"I weigh 96 pounds at home and my ribs are clearly visible even if I don't stretch or suck in. People are starting to say I look unhealthy," I said while lifting up my shirt.
My trainer glanced quickly at my abdomen and replied, "There are plenty of thinner women. Your ribs don't show that much. You look healthy and can still lose more weight."
He seemed skeptical that my weight was really that low, so I got on the scale at our gym for him to see. I weighed 100.2 fully dressed, shoes on, after two meals and about four cups of water. Even fully dressed with shoes and food in my stomach, my weight put me at a BMI of 18.3. A BMI under 18.5 is considered underweight while a BMI under 17.5 is one of the common physical features in diagnosing anorexia. At 96 pounds, my BMI was at 17.3. Rather than telling me to consult a doctor, he instantly dismissed my concerns and told me that I was healthy and could continue dieting. Why did he think I looked healthy could still lose weight?
I started working with my personal trainer at Gold's Gym about three months earlier. At the beginning of my training sessions, I weighed a healthy 110 pounds with a BMI of 19.8 and roughly 21% body fat. My trainer put me on a diet and exercise plan that helped me lose roughly a pound a week. We checked my weight every three weeks to check my progress. After I was down to about 103 pounds with a BMI of 18.5, my trainer told me I could keep losing weight and stay healthy as long as my body fat did not drop too low. He spoke constantly about how thin and fit other women were and expressed skepticism whenever I mentioned that someone had complimented me on my trim figure. I felt self-conscious whenever I worked out with him and miserable about how "fat" I was compared to the tiny women he spoke incessantly about. I was determined to be as thin and fit as these women, if not more so.
My weight loss soon started to alarm friends and family members. They expressed concern that my trainer was incompetent and distorting my body image. A part of me suspected they were right, but another part of me wanted to believe his assurances that he could help me get even thinner and still be healthy. That part of me felt I still wasn't thin enough That part of me was sick, but I didn't recognize it at the time. Defensively, I told them my trainer was knowledgeable and properly trained to recognize when I should stop dieting. But was he properly trained?
As Americans become increasingly concerned with the obesity epidemic, personal fitness training is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing occupations in the country. Yet the field of personal fitness training remains a largely unregulated terrain. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that trainers with five years of experience scored an average of only 44% on a test of basic fitness knowledge. This dangerous lack of knowledge has resulted in permanent injuries such as those of Clarissa Sanford, whose trainer walked away while she was performing bench presses. After the weight fell on her, she was forced to undergo surgery to fuse her vertebrae. Fatal reactions to weight loss supplements provided by trainers have also occurred, like in Anne Marie Capati's case. With deaths and serious injuries occurring every year at the hands of personal trainers, it's about time that unqualified trainers are weeded out.
While my trainer isn't breaking anyone's bones or giving out toxic cocktail of weight loss supplements, I am nevertheless concerned that he is a ticking time bomb. He told me he had a different female client with an eating disorder. Aside from seriously breaching of the other client's privacy, he may also be harming this client if he is giving her the same type of advice he gave to me. A client with an eating disorder might be more susceptible to his distorted and unrealistic ideas regarding thinness. Also, I feel like my trainer encouraged me to basically become anorexic by pressuring me and comparing me to other women and by providing misleading advice about weight loss.
The sane part of me eventually started to speak up, but only once I had reached 96 pounds and started experiencing heart palpitations (which is a health problem you are at elevated risk for if your BMI is below 17.5). When I look at myself in the mirror, all I can see were ribs. Out of curiosity, I went to the Center for Disease Control and learned that only 2% of the US population has a BMI of under 18.5. Obviously, my trainer was wrong to tell me there are "plenty of thinner women".
When I confronted my trainer with this information, he apologized and acknowledged that he had an unrealistic ideal of thinness. He made excuses about his lack of knowledge, saying that his training manual did not discuss body weight. He said he did not know there were health problems associated with low body weight. When hiring a personal trainer, I assumed a reputable gym like Gold's would check that each trainer possesses adequate knowledge of healthy weight and fitness. After all, their job is helping clients achieve and maintain a healthy body weight as well as increase fitness.
It's frustrating to pay for personal training sessions and get less fit as a result of being too thin. It's not only frustrating but downright alarming that my trainer did not know that having a BMI under 17.5 would put me at greater risk of heart problems. Yet I got off lucky because while my experience is frustrating, I can't begin to imagine the devastation felt by the friends and family of those who have died at the hands of the very people they hired to help them become healthier. It's imperative that we stop unqualified personal fitness trainers. Everyone knows working out is a pain, but no one should have to suffer injury or death.