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An Apology: Words Matter!

By Michelle May, M.D.

I was suddenly yanked out of my meditative Warrior 3 pose by the unexpected “encouragement” from my yoga instructor: “You are strengthening your core…in time for bathing suit season!” I was immediately transported from my mat to a dressing room at the mall. I actually felt my pulse increase and my mood shift.

I wanted to cry, “Foul! There’s no bikini talk in yoga!” I made a mental note of the effects of her well-meaning comment and promised myself I would write an article about the things I wish fitness professionals wouldn’t say.

Several weeks later, I had a similar reaction to an email from another yoga studio where I also regularly practice. It inspired me to write an article called 10 Things Fitness Instructors Should Stop Saying for our May e-newsletter.

As usual, there was a whirlwind of activity as we put the newsletter together: writing and editing the article (my job), uploading photos, updating the calendar, checking all the links, etc. I gave the go ahead to send it to our 42,000 subscribers before I left for the evening. Whew! What a great feeling!

Words matterExcept that the next morning, I woke early with a nagging feeling. What was it? Suddenly it dawned on me that in my final edits, I had removed a crucial sentence from a paragraph that was too long and forgot to put it somewhere else! My fears were confirmed when over the next 48 hours, I received emails from three disappointed fans who cried, “Foul!”

Three out of 42,000 may not seem like much to you, but I have to assume that there were others who felt the same way but didn’t write. I do not expect, or even want, to please everyone. However in this case I had made a mistake and I felt I deserved the criticism.

So what were the crucial words I took out? “I know that most fitness professionals are caring and truly have their clients’ best interests in mind so I wondered why some exercise studios and fitness instructors think this kind of thing is motivating.”

I was able to correct the permanent online version of the article, but I regret that I offended some of my professional colleagues and that I may have given other readers the impression that I believe all fitness instructors say these things. Clearly they don’t. In our books and workshops, we regularly refer people to fitness professionals for guidance and encouragement to establish fun, sustainable physical activity.

I am sorry for my error. I’ve learned from my mistake and I’m doing what I can to correct it. I hope you will forgive me.

Words have power!

Ironically, that was the whole point of the article! The things we say (or in my case, didn’t say) can significantly undermine our intentions.

So while I assume that most fitness instructors have their clients’ best interests in mind, I stand by the intention of my (corrected) article: SOME fitness professionals, exercise studios, and media outlets unwittingly discourage those who would benefit from physical activity by saying things that don’t encourage a health-focused (or fun-focused!) approach to fitness. Fitness instructors can certainly say whatever they want, but it’s important for them to consider the unintended consequences.

A secondary but equally important intent of the article was to encourage people to consider whether their own personal motivation for exercise has been negatively affected by comments like those ten examples. Hopefully the article will help them challenge those words when they hear or read them, and change their own thoughts when they think them!

Other feedback about the article

Two people questioned whether this sort of thing actually happens. Yes, it does. You are lucky (or very selective) if you haven’t come across it! Unfortunately I’ve heard some version of every single one of those statements. In fact, I just got another email today to add to the list: “Sculpt your body!” Our bodies are not lumps of clay that we can mold at will to fit society’s definition of beauty!

We also got emails saying thank you for the article and some great insightful comments on our Am I Hungry? Facebook page:

I think it’s indicative of not just trainers, but many well-meaning people and advertising as well. It’s all geared to make us feel bad about being overweight as pre-determined by them and that restrictive eating and exercise are the only way to “be right”. I’m not sure if I’m wording this right for how I’m feeling it, but I don’t believe they intend to make anyone feel bad, it’s just the way they roll to “inspire” results.

 

My trainer is incredibly supportive and positive and knows that my goals aren’t weight related. But many class instructors will mention earning happy hour or working off the weekend. I don’t think they realize it’s not motivating, it’s demoralizing.

 

I love the article. I support folks who are overcoming resistance to movement. Fitness instructors are often great motivators but sometimes my clients run off without instructors knowing why my clients lost motivation…This common focus on appearance and prior shame people carry are so important for caring fitness pros to be sensitive too. Bravo.

Several people wanted to share the article. I created a one-page abbreviated version that you can download called 5 Things Fitness Professionals Shouldn’t Say. (I changed the focus from “what they should stop saying” to “what they shouldn’t say.” Again, words matter!)

What should fitness professionals say instead?

One writer loved the article but wanted to know what they should say instead. That’s inspiration for another article! In the meantime, how about simply:

Do what you love, and love what you do!

 

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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