No Scales, No Tapes: Your Guide To Finding A Personal Trainer Who’s Anti-Diet Culture

Content warning: This article discusses body image in a way that may be distressing to some readers. 
Gym. That single word can unlock a slew of emotions for many people, myself included. It's not hard to understand why. Growing up, I saw the gym as an exclusive space where only certain people with certain types of bodies were allowed entry. As a perpetual size 14 to 16, even at 15 years old, it's not difficult to understand why I didn't feel like I was on the guest list. My stomach was too big. My arms wobbled. I definitely didn't have the elusive Tumblr-inspired thigh gap that so many girls at my school lusted after.
The exclusivity of health spaces isn't new. The wellness and beauty industries have profited off the insecurities of women for so long that it's become part of our DNA. It's almost inevitable that at some stage of our life, we unwittingly fall down the rabbit hole, become victim to counting calories, parrot which foods are 'good' and 'bad', and obsessively track our heart rate or step count.
It's only after we become vehicles for diet culture that we're given our metaphorical key to enter the gym environment. And all too often, our interactions with personal trainers the people who are meant to be advocates for moving your body and keeping fit become the gatekeepers of our health, using BMIs, measuring tapes and scales to measure and monitor our bodies until we finally break down and enter the deep pit of 'wellness culture'.
The impact of having your weight front and centre when you enter the fitness world cannot be understated. It's grossly negligent and reductive, often following outdated measurements of health to squeeze us into a body ideal that we cannot healthily fit into. Even today, in a world where the body positivity and body neutrality movements are rapidly gaining traction, it often still feels like there has been little to no progress in the fitness world. In my experience, the first thing personal trainers do is put you on a scale, and the first words they often utter are, "How much weight do you want to lose?"
Refinery29 spoke to Danni Rowlands, Head of Prevention at The Butterfly Foundation, Australia's national organisation for eating disorders and body image issues, who was also a personal trainer for over 10 years, to learn more. According to Rowlands, exercise has often been used as a tool to punish your body, motivated by weight loss or a desire to change your body shape. But it is possible to get out of this environment and into healthy exercise habits where exercise isn't a chore or a visual motivator it's just something nice that we're doing for our bodies. "Being cautious in your approach is a sign you are healing or have healed and do not want exercise to be what it was in the past," she says.
The first step? Dump your personal trainer. The second step? Find a new trainer who will encourage you to break the shackles of diet culture. Ahead, we've put together a checklist of questions to ask to bring you one step closer to finding a personal trainer who will help you reach your fitness goals — without weight loss having to be one of them.

1. "How Do You Measure Progress?"

If your prospective trainer mentions scales, clothing size, or physical appearance, run for the bloody hills. These are often the clearest signs that the trainer subscribes to diet culture, and will often be more harmful than helpful in your fitness journey. Rowlands reiterates this, highlighting that exercising with the main goal of weight loss or changing body shape (such as increasing muscle or tone) can often be a red flag.
Green flags, however, come in many forms. This could simply be things like them encouraging you to being consistent with your movement, enjoying a variety of activities and exercises, sleeping well, or feeling energised. The key here is that it's about how you feel, rather than what you look like.

2. "What's Your Attitude Towards Food?"

Often, personal trainers are giant poster children for really, really bad pseudo-inspirational quotes. Phrases like "You can't out-exercise a bad diet", "Abs are made in the kitchen", or "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", aren't just incredibly triggering; they're also vehicles for disordered eating. Just a friendly reminder: food is meant to be enjoyed. It's bloody delicious. What's not delicious is someone villainising chocolate (and honestly, how dare you?) or telling you that you need to 'work off' food. Let's not forget that personal trainers generally aren't qualified to give you nutritional advice, so if you need guidance in this arena, consider reaching out to a non-diet dietitian (yes, they exist!).

3. "What Type Of Health Goals Do You Encourage?"

Rowlands says that people with a history of body image issues, unhealthy exercise habits or eating disorders should keep their goals small and realistic. "It might be as simple as aiming to move for 5-10 minutes a few times a week and building from there. Avoid overwhelming yourself with big fitness goals," she says. Your personal trainer should encourage and advocate for these small goals anything extra is a bonus.

