Why The Blind Spot?

I’ve mentioned before that I think that the fitness industry has glaring blind spots. That’s part of the premise of my entire project here at Former Fat Boy: that there is a demographic that isn’t being served (or else why create one more generic fitness regime among thousands?). With few exceptions, the fitness industry seems to ignore those people who suffer most and serve those who need it the least. In particular, fitness programs just don’t seem to aim at the seriously obese or the chronically – or lifelong – obese. Fitness programs are for those who are incidentally fat.

By why? Well there are a few things going on and a few reasons for them.

The fitness industry aims at a narrow range of people for the most part. Listen to most commercials and pay attention to the scripts for infomercials. That bottle of pills? It’s going to strip that weight you gained in middle age. That magic belt? It’s getting you back into your beach body. That cream? It’ll smooth out your cellulite and firm up the core. That shaker full of fairy dust that makes everything have no calories? You can lose 20 pounds in no time! That exercise machine or that program or that new 12 step routine? They’ll get you into shape… but only if you’re in a certain kind of shape to begin with. If you didn’t gain weight because of middle-age hormone changes, or if a ‘beach body’ is on the distant horizon, or if cellulite is a footnote in the longer story of thunder thighs and jelly rolls, or if you need to lose 120 pounds and not 20 pounds, these are not aimed at you. They are aimed at a specific group of people. People who are either 1) incidentally/temporarily fat or 2) not actually fat. In fact, for the most part the programs and products that seem to tout the most visually impressive results are actually serving people who aren’t fat in any normal understanding of the word. Glancing at the vast majority of production surrounding fitness, the target audience is shockingly “average”… even as the American average becomes more and more overweight.

The blind spot here is obviously the seriously overweight: those who have long-term weight issues or who grew up suffering from obesity. These would seem to be the people most in need, and yet they are also the least served by the industry at large. Obesity is more often than not discussed as a medical problem and not a fitness problem, and so instead of creating programs for this group of people, it seems as though fitness professionals largely rely on medical professionals to serve them. Which is ironic because the discourse about America’s weight is one centered around this group, even as the industry seeks solutions for the average middle ground and outsources the obese to medical professionals. But this is not a medical problem. Obesity is not a disease in that sense. It’s a condition, but with rare exception it isn’t one that requires medical intervention.

The blind spot exists for a couple reasons. The first, as I’ve alluded to previously when discussing the witchcraft of calorie counting, is that the fitness industry is full of people who are fit. If you become a fitness professional, you’re probably a person who is naturally prone to being fit. The problem there is that you will have very little in common with the guy who grew up overweight. You didn’t have his struggle with obesity, you didn’t break your back in search of results that never materialized, and you didn’t fight the uphill battle against the bulge for decades. In fact, if you’re a fitness professional you’re probably a mesomorph, which means everything worked out rather well for you: the calorie math is exactly on point, your body responded rapidly to stimuli in a predictable way, and results were dependable. That’s where fitness professionals are usually coming from and that’s the root of programs they develop. They’ll rely on the basics because in their experience the basics work exactly the way they are supposed to.

But more mercenary reasons are also out there. On the one hand, it’s simply easier to reach the vast “average” middle and ignore the seriously overweight (even as we harp on them for being overweight). There isn’t any special consideration to make for the average, there isn’t a lot of work to be done to create something effective for them, and you can generate variations on a very narrow band of health/fitness knowledge in order to appeal to this group. The seriously overweight require not only more work, but a different set of skills. What works to make a normal person lose 20 pounds is not what will work to get that 25 year old guy who was fat from 1st grade to lose 100 pounds. A different paradigm is required, and that’s simply more work. Even more damning, though, is the fact that aiming at the seriously obese doesn’t pay the bills. This is also why the fitness industry aims mainly at women: the biggest cash cow is that huge group of slightly overweight women. They have the most disposable income and they have the most eyes on the TV screen, the billboard, the magazine, etc. The seriously overweight young man? It doesn’t pay to aim at him. He needs special attention and that isn’t something a mass market is prepared to deliver.

And because of that, it can seem as though answers don’t exist at all. Luckily at this point we know that’s not true.


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