Deborah Shatzkes joined a new gym in 2015. Along with her membership, Shatzkes got a free personal training session. She also got what was called a fitness assessment to help inform her personal training session.
Shatzkes wasn’t interested in personal training, but the person selling her the membership said it was worth it to get the assessment to get acquainted with what the gym had to offer.
So Shatzkes took it. During her assessment, a personal trainer took her height and weight, then told her that, according to the gym’s chart, her body mass index, or BMI, put her in a category right under obese.
“I looked at this and I was shocked because I’m in really good shape,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’m a runner and I eat really well so I looked at him and I was like, ‘How can this be?’”
The trainer deflected the question. And when Shatzkes, who’s 55 and works as a radiologist, reached out to the gym management for an explanation, she received the same kind of deflection.
“The chart was manipulative and there was a lot of pressure for training and it was clearly directed towards making me—and people—that they were less fit than they were and therefore needed training.”
Shatzkes is far from alone. The warmer summer months build societal pressure for “summer bodies” or the eye-roll-inducing “bikini body” that marketers and fitness institutions often use to shame people into spending money on memberships, personal training, and more.
And free fitness assessments are part of the problem, sometimes leaving members in vulnerable places that could contribute to body dysmorphia and eating disorders and sometimes pushing members to overtrain in order to achieve a body type dictated by the gym as ideal.
BMI, which is measured by height and weight, has long been a way to put what seemed like a scientifically backed, neutral but cold number on one’s healthy weight. But recent years have proven that the BMI is controversial. In 2013, research from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention challenged the longstanding theory that lower BMI equals lower mortality rate in 2013.
Experts agree it’s problematic. Jeff Plasschaert, a University of Florida health physiologist focusing on cardiac and pulmonary health, works with the hospital’s fitness center and told The Daily Beast that BMI tends to incorrectly categorize people.
“If you’re looking at BMI just as a number of a measurement of overall health it can be very inaccurate,” he said. “You can have an individual that’s 250 pounds but all muscle and their BMI would put them into extremely obese category, and the problem is that BMI just goes by height and weight.”
Some fitness centers go beyond BMI. At Equinox gyms, clients doing fitness assessments—called EquiFits—step on an InBody machine that measures body fat percentage, muscle mass, body water values, and even the difference in weight between your right and left limbs.
And TMPL gym in New York City takes it a step further with what it calls a Metabolic Assessment, that includes the Styku, a 3D Body Scanner, that shows clients exactly where fat deposits in their body and “The Metabolic Code,” an extensive questionnaire that Christopher Piegza, training manager at TMPL, told The Daily Beast helps “determine within the accuracy of bloodwork where one’s metabolism and hormonal levels are at.” Clients then work with “Metabolic Specialists” to fine tune diet and exercise.
Everyone who joins the gym gets the assessment for free, and Piegza said that even if clients insist they can’t afford the service, which ranges in price but reportedly starts at $750, he tries to talk to them about their fitness goals.
“I prefer it be an eye-opening experience, rather than a sales pitch. I tell them to come in and we take it from there, and I’ll do a presentation around this is why you need this,” he said. “People do realize if it’s something they’re really after, the money becomes less and less of an object.”
Ross Hurley, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who works with MotivNY and has worked for various gyms, told The Daily Beast that the fitness world is moving toward rethinking fitness assessments as “How well do you move” versus “How much weight do you want to lose?”
“We’re starting to look at people from a movement perspective and say, ‘Hey if you’re the kind of person who wants to do obstacle courses or play with your kids, here’s the kind of workout for you,’” he said.
The bottom line is that not everyone is looking to reshape their body or change their diet, and certainly not by way of a controversial, potentially misleading statistic. Alyssa Chaplin, a 27-year-old special education teacher, told The Daily Beast that the numbers from any kind of body analysis she’s had has made her feel bad about herself. She’s been avoiding a free personal training session at her gym.
“Some people want a trainer to be able to stay the way that they are. I’m not necessarily going to do a drastic weight loss, and with what’s been offered to me, I feel unmotivated rather than motivated and you feel forced to go to the gym rather than go to the gym because it feels good,” she said. “I think rather than measure stuff, they should ask: What are those areas you’re not happy about, we’re not going to measure it right now but let’s talk about it.”
Justine Roth, a registered dietician who specializes in eating disorders and works as the director of the nutrition department at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, told The Daily Beast that any hard numbers can be harmful for people.
“It’s all just as unhelpful as the BMI scales. Body fat percentage measures and inches are so exact and rigid that really nothing but obsession can come from taking them,” she said. “Questions like, ‘Can you walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath?’ or ‘Do you work out on an empty stomach’ are better indicators to what type of interventions might be best for a person to gain cardiovascular strength and more energy during a workout.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are things some gyms take very seriously and some gyms don’t think about at all. Roth said that many gyms don’t have policies in place for when an eating disorder is suspected, which can be very dangerous for the member struggling.
Alex Zimmerman, Equinox’s senior director of Tier X programming, the gym’s highest level of personal training, told The Daily Beast that Tier X coaches are put through a six-month developmental training program, that includes working with a psychologist, in order to ensure a body positive environment.
“That is something we have to tread lightly on, it’s very sensitive information,” he said. “We’re aware people can respond any which way and what we try to do is identify where their strengths lie and build upon on that as opposed to shaming them as to where they’re falling short with their behavior.”
Everyone responds differently, though. And for some, numbers can motivate, but it’s also about the trainer you’re working with and how they make you feel. Marcos Perez, who’s 29, worked with a trainer at Equinox when he realized he had gained so much weight it was unhealthy. He uses the InBody machine every month to track his progress.
“I got paired with a trainer who had a similar weight loss journey and it’s been encouraging and motivating, and I think having that experience to start really kept me on track because it’s really hard the first couple of months and to have someone be like, ‘you got this, keep going,’ really helped,” he said.
Hurley said it’s important for clients to always question their trainers: Why are we measuring this? Why are we doing this movement? And Plasschaert said to talk to a potential trainer about their expertise, how they can help you and if they might recommend someone else they know who could be more equipped to help you reach your fitness goals, not a gym’s prescriptive version of goals.
“If you’re hiring someone for a job, you wouldn’t want someone just off the street, you don’t want someone who just has a shirt that says ‘trainer’ on it,” he said. “Ideas that some people follow might not fit everybody they train.”
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