// The power of understanding: how my own fat loss helps overweight clients

As a chef, Joseph Pitronaci struggled to fit exercise into his busy schedule and over the years gained considerable weight. With the help of personal trainers he lost over 35 kilos, prompting him to start a new life as a fitness professional. Here he reveals how empathy and understanding can enable you to help clients on their fat loss journeys.

The lifestyle we choose to lead affects all aspects of our life: our appearance, our social behaviour, our mental and emotional health and our ability to participate in life on a day-to-day basis. As fitness professionals, we know that physical activity and healthy eating play integral roles in improving all these areas of life – but how can we better understand what our fat loss clients go through each day – their struggle to make healthier food choices and to find the motivation to get to the gym or to simply get moving?

My story

From personal experience I can confirm that losing a large amount of weight, and keeping it off, takes tremendous hard work. I lost over 35 kilograms over five years. As a chef, my eating habits, irregular working hours and general lifestyle took their toll on my weight and my wellbeing. Every day I dealt with the reality that I was an increasingly overweight, unfit person.

Eventually I decided that I didn’t want to continue on the path I was on, and bit the bullet. Getting into the habit of going to the gym, creating and sticking to training routines and keeping daily food diaries was daunting, but with the support of two personal trainers, I did it, and lost close to 25 kilos over the first 18 months.

My experience inspired me to help others who were struggling with weight management This coincided with a time when I was ready for a career change, so I studied for my Certificate IV in Fitness and soon afterwards started my own personal training business.

Understanding

So, how does my experience enable me to help clients see the value of personal training and maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle?

I understand that there are days when the last thing a client wants to do is workout, or be told by their toned and athletic trainer what they should be eating. Fit, healthy-looking trainers can appear intimidating to prospective overweight clients. For many, there is a fear of being chastised or humiliated. The mere fact that a potential trainer is fitter and healthier in appearance can deter prospects from ever getting started.

Guidance

Once an overweight prospect has made the leap to becoming a client, the importance of your role will become apparent. With the day-to-day stresses of managing work, finances and family, commitment to exercise and healthy eating gets pushed down the client’s priority list. Your job is to keep them on track and keep them motivated to achieve their goals. Just as their tax accountant manages their finances and their dentist looks after their teeth, you are the one charged with advising, motivating and encouraging them to achieve their physical goals.

You need to help them consider all of the influences that impact upon their life and may be contributing to their deconditioned state and excess weight. You have to help them break through the multitude of diet myths and negative perceptions regarding exercise to ensure they have the confidence to be in the gym environment and the belief that they are on the right path to achieving their goals in a healthy and sustainable manner. As their trainer, you may also be the person they confide in, and even the shoulder they cry on, as overweight individuals often suffer low self-worth and self-esteem.

Ownership

For overweight clients, exercise is not a natural habit, and past experience with it will often be negative. A lot of resistance can be encountered before a breakthrough is achieved – and this breakthrough has to come from the client. As much as you can see their potential, they have to see it too. If the client is emotionally attached to their goal, they are far more likely to achieve it. Regaining control of their lives, and taking ownership and responsibility for themselves and their actions, is crucial for overweight clients to achieve and maintain long term results.

When training overweight clients – as with any clients – you will encounter a range of excuses for why they are not able to train, or to make healthier food choices. What can you say to turn them around – ‘No pain no gain’? Such clichés don’t convey the message you are trying to get across – that improved fitness is not about short term pain and discomfort, but about reaching the goal of a healthier and happier life. You want your clients to enjoy exercise and feel good about themselves. In order to achieve this, you need to dig deeper to find out what is holding them back and why. Before these questions can be answered, a simple question to ask your client is ‘Why is this important to you?’ or ‘What will this weight loss mean to you?’ This will most likely elicit an emotional response, within which the reasons for their excuses will come to the fore, and methods of motivation which can be used to support and encourage them, become clearer.

Support

So, how can you support your clients and give them what they need without frightening them off after their first session? From my own experience, I can tell you that an overweight client does not need to be reminded of the fact they are overweight: they can see themself in the mirror, and they know what size their clothing is and how uncomfortable they feel.

Obesity is a struggle that many clients have lived with for years due to unhealthy lifestyle choices. These choices are often influenced by factors such as family and culture, access to fresh food and produce, financial pressures and the lack of easy, understandable and applicable knowledge relating to healthy food choices. Counteracting these influences cannot be achieved overnight.

Initially, you want to get your client eating less and moving more – sounds simple enough, right? For many overweight people, however, this involves breaking deeply ingrained habits and routines that have existed for much of their life. Understandably, they will be resistant to change. It is important therefore to break down the end goal into measureable and achievable mini-goals that your client can work towards on a weekly basis. This may be reducing their alcohol intake, or spending an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill at the end of their workout.

Remember that for many overweight clients, this will be the first time in years that they have done any form of structured exercise or monitored their food intake. Take the time to show you care, listen to what they tell you and don’t be overly critical if they ‘fall off the wagon’. For many overweight clients it will take months, or even years, to accept that eating a burger for breakfast, a loaf of bread for lunch or a tub of ice cream for dessert is a major obstacle in their path to weight loss. It is essential to build a strong relationship with your weight loss client: they are more likely to be honest with you about their diet and exercise habits in-between personal training sessions if you are caring and sympathetic to their struggle.

The food factor

As we know, exercise is one half of the fitness equation, and diet is the other half. It is important to be aware that many clients simply don’t know how to cook healthy, nutritionally balanced meals. As a former chef, I didn’t lack the skills to create healthy meals, but for too long I lacked the motivation to do so, opting instead for calorie-rich dishes. Rather than preparing meals themselves, many overweight people rely on external sources for their food – and this tends to be in the form of junk food. The pitfalls of this are the lack of control that the consumer has over the ingredients, cooking methods and the portion sizes. As their personal trainer, while you can encourage healthier eating habits, your scope for providing nutritional advice may be limited by your level of education in this field. For realistic and achievable eating habit change to occur, you may need to recommend the services of a qualified nutritionist or dietitian.

Onwards and upwards

Once your weight loss client has established a regular schedule of training with you, look at all the areas of their life to see if the fitness message has been taken onboard outside of their PT sessions. If they are only training one or two days a week, find out why. Do they have low energy or motivation and need to add a snack in before their workout? Sometimes clients may not be aware of a specific reason for their reluctance to fully embrace the means that will help them reach their goals, so it is your job to reinforce the reasons why there are training with you and to continually push them onwards and upwards.

As their trainer, you need to realise that even though your client may physically lose weight, their overweight mentality can stay with them for many years to come, especially if their self confidence and self image has not been rebuilt. Your clients need to be reminded of how far they have come, and to be continually encouraged to set challenging and fulfilling goals. These factors help to ensure their longevity as clients, as well as their weight loss and lifestyle changes.

Regardless of how difficult or non-committed a client may be, you should never give up on them. Doing so will make them view their efforts as a failed attempt, pushing them further away from their goals. Instead, work harder at keeping them focused on their targets, and do everything you can to support and encourage them to reach them. By focusing on positives and celebrating every small success, you can change both the mindset and the physique, until your overweight clients are transformed into regular exercisers.

Joseph Pitronaci
After working as a chef for ten years, Joseph achieved a personal weight loss of over 35kg. He now owns and operates his own personal training business, Fitpit, within Fitness First St Leonards, NSW. To contact Joseph email fitpit@optusnet.com.au or call 0410 602363.