4. "How And When Do You Celebrate Milestones?"

We're looking for a personal trainer who is going to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Rowlands suggests that after any movement or exercise session, we should be celebrating at least one positive thing we did or enjoyed. This could include enjoying those few minutes of boxing with your trainer, feeling really strong after your session, or even celebrating that you just pried yourself out of your cosy bed and turned up today. Try and also celebrate yourself privately and give yourself a pat on the back after every session.

5. "What Kind Of Exercise Do You Encourage?"

Variety is the spice of life, and that couldn't be more true than in the exercise arena. "If you haven’t done a lot of exercise in your life, set a goal of trying different exercises and activities," Rowland says. Experimentation is key here, as you want to try a range of different exercise types to find one that feels good for you and that you enjoy. "There are so many ways to move your body, so find what makes you and your body feel good and do that!" Yes, that means that it's okay to permanently break up with burpees if they're not making you happy.

6. "What Does Rest Mean To You?"

We've probably all been victims of hearing a personal trainer yell out, "No excuses!" Well, turns out there actually are excuses, Daniel. Training when you're unwell or injured and adopting a 'pushing through' mentality means that we're just ignoring the cues our body is trying to send us, says Rowlands. These could be feelings of tiredness, soreness, menstrual cramps or even just really wanting to rest at home and watch Netflix. Listen to your body and reject personal trainers that insist that you should be pushing through all discomfort.

7. "How Often Should I Exercise?"

When you're eager to enter into a new exercise routine, it's really easy to be overly optimistic and say that you'll hit the gym four times a week. In most cases, that's just not realistic. If you find yourself getting distressed or anxious about not exercising or changing your routine, Rowlands encourages you to investigate these feelings and replace them with small, realistic goals. Similarly, she says that it's easy to slip into over-training, so it's all about finding the right amount of movement for your body. Disregard any trainers who give you a concrete number of times that you should be training or hitting the gym if it's not comfortable for you.

8. "What Do You Think About Body Transformations Or Exercise Challenges?"

Instead of even asking this question, jump onto your prospective personal trainer's Instagram. If you see any side-by-side transformation pictures, avoid them at all costs. This also goes for overly competitive exercise programs or challenges. "These often incorporate unhelpful messaging that can triggering for someone who is recovered or recovering from body, eating and exercise issues," Rowlands says. That doesn't mean you need to rule out exercising with other people completely, though. "It can be enjoyable exercising with other people, but try to avoid people who are competitive or drive body comparisons."

9. "Do You Use Fitness Trackers Or Heart Rate Monitors?"

Ah, fitness trackers. My own personal hell. While I do get some enjoyment from watching my little Apple Fitness circle close, it's important to also recognise how we feel when we don't reach our fitness tracker goals (and that's often pretty shitty). Some gyms use fitness trackers or heart rate monitors to check how hard you're really working. But watch out. Rowlands says that it's easy for us to become focused on the numbers when using these gadgets. Instead, use your body as the guide. "Listen to how your body feels. Some days you might feel like moving more, and sometimes you'll feel like moving less. That's okay. Keep the rules and rigidity out of your relationship with exercise and movement."
Reconstructing a healthy relationship with exercise and movement takes time, Rowlands reminds us. "It's constantly challenged by the diet culture we live in, where messaging around body shape, size, and movement has been hijacked to the point where it's hard to decipher what's actually 'healthy'."
But there are signs that we're well on our way to having a positive relationship with our bodies and movement being consistent with movement, enjoying a range of activities and exercise, sleeping well, feeling energised, and above all, listening to your body. If fuel, rest, and celebration are all regular occurrences in your life, it's clear that your relationship with movement is finally (finally!) becoming a positive place.
Next time you're shopping for a personal trainer, don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. In our quest for body neutrality, we need to fearlessly cut and cull any advocates of diet culture and it begins right here.
If you or anyone you know are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.

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