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Is an emphasis on body image crippling fit pros’ performance? asks Kim Ingleby.

We all think we know what fitness looks like – and, as trainers and instructors, we know how we want to look. However, do we need to look a certain way to have the right to do our job and is our image becoming more important than our qualifications and skills as trainers? Recent figures from the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs)1 show a total of 13,770 registered personal trainers. The same report suggests that 48% of trainers experience stress related to their work. Are we becoming more body anxious and is this affecting our performance?

FIT thinking

Health and fitness professional Richard Scrivener poses a question:

“What does it say about the knowledge you have, the self-investment you’ve undertaken, the care you possess and the likely guidance you can offer if you do not possess a ‘physique of health’?”

It’s certainly true that, as a trainer, one should be a role model to clients and exhibit a healthy, fit and balanced lifestyle. Yet a ‘physique of health’ is perhaps a more contentious notion. There is a question about whether it is an essential indicator of fitness or exists as an aesthetic in its own right. I know excellent trainers with their own complex medical conditions that may limit their ability to achieve the stereotypical perfect physique. Yet, conversely, I know trainers who look great, yet are overworked, close to burnout and have lost their self-confidence. These trainers often cite the growing pressure within society and the industry itself to look the part.

Nick Orton, CEO of the BodyPower event, does not see a problem with promoting perfect body image, and says, “We absolutely shouldn’t censor images of toned, muscular, healthy physiques. BodyPower promotes a healthy lifestyle, combining nutrition, regular exercise and a positive attitude to inspire people.” Yet, with attractions at the event like fitness modelling and sessions on how to get your body ready for the beach, is that positive attitude being lost in a drive to achieve the perfect body by any means necessary? Celebrity trainer Dan Roberts takes a different approach, saying, “Personally, I find the world we live in far too vain. I do not believe that you have to look like a fitness model to be a good coach. I think we have to be careful about what we promote. I think authenticity, not abs, is key to being successful in this increasingly competitive industry.”

However, despite the more rounded approach of trainers like Roberts, it’s clear that the current trend for the perfect physique, at the expense of all else, is one that affects trainers as much as their clients. Previously, the top goals for many trainers who I mentor included building a successful business and creating an ideal life balance. Now, these have been replaced with addressing concerns about their own body image and how we can work together to restore their self-confidence.

And it seems that my clients are indicative of a group at large. Kuwait-based trainer and founder of Next Level Performance ( Camilla Ayrton runs a highly successful fitness business, yet found concerns about her image debilitating. “As a trainer, my weight has fluctuated from 60kg to 87kg more than once due to the belief that I was not good enough as a trainer if I was not the ‘right’ shape,” she says. “The stress that I put myself under caused great anguish. However, it has made me a better coach now.” Surveys suggest that body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an anxiety about your body image, now affects about 2% of the population.2 A variation of BDD that those within the fitness industry may be particularly susceptible to has been categorised as ‘muscle dysmorphia’, a term used to describe a person preoccupied with muscle size, shape and leanness. Recent studies suggest an increasing number of young people are damaging their health by excessively working out and by using anabolic steroids and extreme fat burners.3 Linked closely to BDD is orthorexia, dubbed ‘the healthy eating disorder’ despite actually being that, which was covered in a recent issue of Fitpro4. No matter how ‘perfectly’ people with orthorexia eat, they feel a need to eat even better. They never feel that they have ‘cleansed’ quite thoroughly enough.5

Success for a trainer shouldn’t be based on achieving and maintaining the flattest abs or biggest guns. The fitness industry needs to start by redefining the parameters of wellness using indicators like keeping clients pain free, increasing their daily energy and activity levels, making exercise second nature and eating a variety of non-processed foods. Perhaps then a healthy body shape will appear as a by-product. Christianne Woolf, author of the Body Rescue Plan, says, “If we tell our clients ‘Let’s work on getting you a six-pack’, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to sustain that as well. At the moment, I’m a size 12. The feedback from my editors has been that the people buying the book can relate to me and my shape. I don’t feel any pressure because I’m not seeking perfection – I’m seeking health and happiness, which feels amazing.”

Stay on top of your game and boost your confidence

  • Prioritise high-quality training and recovery time for yourself.
  • Keep a daily self-confidence journal alongside your training diary. Note something that made you feel good and something you would like to change.
  • Create healthy, varied, fresh, balanced meals that you enjoy – not protein shake after protein shake!
  • Have clearly defined physical and mental rest days to avoid burnout. Preschedule any social media marketing so you can switch everything off.
  • Accept compliments, nurture your self-worth and be with positive people.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, identify the qualities in others that motivate and inspire you and focus on these.
  • Start moving towards a positive mindset, limiting your self-sabotage. Like training the body, it takes consistency and commitment to build.
  • Finally, don’t do it alone. Get a really good coach or mentor to support you; it’s the best way to learn, grow and enhance your personal development and self-worth.

About the author

Kim Ingleby presents to the industry

Kim Ingleby presents to the industry


Kim Ingleby is a mind and body expert, combining 20 years of personal training with NLP and business coaching. She has won several awards, including IFS Personal Trainer of the Year 2015, and co authored the Women’s Fitness magazine title Get Fit Inside Out.