Gee, I would have never known I was doing everything wrong if others hadn’t generously volunteered that information. *cough, cough*

I’ve witnessed a trend of attempting to “motivate” people by telling them everything they’re doing wrong. UGH. No matter how you slice it, negativity is not a good, lasting motivator for positive changes. As a matter of fact, there’s a form of “negative motivation” that’s called bullying, and schools, community organizations, social networking sites and even the media are working to eliminate it.

I see this type of “motivation” among health- and fitness-related professionals (and I include those not educated in the field, but who have a financial interest in having people follow their advice — MLM people, that’s you). Telling people who are making concerted efforts at changing their lifestyles that they’re still doing so many things wrong doesn’t get anyone anywhere — the focus is continually on the negative. C’mon, you’ve got to be able to find something positive for people to hold on to. That’ll be the lifeline that they use as they pull themselves upward.

So, for your reading pleasure, see below for a great set of guidelines to consider before you open your mouth or start typing. It comes from an elementary school class (thank you, Mrs. Morgan at Lindbergh-Schweitzer!), which is the age at which we have to start if we want to turn around the negative trends to which our adults have fallen prey.

So easy even a school kid can do it!

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Hey, I confess, I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen people engaged in so many injurious habits that I was convinced they were on the path to self-destruction. I felt the need to point out all the negatives, figuring that they needed to hear “the truth”.

Know what? I was wrong. What they needed more than anything was to be listened to. To be understood. There was something positive there, overlooked by everyone else — I just hadn’t tried hard enough to find it.

And once they knew I was listening, they started listening back.

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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.

Pardon this rant, it’s most un-personal-trainer-like of me. In the interest of empathy — and the fact that I’ve dubbed 2010 my “Year of Compassion” — I’m going to suspend some of my strong feelings about exercise-uber-alles and illustrate the way many of today’s mothers think:

After leaving the professional world, I spent about seven years as a stay-at-home-mom. I understand the work involved in rearing a child or two, in addition to the thankless task of perpetual housekeeping (which I suck at). It’s not a glamorous profession — we don’t go into it expecting it to be — but even the best of us get knocked for a loop with the sheer magnitude of our new responsibilities. So please, trainers, don’t tell moms to “put themselves first” or “make themselves a priority”. We’re moms, we don’t do that. We carry life inside us for nine-month stints. And it becomes our numero uno priority. No caffeine, no sleeping on the back, no valsalva maneuver, no haircoloring…the list of “don’ts” is extensive. We believe that everything we do is for the health of the baby.

So please, don’t ridicule moms for not focusing on exercise! As a trainer I know that exercise is critical. But when we can barely make it out of bed to the toilet thanks to morning sickness, the last thing we want to hear is how beneficial exercise is to our well being. Particularly when it comes from someone who hasn’t had the same experience (and if you own a penis, never will).

Side rant: It’s obvious that we live in a male-dominated world. Consider the pregnancy test. Designed by a man…because no woman would come up with a test for which you’d need to pee on a stick. PEE.ON.A.STICK. ‘Male’ written all over it. I can get my hands, the toilet seat, the floor and with the right angle, the wall. But you want me to hit a stick?

Once the baby’s born, we don’t suddenly have loads of time or energy. Sometimes we wish the kid would crawl back in “there” because we’d get more done. The perpetrator of this (i.e., Dad) comes home from work and thinks we’re lying around watching TV and eating bon-bons while he’s busy earning a living. Really? Imagine having a job for which you’re on-call 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week for years. You get peed, pooped and puked on. Oh yeah, you don’t get paid for it either, so you’re not considered a productive member of society. Most of your time is spent putting out fires, but the “head of household” questions what the hell you’ve been doing all day, why you look a mess, why last night’s dirty dishes are still in the sink and why dinner’s not waiting for him. Our lives are marathons, except that we don’t have the benefit of being able to train for them beforehand.

First attempts at “making time” for ourselves generally flop. When there’s no one else to watch the kids,  creating “me time” is not so simple. And when we finally get some peace and quiet…sometimes all moms want to do is sit in silence and stare at a blank wall. I know I did. And I ENJOY exercise. What about a mom who’s feeling isolated, depressed and fat, and has had few positive experiences with fitness? You’ll get nowhere by making her feel guilty about not finding time to exercise when she’s convinced that time doesn’t exist. Quite frankly, sometimes it doesn’t.

Forget going to a gym. Exercising at home may be the only reliable option. Videos come in handy here and they’ve come a long way since Jane Fonda’s arm flapping. However, fifteen minutes and six interruptions later, even the most stalwart mom may be ready to give up.

Hey, I’m a hardass when it comes to food choices. I will not take my kids to McDonald’s, and that puts me in the minority, sadly. But believe me, McD’s has a clever marketing department. They put playgrounds inside their restaurants. Moms bring their kids there, buy them Happy Meals…and the addiction to fast food begins. I don’t agree with the food choice, but I understand why they do it. They’re not bad moms, just tired…and in that tired state, vulnerable to the power of suggestion. They’re also stressed enough to accept help in watching their kids from whomever is willing to offer, even if it’s a creepy red-haired clown.

The bottom line: Don’t tell moms to put themselves first. It sounds wrong to them; besides, they don’t need the guilt (they have enough already, thanks). Show moms how they can fit both childrearing/housework and exercise into their day, teach them not to be discouraged by imperfect workouts, encourage progress in baby steps and listen to their concerns…you’ll get more compliance. And accept the fact that there will be times when they WILL be too tired to exercise. Don’t berate them for that. They pushed a bowling ball through a small hole between their legs; with the right support, they’ll get the fitness thing down too.