Phill Wright is a health and fitness educator, coach and mentor who sits on the expert panel for REPs.

He has written a passionate plea to gyms and fitness professionals, calling for a radical change in what he deems is the pervasive practice of promoting unrealistic body ideals, and for those working in the sector to consider the potential physical, psychological and emotional repercussions of pushing clients towards achieving the ‘body beautiful’.

The sentiments expressed are Phill’s own. REPs appreciates this is an emotive topic and that everyone will have their own distinct views, covering a wide spectrum of opinion.

Do you agree with Phill’s thought-provoking blog – that there is too much focus on quick wins, which can lead to clients’ vulnerabilities being exploited – and the suggestions he makes for change? You can join the debate by leaving a comment under our post on Twitter.

Having had a career in the fitness industry now for the best part of 13 years, you’d imagine I would have embraced working in fitness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

On the one hand, I’m passionate about health and fitness and helping people enjoy the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle but, on the other, I despair about some of the messaging the industry sends out: how some gyms promote the ‘look’ of fitness and how some personal trainers promote themselves. It feels sometimes like it has become a soulless and misleading sector that constantly undermines any attempts to reach and help more people and ultimately be taken more seriously.

In simple terms, we use unsustainable, barely obtainable and extreme images of people to model the ideal of what health and fitness looks like.

Firstly, health and fitness is about far more than just ‘an appearance’ and it is essential that we as an industry acknowledge this and, more importantly, take full responsibility for educating people with the messaging we use, the priority we place on image, and the way we set personal goals with people and ultimately create expectations. If not, we will continue to let people down and do ourselves no favours in driving our sector forward.

Fitness is more than just a set of physical metrics but a feeling of being in control and having the confidence of believing in your own habits.

Surely, the ideal approach as a fitness professional is to help encourage people towards a state of self-acceptance, confidence and nurturing a good long-term relationship with both exercise and nutrition, whereby they can enjoy all the benefits.

And if we are unable to do this effectively then perhaps we should be putting our hands in the air and clearly stating our own limitations whilst looking for ways of being better skilled until we are able to do so.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather than acknowledging our own shortcomings, there is a tendency by too many working in the industry to focus on the quick wins by exploiting the greatest vulnerabilities that people have.

As an example, whilst the recommended health guidelines that we work to suggest certain ranges for body composition, including muscle and fat, the people in the photos that we use are generally not in those healthy ranges. They are generally under-fat and over-lean, so how can we be surprised if being seen as healthy almost isn’t enough?

People are largely self-conscious with their appearance. While I would like to say I am confident within myself, if you put me on a beach with a group of professional athletes, I’d likely feel pretty self-conscious – and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone. Yet experience tells me that many of the professional athletes would also be lacking in confidence in their own skin.

Sounds bonkers but it’s true and I think part of the reason for this epidemic of poor self-acceptance is that we have somehow ended up in a place where society (even the people in the glossy marketing pictures themselves) feel like the sole measure of our state of health is in this almost unobtainable appearance used in marketing campaigns that we are subjected to numerous times on a daily basis.

Furthermore, there also seems to be a widely-accepted belief that being in the kind of shape that society projects as the ideal of health and fitness is the key to happiness and self-contentment. My thoughts differ significantly!

And to explore my thoughts a little more, I approached a number of friends who have done fitness modelling in the past to get a little insight into how they felt when they were in the ‘shape of their life’. What sacrifices were made and how did striving to achieve a certain look serve them in the longer term?

Ali Winter

“I couldn’t socialise as there was too much temptation with food and drink. I missed out on family gatherings and if I did go anywhere I ALWAYS had two meals with me in my Tupperware.

“Mentally it didn’t serve me well as after the competitions had finished and I was back up to a decent level of body fat (20%) – I had dropped to 12% according to my Tanita scales – and I thought I was obese and hated myself. I began to weigh out all my food and was obsessed by counting macros. I ended up so unwell that I didn’t see what the point to life was and was under the care of a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with “disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

“Now, five years on, whilst I’d love to be a little leaner and know I can be, I would only do this by increasing my exercise and doing more conditioning, rather than restricting my food too much. I have a sweet tooth and chocolate is always on the agenda.

“From a professional perspective, if a potential client asked me to get them ultra-lean for competition, I simply wouldn’t train them. There’s no balance to life when you are in prep for competition – those 17 weeks of “dieting” (a word I absolutely hate in that context now). I had serious health consequences and I wouldn’t put myself or anyone else through that again.”

Chris Kershaw

“I had to sacrifice socialising, probably some friendships and mostly my sanity.

“When I was at a very low body fat with the pressure of competition, I found it impossible to stay sane, which resulted in a short-term binge-eating disorder.

“In terms of it being an aesthetic goal, this didn't really affect me. I just wanted to do well in my eyes. My first competition was one of the best days of my life for many reasons. Without that prep I wouldn't be the person I am today. It taught me a great deal and made me stronger.

“I think everyone should get lean at least once to feel and know what it takes.”

Tracey Dougan

“On this shoot, I felt sooo disgustingly bloated and fat because the day prior I had competed (in bodybuilding) so I gorged on all sorts of crappy food that people had given me to help me make it through to the finals. I felt fat, awful and not good enough.”

Lewis Samardzija

“The main sacrifice I made was certainly my social life. I missed two holidays with my friends and many birthdays and nights out; although, looking back now, I could have maybe managed that better.

“With regards to health, 10 weeks in I lost my libido for six months. This is common in natural bodybuilders but is not discussed enough. I would binge-eat 1-2 times per week from an emotional eating standpoint. I would come home and eat everything in the house, to the point of almost vomiting, and then the next day train for 3+ hours and get in saunas to try lose the gained weight.”

How to see through the smoke and mirrors

It’s astonishing really that on one hand, we are all chasing this ideal appearance, and yet the very people we look at in the pictures are pushing themselves to their absolute limits and feel anything but ideal.

So, rather than just rant and state what I consider to be the problems, I felt it only right to offer some suggestions on how you can avoid being pulled in by the smoke and mirrors of the industry.

Firstly, when looking at glossy pictures of fitness models, accept that you have no idea how that person felt at the time of the photo shoot. You know nothing about the sacrifices they had to make and whether they could sustain that appearance.

Try to avoid setting personal goals that are exclusively image related. There is no real measure beyond opinion that can determine whether you have achieved your goal. In my experience, image-related goals can lead people towards a cycle of destructive obsession and distort what is truly important.

Whatever you do and whatever goals you set, consider the impact on yourself and the people who are important to you, the time and sacrifice it will take and prioritise enjoyment.

Secondly, some pointers for those working in the industry.

When posting glossy images of fitness models, do so with honesty and integrity in a way that helps the viewer appreciate the truth behind what it takes to look that way. Protect the integrity of your messaging by exclusively using fitness models who reflect the healthy ranges of body composition.

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself as a fitness professional to be perceived as the ultimate role model or be in the most incredible shape ever (whatever that means). Just be yourself and know that people will connect far greater with you when you are true to yourself as opposed to trying to become a fitness robot.

Be authentic, honest, open and, well… human. Most people don’t (and shouldn’t feel like they need to) spend hours in the gym every day to achieve their goals. Presenting this requirement creates a lot of pressure on you, creates an unrealistic ideal and shuts you off from the very people you aim to help.

This is such a huge topic that impacts us all. As a dad of two amazing girls (currently 7 and 3), I see such an incredible body confidence in them that helps them take on everything in a positive way. I’d love nothing more than for them to keep feeling this way for the rest of their lives.

What do you think? Join the debate by leaving a comment on Twitter.