impact on a client’s health regardless of outcomes in weight.
As health and exercise professionals, it can be more empowering to focus on behaviors and habits, as these are things the individual has control over versus trying to control an outcome such as weight loss, which is heavily influenced by controllable and non-controllable factors.
How Can You Help Your Clients Take a Weight-neutral Approach?
Create programming that is focused on improving strength, increasing cardiovascular conditioning and other outcomes that are not weight-centered. Providing options (progressions and regressions) for all bodies will also help make programs much more accessible, enjoyable and sustainable for a wider range of clients.
Pay attention to your coaching and remember that the words you use matter. When coaching clients through movement, it is important to reimagine aesthetic goals and collaborate to reframe goals to focus on life enhancement at every size. Terms such as “a few more curls and you’ll have your summer arms” should be replaced with “another curl could mean it will be easier to bring that bag of groceries in from the store.”
Take a tour of your workout space. Are the spaces you provide welcoming for all bodies? Do you have signage that showcases just one body type? Do you have scales and measuring devices that would be harmful to or cause anxiety in individuals, especially those with marginalized bodies? How can you create a space that encourages movement without the pressure of weight loss?
Despite the emphasis on obesity as a major health issue, little progress has been made to treat or prevent. Let’s focus instead on behavior change and have a greater impact by taking a weight-neutral approach to health and fitness.