Obesity can be a difficult topic to discuss. Naturally, we don’t want to upset people by raising something as personal as a weight problem, but when obesity starts to have an impact on health and wellbeing then it’s time to talk about it.
Obesity is one of the major reasons for serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, high cholesterol, internal organ dysfunction, sexual dysfunction, sleep interruption and myriad other issues – both physical and emotional.
Yet there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about the causes of obesity. Is it simply caused by too much food and too little exercise? No. Sure, these factors certainly contribute, but there’s more to it. So what is behind this growing health concern?
Like many other modern health problems, obesity has many factors. Hormones often get a bad rap, and in the case of weight they can play a big role. One important hormone in the obesity story is leptin. Leptin is produced by fat cells and is responsible for telling the brain that we’re full and that it’s time to stop eating. When someone is obese, this process malfunctions and the person is left with what’s called Leptin resistance.
The same happens with the hormone insulin. One of the roles of insulin is to help fat cells store energy. However, the modern Western diet is notorious for creating insulin resistance; that is, increasing insulin in the body and misleading fat cells into storing energy instead of making it available for the body to burn off.
Genetics also plays a role. In fact, children of obese parents are more likely to become obese than those whose parents are in a healthy weight range. And we haven’t even touched on the emotional side of things yet.
Despite what some people think, tackling obesity isn’t simple and getting to the bottom of why someone is obese is far more effective than simply jumping straight into a Biggest Loser-style regime.
For many clients, obesity can seem like a huge problem to tackle, so it’s important to begin the journey with small, manageable steps. Start by mapping out exactly what the client’s daily food intake looks like. You may be surprised to learn this, but not all obese people are what you’d call ‘big eaters’. It can sometimes be a matter of them relying too heavily (or solely) on the wrong kinds of foods.
Let me share with you an example of a past client. Carmel (not her real name) reported a daily dietary intake that consisted of the following: four slices of toast with Nutella for breakfast, a large packet of potato chips and a 600ml bottle of soft drink for lunch, and a packet of jelly beans washed down with another bottle of soft drink for dinner.
In terms of actual quantity, it’s not a lot of food. It’s not like Carmel was overeating, but she was eating a lot of the wrong type of food.
So that you can help your clients begin to make a change, it’s important to investigate their dietary choices and find out what’s driving them. Find out “Why the Nutella?”. “Why the chips and soft drink?” And definitely find out why there is no fresh produce or home-cooked meals.
It could be as simple as the client not actually knowing how to cook. Perhaps they lost their spouse who was responsible for all the cooking. Maybe they never received basic education about cooking and don’t know how to eat well. In some cases, people report feeling socially phobic or isolated and are afraid to leave the house to go shopping. Perhaps they just don’t care.
Remember: obesity is never just a physical thing. No matter what you’re presented with, it’s important to address and explore what’s at the root of the presenting problem so that a sustainable solution can be found.
For folks struggling with obesity, education is absolutely a key to improving their health and wellbeing. Writing down a simple dietary plan of healthy options that are quick and easy to prepare is a great place to start. Cutting out large amounts of sugar and salt in the diet is also imperative.
Any dietary change is more likely to be successful when coupled with a manageable physical exercise program. Again, starting very slowly is the key to success. Obese people often lack the range of movement, muscle strength, cardio fitness, coordination, balance and stamina of a leaner, fitter person. It’s important that you don’t bombard them with high-level aerobic activity or complicated, high-impact, multi-limbed exercises from the get-go. That would be setting them up to fail.
The fitness industry is filled with young, fit, healthy and enthusiastic trainers, but when it comes to training people with limited movement and ability, knowing how to modify and adapt a training program to suit an individual’s needs is, by far, the greatest attribute that a trainer can have.
When training an obese person, it’s important to consider the effect of impact exercises and long periods of standing on their joints. Lightweight training and gentle, low-impact aerobic exercise works best as a starting point. You don’t have to be able to stand up for an hour to exercise: anyone can exercise just sitting in a chair. The exercises can then be progressed to standing once they’ve built up some strength and stamina.
Finally, it’s absolutely essential to celebrate your clients’ milestones and small victories. No matter how small the achievement, celebrate as if it were an Olympian feat. Encouragement has a very powerful psychological effect on how a person engages and continues to engage. Slow, steady gains with lots of praise and continued education is a great combination for success when addressing obesity. Think small and steady.