I recently attained my CanFitPro personal trainer certification and completed a boot camp instructor course. These decisions were based on (not necessarily in the following order) (1) the fact that I have spent so much time and money in the gym that I it would be nice to earn some of it back, (2) I need a flexible, well-paying part-time job that will work around my graduate schooling, and (3) I thought that I would make a pretty good personal trainer. I just started teaching my first boot camp class, which makes me an active member of the fitness industry, the very industry that I tear apart in one of my forthcoming academic journal articles. My new part-time job means that I straddle a line on which one side believes that people fail the system and the other believes that the system has failed them (or at least encourages failure).
As a personal trainer the dominant ideology follows that:
- Fat is bad. No one should be fat.
- Everyone can be a better version of themselves, in particular a thinner version of themselves
- Being disciplined is to have social value
- Health comes down to individual will power and determination
- Parents who have obese children are recalcitrant parents
- Calories in equals calories out
Whereas, as a sport sociologist, the other side of the coin teaches us is that:
- Fitness is used to create disciplined and docile citizens: In other words, if you are overly concerned with your fitness and appearance you probably won’t rock the boat politically
- Citizens are shamed into compliance: This theory presents itself whenever anyone says “I shouldn’t eat this” or “I should probably go to the gym”. No one is actually telling them this but they know that to be a productive citizen one should take health into their own hands.
- A low body weight has been conflated with health
- Thinness among women and visible muscle mass among men offers individuals a type of intangible cultural capital (i.e. the more attractive you are, the money you have, the more education you have equals more social value).
- One’s ability to be healthy and/or thin is constrained by many social factors such as race, gender, economics, age, ability etc.
This is far from an expansive list of either side’s beliefs but it covers some of the main ideas. As one can see these are two ideologies that that are, for the most part, fundamentally at odds. Being a sociologist personal trainer is kind of like being a woman in the military, or an environmentalist working for an oil company. During my personal trainer course the teacher made us calculate BMI (body mass index) equations. The fact that we were still being taught to use this antiquated and discriminatory piece of so-called ‘science’ made my blood boil – I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.
You might be thinking “If you think so lowly of the fitness industry why would you want to be a trainer?” Well, for the reasons mentioned at the start of this article and because as much as I think that the fitness industry loves profit from people’s self-loathing, I love to exercise and I know that it has great value. Exercise is not inherently bad, rather it is how we produce and package it that makes it beneficial or detrimental. Moreover, physical activity is the only thing that has almost unequivocally been shown to be good for our health as opposed to new fangled diets or weight-loss strategies (I say almost because I haven’t read all the research but from what I have read it seems physical activity always makes people healthier on the inside). Now that I am a trainer, for the first time, I am able to make tangible changes to industry from the inside. I can effect change not only with my words but with my actions. This is an exciting prospect!
But it is a difficult fence to balance. When I put together my workouts I try very hard to create a non-competitive and welcoming environment, never use exercise as a punishment, and I make the focus about health and fitness rather than appearance and weight-loss. Yet, during my first boot camp I found myself having to bite my tongue to not say things like “this move is great for beach arms” or “if you want to wear skinny jeans…”. I noticed that those fitness quotes jumped to the front of the line even though I don’t believe in them myself. These ‘selling features’ of exercise are indicative of my immersion in an industry dominated by such popular culture staples as The Biggest Loser franchise and The Last 10 Pounds Boot Camp. These shows, fitness dvds and magazines may not have bought my heart but they have certainly rented a portion of my mind.
It will be interesting to see how the personal trainer/exercise enthusiast within and the sociologist within will continue to negotiate space. My goal is not to turn the fitness industry on its head and change why people choose to exercise, but I can certainly alter my participant’s experiences with exercise. Which form of science will prevail? We will have to wait and see.