Fitness vs. Fat Loss: How to Achieve Both in an Industry that Prioritizes One

The beginning of a new year is a great time to witness the health and fitness industry in full effect. The holiday season, and the extra food and alcohol that come along with it, has ended, and a brand new year provides an arbitrary reset, an opportunity for people who have put off making changes to wipe clean old habits and begin anew.

Gyms know this. Dissatisfied people armed with resolutions are primed to be sold to, and so fitness marketing reaches a peak. The selling point? Getting the body you always wanted. Not a pain-free body, a body without movement limitations or postural imbalances, or a body less prone to injury. Not even necessarily a body that performs better- runs faster, jumps higher, or lifts heavier. No, the body you want, we are told, is one that looks good on the beach.

What’s worse, many gyms and trainers tell us that if we just go harder, we can burn more calories to achieve our goals. The unfortunate side effect of this is people who work hard under the direction of a professional, only to experience over training, burn out, and even injury.

I understand the plight of professionals in the industry. After all, they are trying to satisfy their paying clients, and the overarching desire of many clients, a desire created by a slew of cultural influences and lifestyle factors, is fat loss. Trying to convince a client that just wants to burn a bunch of calories to add mobility work, for example, to a session they’ve paid a lot of money for is not easy. However, a good professional understands that if the client is experiencing postural alignment issues or movement limitations, adding mobility work will help them achieve their fat loss goal in such a way that both increases performance (and thus speeds fat loss) and prevents pain and injury.

What’s more, a good professional understands that it is her responsibility to inform the client of these underlying issues and explain the importance of addressing them. If you visited your dentist to get your teeth whitened, and he failed to inform you that you had a cavity, you would say that dentist didn’t do his job. You weren’t there for your oral health; you just wanted a more attractive smile, but for the dentist to have the knowledge of your cavity and withhold it would be negligent. The same responsibility befalls a trainer. If a client comes in with a goal of fat loss and the trainer sees that the client has a postural issue that prevents him from performing exercises with the correct form, it is the trainer’s responsibility to inform the client.

Unfortunately, while many professionals are well-intentioned, they lack the depth of understanding required to make this type of analysis and prescribe appropriate corrective exercises that integrate into a training plan which achieves the client’s immediate goals. In order to do so requires not only an in depth understanding of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics, but how these sciences interact with each other.

Understanding what muscles an exercise works is only a foundation and does not explain how to build muscle size vs strength (or another outcome like endurance or power). It is not enough, even, to know how to elicit these outcomes if a professional cannot recognize when a client is performing the exercise with improper form. And even if a professional can identify a form issue, they then must be able to determine if this is an acute or chronic error as well as the underlying cause in order to correct it. The ability to do this not only speeds progress but helps prevent pain, injury, and further movement limitations.

Sadly, our focus as a population, and therefore the focus of the fitness industry, remains on body composition. Despite the fact that there are several other health-related components of fitness (strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility) and a myriad of positive outcomes including decreased risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression (to name only a few), our primary driver is aesthetic. When physical fitness is reduced to “calories in, calories out,” the best qualified fitness professional is one who can motivate you to burn the most calories, to push yourself the hardest all the time. Our obsession with fat loss has left us with an industry of professionals who are great motivators and mediocre problem solvers at a time when we need problem solvers more than ever.

We are living in an increasingly sedentary world. Even those who exercise daily often sit at a desk for work, sit in a car to commute, and sit on furniture during leisure time. This decrease in physical activity (and the accompanying decrease in the variety of body positions we are in) has resulted in an increase of musculoskeletal conditions including low back pain, foot and ankle injuries, knee injuries, and shoulder injuries among others. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 2 adult Americans lives with a musculoskeletal condition, with low back pain being the single leading cause of disability since 1990. These areas of injury and tension affect the entire system, creating a cycle that increases the likelihood of further injury in other areas of the body.

The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting to change your body composition. But there are ways to do it that don’t sacrifice your ability to move well, free of pain, both now and in the future. One of the easiest ways to do this is by shifting your focus to other components of fitness. By prioritizing cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility, not only will you improve these outcomes, but fat loss will follow. Unfortunately, the reverse is not necessarily true. If your goal is simply to burn as many calories as possible, you might continue to do burpees with poor form, for example, or train at a frequency or intensity that results in overtraining and injury. And likely you will impede your fat loss progress in the process (because it’s not just calories in, calories out, but that’s another blog post).

If you’re curious to discover if you have movement limitations or postural malalignments, a dynamic alignment assessment is a great place to start. If you’re interested in finding our more, shoot me an email at saraellen@movewellatl.com.