Challenges for the European health and fitness sector maneuvering between sociocultural influence, consumerism and the overestimation of the body appearance

By Dr. Simona Pajaujiene (Member of EuropeActive Standards Council / Lithuanian Sports University)

 

The global pandemic of obesity is unquestionable truth with evidence, but in addition another great concern is huge dissatisfaction with own bodies, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, disordered eating, etc. We live in the times, where image and media attention to a beautiful body is overestimated, and the social pressure for meeting image expectations influences our lives. With the prevalence of body cult in the Western society, more and more people feel pressure to conform to social expectations. Media constantly is bombarding with the messages how to be fit (thin or muscular), nice and forever young. Therefore, for many people leisure sports become means to acquire a desired body. In other words, in consumer society Health becomes an alibi for improving Appearance. But to be fit is not equal to be beautiful…

 

These questions should arise and be discussed in each country, each fitness center, sport club:

  •   How to manoeuvre between business, consumerism and real mission of our sector?
  • If the socially adored body image might motivate customers for a healthy lifestyle, weight control, exercising behavior, and give long term results are open for this session.
  • Do we know how people feel (regarding body image) in the fitness environment? How feel underweight or overweight people?
  • What is your opinion about selfies in the GYM? Selling an online fitness program based on psuedo-science that promises a six-pack in weeks?
  • Can exercise professionals do some harm to customers putting too much emphasis on body and appearance?
  • What the role of exercise specialist and what competencies need to get fitness professionals?

 

The modern fitness industry increasingly stimulates the formation of personal identity through physical fitness and consumption of health and beauty products. Studies revealed that customers exercising in fitness environment are observed to raise significant requirements for their appearance, and sometimes have inadequate body weigh perception. A substantial body of evidence demonstrates that a general emphasis on appearance, fitness and weight control can promote a number of negative consequences. A large part of modern consumerist society is constantly concerned about weight loss/gain methods that promise rapid results. People often exhaust themselves with diets and/or excessive exercise. 

Promotion of fitness and physical activity, besides its primary positive effect, also has a secondary negative effect, i.e. an increased drive for thinness among women and muscularity  among menExcessive focus on fitness, incorrect instructor`s (trainer`s) role, exercising environment can promote the rise of these problems. Comments made & attitudes displayed can have an impact on a persons body image and attitude towards exercise and eating. Critical comments from trainer was one of the most patent risk factor for developing ED (eating disorders) (Jacobi et al., 2011). Great stress on external appearance and the loss of weight made by fitness instructors can be inspiring and motivating for some participants but offensive to others… Ironically, fitness instructors generally considered healthy and trained to teach others how to exercise and look after their physical well being, belong to a group of heightened risk or ED, restrictive dieting and compulsive exercising.

 

The researches show that psychological factors play a crucial role in adherence to physical activity, exercise and fitness. Truth be told, many persons are so ashamed of the way they look that they don’t even want to be seen in public exercising. Despite the well documented evidence supporting the physical and psychological benefits of exercise aproximately 50% of individuals who start an exercise programme will drop outwithin the first 6 months… Although appearance improvement is the strong driving force for the health and fitness industry, we lack the millions of men and women in our clubs. Self-determination theory – SDT (Deci & Ryan, 2008), suggests  that  in  exercise  domain  people  pursuing health and social engagement goals will be more persistent and experience greater  well-being than those pursuing  attractiveness  or  social  recognition goals. Body image concerns are associated with extrinsic exercise goals particularly with exercising for appearance improvement (Prichard &Tiggemann, 2008; LePage, & Crowther, 2010). The motivations for exercise, from looking good to having fun, have been evaluated by researchers who found that for the baby boom generation “passion is the most important motivator” - a fact the fitness industry should embrace. “The marketing needs to be about passion, around finding deep personal meaning in physical activity,” one author says. “If you watch people playing tennis or slaloming down a hill, they’re not counting calories.

 

If our goal is to make own country, city, club or even whole Europe more active, we should discuss what could be barriers and obstacles for that, how to improve situation:

  • Fitness centers should avoid excessive demonstration of lean and/or muscular body images and control other factors (i.e. mirrored walls, advertising) which might foster the external motivation in fitness exercisers of both genders.
  • Trainers and exercise specialists should make more efforts changing perceptions of competence by shifting focus from body weight control to overall feelings of interest and enjoyment.
  • The focus should be on health and behaviour change, not on weight, and interventions should promote a positive body image and acceptance of the diversity of body sizes, so as to help reduce the stigmatization of obesity.
  • Recommendable to avoid utilizing body dissatisfaction as a motive for change and to promote a positive body image  (Sanchez-Carracedo et al., 2012).
  • Trainers should look and work with 4 dimensions of body image of their clients:

Perceptual dimension:  How your client “sees” her/himself in the mirror or imagines she/he looks. It’s perception, not reality.

Cognitive dimension:  What your client thinks when he/she evaluates his/her body in terms of function and appearance.

Emotional dimension:  Positive and negative feelings your clients have in relation to their body’s appearance and function. Do they feel pride or shame?

Behavioral dimension:  Things your client does that reflects negative or positive feelings about their bodies. This could mean clothes they wear, their connection to others in the gym – each gives a behavioral indication of the perceptions and feeling about their bodies.

 

Both, obesity and body dissatisfaction, have the negative impact for physical and psychosocial health of people. Obesity and ED problems occur due to significant and often not based body dissatisfaction and decreased self-esteem (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006), therefore, the prevention programs must deal with this problem. Club managers, head trainers with other specialists must seek that obesity prevention programs would not induce negative body image, biased judgement of personal body weight, not provoke eating disorders, not uphold the understanding that dieting, intensive exercising and imbalanced nutrition is a norm. Please, let’s be more responsible, sensitive, creative and positive in promoting physical activity and lifestyle behaviour, and the real truth about weight control.

It’s our responsibility in the fitness industry to “promote the truths.”

Promote the truths

Certified fitness professionals are mostly educators, motivators and inspirators but not punishers!

Punish him