Body Positivity Meets the Fitness World

Last month I met David Howell on Twitter. In response to an article I wrote about exercise and eating disorder recovery, David asked me a question I never considered: How can physical trainers best support individuals in recovery?

After a few messages back and forth, I came to learn that David, an autistic man from the UK who is currently training to be a Health At Every Size® (HAES) personal trainer, has an inspiring vision to share, one that celebrates body positivity in the fitness world.

The HAES approach is an alternative to the weight-based paradigm of health. The mission of the HAES community is to support people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control) and "advance social justice, create an inclusive and respectful community, and support people of all sizes in finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves."

I asked David if I could interview him to learn more about his personal story and how he hopes to support others as a professional personal trainer. I am so glad he said yes! I think you will find David's insights to be refreshing and inspiring!

1. What inspired you to leave your career at the UK's Office for National Statistics to become a HAES Personal Trainer?

I believe the fitness industry should be about improving people's lives through movement. That's exactly what I wanted as a client looking to enhance my autism-impaired motor skills. The strength I developed with free weights improved my coordination.

The idea that only certain types of movement "count" once you hit a certain size goes against the principle of health as a size-neutral concept. Most of the risk factors associated with high BMI are associated with the combination of high BMI and inactivity. HAES provides a movement service for people who have been left behind as a result of a cultural and social emphasis on shaming larger bodies. Improving health (not changing one's weight) through movement is a bigger public health win than any scheme that attempts to goad people into shrinking. Perhaps in years to come that will be recognized.

2. What are some of the popular assumptions about the fitness industry and weight loss?

I think the general public assumes that the fitness industry is in the weight loss business, which is often perceived as a positive thing, because of the ways weight and health are intertwined in the general public consciousness. Many people recognize that their own weight loss attempts aren't helping or are short-term efforts at best and turn to physical trainers to “fix” them. I also believe there's an assumption that personal trainers are aggressive young men goading others to exert strength and endurance they don't have, are only for the rich and famous, or both.

3. Why is it often presumed that nutrition is in the scope of practice for physical trainers?

This presumption is directly tied to the notion that physical trainers are weight loss professionals, which suggests that physical trainers focus more on diet than movement. If a physical trainer defines their success in terms of clients becoming lighter, than the emphasis very well may be more on diet.

Generally speaking, the problem with this model is that physical trainers are then spending a large proportion of their time giving generic advice. In my opinion, generic advice is grossly unsuitable for some people, like those with allergies or specific health conditions. Because of this, nutrition should be outside the scope of practice. Nonetheless, food plans are often offered with packages for physical training. I recently saw an ad for a physical trainer client management app that actually includes specific meal plan capabilities, and I find that to be very scary.

4. What is your vision of how physical trainers could fit into the recovery process for individuals with eating disorders?

I believe that in future personal training certificate programs will offer a specialization in eating disorders in the same way dietitians have this specialization in their field. A positive approach to physical activity--whatever form that might happen to take for an individual--can be highly valuable in reinforcing a new pattern, a "lifestyle change" in the best sense of the phrase rather than a cover up for a restrictive plan. From that perspective, having a physical trainer as part of one’s health “team” could be beneficial for the recovery process. Unfortunately, most physical trainers, even more so than dietitians, are tied into the weight loss business, probably because it’s an easier field to enter. The fact that most physical trainers are based in gyms and other triggering environments would have to be appropriately addressed on a case by case basis. This is one positive way a physical trainer specialized in eating disorders could offer support and play a role on a client's  health "team."

5. How do you plan to promote and support body positivity in the fitness world?

I genuinely think that a lot of people in the industry halfway get the importance of body positivity and then drop the ball and lurch into obesity epidemic scaremongering. Even if you believe that people just don't get that fat from natural variation alone, HAES makes it clear that people will find their natural size through healthful activity and movement, so why not make that a testable hypothesis? The current cultural belief that "it's all good as long as you're not that fat" means that the pursuit of independently held fitness goals is contingent on being not too far along that spectrum of natural variability. As someone who benefits from being in that safe area and also from gender privilege, I feel a personal duty and an obligation to do what I can to remove the stigma about and conditions placed on body size and health.

David Howell is a 30-year-old autistic man from the UK. He is currently in the process of gaining certification as a personal trainer. A graduate in economics and politics at the internationally regarded University of Southampton, David worked for the Office for National Statistics--the UK's national statistical agency--before leaving to pursue his ambition as a Health at Every Size (HAES) fitness professional.