Is the Fitness Industry Part of the Obesity Problem?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reasons why it’s so difficult for so many people to make the changes they need to in order to get in better shape.

In the fitness courses that I teach I ask my students to list marketing messages that the general public is exposed to from the fitness industry. Here’s some examples:

  • Fitness has to be hard to work
  • If you aren’t completely exhausted you aren’t working hard enough
  • Getting in shape takes lots of time and is expensive
  • The whole point of getting in shape is to get skinny

Do you relate to any of these statements? Take a moment to really think about each one. If any of these statements feel true to you, no wonder you struggle to make the changes you need to get in better shape. Hard work, exhaustion, lots of money, you’re not successful until you’re skinny. Yeah, sign me up for some of that.

The more I think about how fitness is marketed, the more I start to wonder if what we’re doing in the fitness industry is actually part of the problem. Would you feel different about getting in shape if you were exposed to more messages about moving your body in the name of health, in the name of feeling better, in the name of it’s just good for you? Hmm, I wonder.

And it’s not entirely the fitness industry’s fault. Part of the problem is human nature. People want results and they want them fast. This is what drives the creation of fitness programs and products that cost money, and require you to work out at an intensity that you can only sustain for 30 or 60 days (if you’re lucky). Now, if the fitness industry promoted the 12 month, get healthy for life type of program, no one would buy it.

So what do we do?

If we keep marketing fitness the way we’ve been doing it people will continue to believe that it has to be hard, that you have to be skinny to be successful and that you’re not good enough the way you are. 

[Tweet “If we market fitness in the long-term reality that it is, no one will buy it.”]

I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can change how we promote fitness in a way that would encourage and inspire more people to get in shape.



16 thoughts on “Is the Fitness Industry Part of the Obesity Problem?

  • I totally agree. I actually had a session that dealt with this very topic (and how to change the marketing mindset) scheduled for this weekend’s conference but not enough instructors/trainers registered for it so it was canceled. Thank you for helping spread the message.

    • The fact that fitness leaders are not seeing the importance of this (by not signing up for your session) tells me that this problem is much bigger than I thought. The fact that they don’t even see that this is an important conversation to have is really worrisome to me.

    • Thank you George. It’s funny that it’s a conversation I have been having with students for years and just recently thought hmmmm….this could be an interesting blog post 🙂

  • I could not agree more. My boyfriend believes this; so that even if we go for a 2 mile walk, if I don’t walk really fast, he thinks it doesn’t count. It’s discouraging when you are made to believe that you must suffer and sweat or it just doesn’t “count.” I would love to hear more championing of the “going for a 10 minute walk is better than sitting on the couch” variety. I do still work out in the gym 3 times a week, but I want “credit” even if I only stay 30 minutes!

    • Hi Gina!

      I’m going to do a post here soon about what the research tells us about how much physically activity we need to improve our health. And that is an important distinction, to improve our health. There are lots of people who are less concerned about their health and more concerned about how they look naked. Looking good naked requires a whole different approach to physical activity.

  • This is so true, Brenda Adams! I, as a health and nutrition coach, I always explain to my clients that the reason I want them to exercise is deeper than losing weight. I want them to change their body chemistry at a cellular level so that they balance their hormones so they burn fat, build muscle, have more endurance, stop their hot flashes and sleep better. These goals are achieved much more quickly than losing weight and they feel a high level of accomplishment and pride! Kudos for hitting the nail on the head!

  • You are asking a difficult question. It seems wrong to use the “look great” approach to fitness, but….
    You would think that ideas like, live longer, dont get heart disease etc would be a great motivation, but in fact it is the appearance part that people worry about more.

    • It is a tough question. And you are right, the general public seems to be drawn to the quick fixes that promise physical changes. I think part of the challenge we have as an industry is to figure out how to make the health message more appealing. Sexy it up a bit. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to make significant changes in physical appearance. More dedication than what most sedentary people have. Maybe doing things that improve our health could be the training wheels to having the dedication we need to change our physical appearance. Now how to sell that?

  • What you are talking about is the exact module I am working on. I will be opening a small yoga fitness studio (8) focussing on the people who want to take the first step to being healthy, who feel intimidated to walk into a gym or a fitness class usually full of people in pretty good shape. (Good for them) but I don’t want to work out with you. Not yet! Where’s the round body class, where’s the beginner, real beginner class? Speaking of fitness classes, I know I am not the only one when I say I am not coming back if I am the biggest one in the room, I can’t keep up, I look ridiculous, and I paid $15 to$25.i may not even walk in the door. My problem I know, I want to be part of the solution so my focus will be, take the first step with me, you belong here. This is what will happen you will feel great, sleep better, reduce stress, have more strength etc. there will be zero talk about weight loss and it will be affordable.

    • What a great idea Shannon! Your passion and dedication is so clear! One thing that a lot of gyms and fitness facilities forget is that every single one of them has a different culture, a different energy. Someone could walk into gym A and love it while the next person walks into the same gym and they can’t stand it. We need variety in the environments that facilities provide. So that for each person who wants a gym or studio experience they can find a place that feels right for them.

  • Interesting dilemma. I think the people at Precision Nutrition have a good handle on the situation. When you sign up for coaching with them it’s for 12 months, they encourage clients to take very small, manageable steps to change their habits for the betterment of their health, and they promise to give them their money back if they’re not satisfied that they are in the best shape of their lives. There is the money issue, though. Not cheap.

    I read somewhere that the fitness business has this built-in flaw: we’re generally selling people something, i.e., some form of training, that only gets results as long as they do as we say, so the results disappear if they stop practicing it.

    • Hi Lesley,

      I am glad to hear that there are businesses out there that are trying to honestly help people (long term goals, long term support, baby steps). It is easy to see that there is a flaw of selling something. My hope is that what we are selling is something that educates and empowers our clients so they don’t NEED us anymore. They may still work with us because they WANT to, not because they are dependant on us and need to. There are so many people out there that need our help, there is no shortage of business. So let’s educate and inspire our clients, prepare them to continue with these changes on their own and then welcome in the next wave of clients to begin the cycle again.

  • After working in the industry for 8 years, I’m in the process of shifting my focus (and brand) completely over to middle-aged women. I’ve found that arguments about fitness benefiting health don’t tend to have much affect on women in their 20’s and 30’s. Once they hit 45 (and presumably, that lovely phase of hormonal change), they seem to become more interested in the stronger/healthier/happier part of the equation.

    Not a solution to your question, but a personal solution that relieves me of the frustrations of dealing with those who are only motivated by aesthetics… 🙂

    • I think that you hit a really important piece Tamara – we need to work with clients who have similar values as us. Similar ways of being. That’s when we get amazing personality matches with our clients. Let’s face it, most of our clients stay with us because of how they feel in the sessions, not because of the program that we have designed. Of course they need to see results, but I believe that it’s the experience we create for them that keeps them coming back.

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