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Better Service for “Better” Bodies?

Fitness instructors will provide lower quality care to larger-bodied clients.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels
Source: Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels

The quality of services that fitness instructors provide is influenced by how they perceive the size of their clients’ bodies: Namely, if you have a larger body, the services that you receive are likely to be lower quality than if you were to have a smaller body. This is a key finding from a new study published by researchers at Curtin University in Australia and the University of Windsor in Canada, led by Dr. Nikos Ntoumanis.

The experiment

The researchers recruited 134 female and male fitness instructors to take part in an experiment. The fitness instructors were between 20 and 61 years old, and most had two-to-five years of experience. Each instructor was shown a photo of a “new client,” with an excerpt about that client’s motivation to exercise.

This is where it gets interesting: Half of the fitness instructors saw a photo of an “average weight,” middle-aged, Caucasian man dressed in exercise clothing. The other half of the fitness instructors saw a photo of the exact same man, but his body was digitally manipulated to be “overweight." (The fitness instructors did not know the photo was digitally manipulated.)

In addition, for half of the fitness instructors, the excerpt under the photos reflected that their new client was intrinsically motivated to exercise (e.g., “It’s important for me to lead a healthy lifestyle”). For the other half of the fitness instructors, the excerpt reflected that their new client was extrinsically motivated to exercise (e.g., “My partner, children, and doctor have been nagging me to start exercising”).

Intrinsic motivation means that you are motivated to do something, like exercise, because you genuinely find it enjoyable, interesting, satisfying, or because it is in line with your values. In contrast, extrinsic motivation means that you are motivated to do something because you want to avoid punishment, criticism, achieve a reward, or because someone else (e.g., a doctor) is pressuring you.

After viewing the photo and excerpt from their “new client,” the fitness instructors filled in a few questionnaires. The questionnaires measured, among other things, the types of strategies that the fitness instructors thought would be most effective for their new client. The questionnaires also measured the fitness instructors’ own motivation to coach him. Note that the fitness instructors did not know the true purpose of the study, because this would have otherwise affected their answers to the questionnaires.

The results

The researchers found that the fitness instructors who received the photo of the “overweight” client thought that controlling strategies would be effective for him. Examples of controlling strategies are the use of coercion, criticism, or punishment to try and manipulate how clients think, feel, and behave – like promising a client a reward if he or she comes to the next gym session. The fitness instructors also reported feeling more extrinsically motivated to coach their “overweight” client (e.g., “I would coach him because I have to”).

In contrast, the fitness instructors who received the photo of the “normal weight” client thought that controlling behaviors would be less effective for him, and reported feeling more intrinsically motivated to coach him (e.g., “I would feel proud to coach him”).

Interestingly, the client’s own motivation to exercise (e.g., the “I’m doing it for my health” vs. “My doctor said so” statements) had no impact on what strategies the fitness instructors thought would be most suitable for him, or on how motivated they themselves felt to coach that client.

The take-home message

The findings show that fitness instructors are likely to treat their clients differently based on their body size, with people with larger bodies getting the short end of the stick. If fitness instructors are more likely to use controlling strategies with their “overweight” clients, then they will provide lower quality support: Instructors who use controlling strategies are likely to show less empathy toward their clients and make less effort in helping them. Further, clients who are taught using controlling strategies are likely to experience lower motivation to exercise, have less faith in their ability to succeed, and are less likely to stick with the program. Instead, autonomy-supportive strategies have been shown to be much more beneficial and conducive to well-being. Examples of these strategies involve acknowledging clients’ feelings and offering them plenty of different choices that they themselves can make.

Unfortunately, the findings of this study are not unique to the fitness environment: A wealth of research has shown that people with larger bodies experience negative attitudes from a wide variety of healthcare and service providers. In turn, people with larger bodies are more likely to receive lower quality care, which contributes to lower quality of life and ill-being. How unfair is that? Every person should be given the best quality of care – regardless of their body size.

For more, see the original report by Nikos Ntoumanis and colleagues:


Ntoumanis, N., Guerrero, M. D., Gadeke, C., & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C. (2018). Do exerciser weight status and perceived motivation predict instructors’ motivation and beliefs about the exerciser? A test of motivation contagion effects. Body Image, 26, 10-18.