How Can I Help Clients Lose Weight?

Go beyond motivation and learn what's really holding clients back.

A group of participants at a recent fitness conference session1 attempted to answer this question: How can I help clients lose weight? These participants included several fitness professionals who had themselves lost significant amounts of weight. An interesting discussion evolved as conference participants questioned and listened to the fitness professionals with these significant weight-loss experiences. Here are some of the things we learned.

You can't do it for them

Changing exercise and eating behaviors takes enormous effort and willpower. There are no magical techniques for "making" your clients stick to their weight-control resolutions. They must do the work, and make the changes in their habits that will facilitate weight loss. But, you can be supportive and understanding, and use every motivational technique you know.2

A focus on weight can be frustrating

When weight loss is the goal, clients can become frustrated when weight loss slows, as it usually does after the first few weeks of a weight-control program. In addition, changes may be occurring in body composition and hydration so that in some weeks, the scale shows no change. One participant told how she quit her weight control group because of the weekly weigh in. She felt like a failure the weeks she didn't lose any weight. But, she eventually lost more than 60 pounds with diet and exercise.

So, focus on the process, not the product. The process is a healthy lifestyle, which will hopefully lead to the product: weight loss.1-7

Sometimes people don't lose weight

Sometimes the cause of obesity is unknown.5 This situation is frustrating for clients and fitness professionals. Developing a healthy lifestyle is still the best advice you can give in this situation.

In addition, some clients cope with negative emotions by overeating. They may need professional help to change firmly entrenched, destructive behavior patterns that have developed over a lifetime. Unless you are a therapist, this is beyond your scope of practice. But don't assume all overweight clients have "serious issues."

Environment matters

Following a healthy lifestyle is like swimming upstream in cultures where access to a healthy lifestyle is limited. Fresh produce is more expensive than fast food, and active recreational opportunities may be nonexistent. Experts agree that lifestyle change is the only way to lose weight, but many groups face insurmountable obstacles to lifestyle change, especially those who lack economic and social resources for following a healthy lifestyle.3,6,7

Address injury symptoms, not weight

Overweight clients are tired of being told to lose weight when they ask for help with health problems or injury symptoms. While losing weight might reduce the problem, weight loss may not be possible, and they need treatment now.

Fitness testing can be embarrassing

Be sure your client is medically cleared to exercise, and then track health variables such as blood pressure, blood lipids and blood sugar levels that are measured at medical checkups. Offer fitness tests that clients can complete without feeling discouraged or embarrassed.
Acknowledgement: I wish to express my appreciation to all the participants at my session who so thoughtfully shared their experiences and ideas.
1. Brehm, B.A. Helping clients with weight control. Presentation for Canadian Fitness Professionals (Can-Fit-Pro) International Fitness and Club Business Conference and Trade Show, Toronto, Aug. 17, 2007.
2. Brehm, B.A. Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2004.
3. Campos, J.D., A. Saguy, P. Ernsberger, et al. The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: Public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Obesity 35 (1): 55-60, 2006.
4. Christakis, N.A., and J.H. Fowler. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine 357 (4): 370-379, 2007.
5. Henig, R.M. Fat factors. New York Times Magazine, Aug. 13, 2006.
6. Kim, S., and B.M. Popkin. Commentary: Understanding the epidemiology of overweight and obesity - a real global health concern. International Journal of Obesity 35 (1): 60-67, 2006.
7. Rigby, N. Commentary: Counterpoint to Campos, et al. International Journal of Obesity 35 (1): 79-80, 2006.
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