If you ain’t assessing…. Do we need a different approach to improving health and fitness?

As someone finding his feet in personal training I’ve wrestled with one of the key issues of how to assess clients and whether or not to take “metrics”. Much of the professional education, books and blogs on fitness stress the importance of bodyfat percentage and girth measurements, along with mantra like phrases such as “if you ain’t assessing, you’re just guessing”.  We are also told to encourage people (in most cases) to “ditch the scales” as muscle mass is much heavier than fat, and as we all know – muscle is God.


This is all well and good and may suit certain people at certain times but the more I’ve thought about this, the more it’s bothered me.  Besides the fact that they are a pain to conduct, are rather intrusive and the results can vary due to accuracy issues, there is something troubling about the effect it can have on people mentally.  I have witnessed first hand a slim, fit yoga instructor’s disheartenment at discovering her “high” bodyfat percentage as she went on to describe herself as being “skinny-fat”. I have spoken to friends who have attended personal training courses describe it as “demoralising” when learning that their bodyfat percentage was higher than they thought, coupled with comparing themselves to those around them.  Now when you bear in mind that these are fit and healthy people working in the fitness profession it makes me wonder what kind of affect this has on everyday people wanting to improve their health, and discover themselves to be in the “unhealthy” or even “dangerous” category.


Some suggest that we might be better just taking girth measurements – they are easier to do, can be self performed by the client (so less intrusive or embarrassing) and don’t throw up the same kind of alarming figures.  They can be used simply as a personal benchmark to assess progress against.  This is probably a step in the right direction but also may be inaccurate in terms of how the measurements are taken and it doesn’t take into account changes in muscle size running in conjunction with fat lost.  More important than this though is it is still in the same mentality of becoming anal about one’s approach to health, the potential for obsessive behaviour and that it is coming from a place that doesn’t begin with self acceptance.  It comes from a place that says “I don’t like what I see”, “I’m not enough” or quite likely “I’m too much”


Those (especially in the health and fitness world) may argue that whatever it takes to motivate someone is fine as there is nothing more important than ones own health.  Or that we can’t fully enjoy life unless we are healthy.  This however, is flawed thinking as it ignores people’s emotional state and relegates mental wellbeing below the physical.  Worse than that is that it attempts to compartmentalise the two states.


So what is to be done?  How can we as trainers and coaches assess the progress of clients?  How can we relate back to them that they are making progress, that they should stick the course and ultimately continue to make use of our services?  How can we as people trying to become fit and stay healthy ensure we are on the right path and not just on the proverbial hamster wheel? How can we know, see and feel that the exercise we are doing is an effective use of our time and that the lifestyle choices we are making actually work for us?


Within the realm of fitness coaching and personal training it can be hard to find alternatives to this. The prevailing wind seems to be very much on the side of “if you ain’t assessing, you’re just guessing” and that “demanding clients demand to see evidence of progress”.  It’s also of a mentality that blurs the lines between sports coaching and general fitness. In sports we need accurate measurements for a variety of aspects relating to both physical condition and performance outcomes. In professional sports and high level amateur competition a certain level of discipline is accepted as the norm – it is the trainees job, after all, and every variable must be tweaked to ensure peak performance.


Everyday life on the other hand is a bit different.  We (in most cases) don’t have coaches monitoring what we eat and how we exercise.  We also have a complex web of family, social and societal factors that influence our health and habits. The overall “health of the nation” is indeed influenced by factors such as decreasing activity levels, increasing day to day stess and a trend to becoming less mindful (in many ways) about how we eat.


Perhaps a better approach is a more gentle one.  It’s not hardcore, it’s not particularly cool nor is it sexy. It’s a slower approach certainly but by nature it’s a more sustainable and manageable one. We can’t elevate physical health to be the ultimate ideal, especially when it brings with it the baggage of stress, obsessive behaviour and a lack of self worth. We need to begin everything from a place of understanding and self acceptance, even if we do recognise the need to make changes. As fitness professionals we also need to understand people have different priorities and that being fit (as important as we know it is) is not what most people want to spend their time thinking about. We need to learn to walk in people’s shoes before we tell them why they should be doing sprints in them.