Sometimes we need a dose of humility peppered with a helping of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” This is especially true when dealing with someone who’s embarked on a weight loss journey but is getting nowhere with it. No amount of education will do a trainer any good if  they can’t find a way to understand a client’s difficulties, or even worse, refuse to accept that such hardships exist.

Some years ago I had the following exchange with an obese young man:

“Exercise is fun!” I chirped happily.

“That’s because you don’t have to do it lugging around 280 pounds,” he shot back.

And you know what? He was right. His answer caught me off guard because I was trying to help him maintain a positive outlook, but the truth was I really didn’t have anything to say to make him feel better. I was pointing to the benefits of exercise, but he was still working on bending over to put his shoes on.

I’ve never been obese, although I did peak at 181 lbs for a week or two, right before giving birth to my heaviest baby (8 lbs, 5 oz) – but even that wasn’t terribly dramatic for my 5’11” frame and barely nudged me into the “overweight” category according to my BMI. While getting back into the 150s where I remain now took some months, I was so preoccupied with caring for the new family member that I never obsessed about it. Couple that with the fact that I don’t have the food issues that plague many Americans, and you can see why I’ve had to work hard to relate to people who have been fighting their weight for years, even decades. Even so, a gap remains between their thinking and mine.

Apparently, I’m not the only one trying to bridge this gap. Australian underwear model and personal trainer Paul “PJ” James made big news last year for putting on 90 lbs in order to better relate to his overweight clients. What he found was that losing that weight was not as simple as he expected, even with all his fitness knowledge. During the process of weight gain, he also gained a sugar/fat addiction that was tough to kick. And carrying around that excess weight made exercise more difficult. His joints ached and every movement required more effort.

James noted that the first three months were the most difficult because he was doing everything right, following his own fat loss plan, and still the weight wasn’t coming off. Breaking his junk food habit took a good six weeks. All this, when he had the benefit of knowing what proper eating and exercise were. Once the pounds started dropping, however, he said he regained his motivation and powered through with his weight loss.

A number of people have weighed in on the pros and cons of his experiment. Some say he’s “been there” and will be able to relate to what an overweight client may be going through, particularly because he struggled in the beginning and had to fight a food addiction. Others say that his efforts prove nothing because he wasn’t subject to the same stigma that befalls many overweight individuals, gained the weight over a short period of time using extreme measures (not the way most people gain) and will cash in on the instant fame that this stunt afforded him. Both of these points of view are valid; however, I’d like to underscore something else.

James didn’t make progress for about three months. Wait, let me stress this: THREE MONTHS. He worked for six weeks to overcome his sugar addiction. How long would someone without James’ experience have lasted on a fitness program that didn’t show results for a quarter of a year? By that time they’d figure that if they’re doing everything “right” and still not dropping fat, there’s something wrong with them and substantial weight loss is a pipe dream. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that James would have had faster results if someone had been yelling at him to get his act together, or calling him a fat, lazy slob like a trainer on the “reality-show-which-must-not-be-named” feels is necessary to do.

So if James’ story has a lesson, it’s not that 1) it’s possible to lose weight (we know it is) or 2) that someone who’s heavy for several months will fully understand what it’s like to overweight for decades (we know he won’t)…but rather that if you focus exclusively on weight loss as a measure of success, your motivation may peter out with the first few obstacles you encounter. If you’ve spent years putting on weight, prepare to invest substantial time into changing the behaviors that got you there. Focus on your lifestyle, not the scale.

However, there’s warning here for those of us who’ve never had to wage that fight. Really, we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re the quintessential car mechanic who can’t drive and would be well served not to pass judgment on those who are still fighting. Use our knowledge and fitness experience to offer solutions, yes. Provide needed support, yes. Lay down the law, yes. But not pass judgment.

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