Exercise for health not weight-loss. Photo: Stocksy
"You'll never have sex again if you look like that!" screamed the personal trainer. His abuse was targeted at a woman who had made the mistake of entrusting him to help her exercise.
This story came from a client of clinical psychologist Louise Adams. "She was in pieces after that comment. It took her weeks to recover," Adams says.
This anecdote is just one of many examples that confirmed what Adams, who runs a weight management clinic, has long suspected. People don't avoid exercise because they don't like exercising. They avoid it because they don't like their bodies - and they fear the way other people will judge their bodies.
And now there's research to back this up. A survey of 1400 people conducted by Nine Rewards for Curves has found that one-in-three Australians are avoiding exercise altogether because they're embarrassed to be seen exercising. Forty-six per cent of respondents said they have had feelings of anxiety at the thought of attending a gym.
Adams blames what she calls the "pornification of exercise" for contributing to people's avoidance of physical activity.
"Part of why people are anxious about exercising is because we are supposed to be sexy and physically perfect when we do it. We see images of women in tiny shorts and crop tops and this makes people feel inadequate," Adams says. "Research shows that the more we are exposed to images of physical perfection, the more depressed and angry we get. This doesn't motivate; it makes us feel worse and we want to hide."
At the other end of the spectrum, we're bombarded with unflattering pictures of fat people and 'public health' messages about how they're going to die untimely deaths. And as numerous failed anti-obesity advertising campaigns highlight, fear and shame don't help people make healthy decisions in the long term.
Former trainer for The Biggest Loser and director and trainer at Melbourne's Urban Workout, Andrew Meade says that the exercise industry is often a terrible ambassador for health and wellness.
"It perpetuates the stereotype of ego-maniac meatheads who are unbalanced and totally obsessed with their bodies," says Meade. "There needs to be more places for people to work-out in a comfortable environment where they won't feel judged all the time."
One-third of survey respondents also said that they feared getting hurt at the gym, which is not surprising given the mythology that exercise has to be painful to be beneficial.
Far from being motivational, 'fitspiration' and 'thinspiration' quotes like "Go hard or go home" and images of people who have been sedentary for 20 years crying and vomiting from the exhaustion of pulling trucks on shows like The Biggest Loser are turning people off exercise.
"People should be pushed to a level that is adequate for them, rather than smashing a person so hard that they leave by crawling down the stairs. They're not going to enjoy it or want to come back if they can't walk the next day," Meade says. "But there is a belief in the industry that we need to punish people during a workout. It's totally unnecessary and it's something that the industry needs to address."
People's fear of being hurt during exercise is not unfounded.
Physiotherapist and author of Fit Not Healthy, Vanessa Alford questions the education of some personal trainers, saying that many lack the knowledge to keep their clients safe.
"It scares me how little knowledge some personal trainers have in the areas of anatomy, physiology, musculoskeletal conditions and rehabilitation," says Alford, who has taught the Diploma of Fitness. "Extensive knowledge in these areas is essential to ensure exercises prescribed to clients are appropriate, safe and effective."
Based on the research, it would appear that the fitness industry is the worst bunch of people to promote exercise to the general population. The toxic exercise culture that it perpetuates - abusive personal trainers, intimidating gym environments, 'no pain no gain' attitudes, and the obsession with aesthetics - is a major reason why people don't want to exercise.
"People need to motivate themselves from kindness rather than fear and shame," says psychologist Louise Adams. "The literature shows that lasting health behaviours come from self-care, from being your own best friend. That's what is missing in the exercise industry."
Still, Adams is optimistic that things are changing. She is running workshops to help people reframe exercise from a punishment to an ongoing process of self-care. She says there has been a lot of interest in the workshops from the fitness industry, which suggests that some people are beginning to realise that the current approach of being mean to people to get results is not only bad for clients, it's also bad for business.
Kasey Edwards is a best-selling author.