Doctors Who Sport a Healthy Lifestyle May Repel Some Patients

Avoid looking too perfect to those you hope to aid.

By Micaela Heck, published September 5, 2017 - last reviewed on November 20, 2017

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While people in helping professions, such as doctors, might understandably try to lead by example and model a healthy lifestyle, research suggests this approach could have drawbacks. 

In a recent study, both healthy-weight individuals and overweight people with concerns about their fitness reviewed the written profiles of several physicians, some of whom explicitly mentioned having personal habits like biking or maintaining a healthy diet. Overweight subjects tended to think such doctors would be more disapproving and were less inclined to see them, researchers found.

"I think we often have a false assumption that projecting as perfect an image as possible is the best way to fill the role of expert," says lead author Lauren C. Howe, a psychologist at Stanford University. "This fails to take into account the concerns people may bring into the mix, like worrying that an expert will look down on them for some quality they possess." She suspects this expert/novice dynamic plays out in other domains, such as in teacher/student relationships and mental health care.

Encouragingly, participants anticipated less disapproval from fitness-conscious physicians who also conveyed a nonjudgmental sentiment—such as, "Everyone has their own definition of a healthy life"—and acknowledged that different people have diverse but worthy goals.