Let me open with a confession. I have what I would consider an unhealthy relationship with my body image–far too much of my self-worth is tied up in how I look. It’s something I’m fully aware is problematic, but rather than tell myself that I should feel differently, I prefer to do the work to look the way I like. After all, fitness has a lot of objective health benefits, so if body image is the thing that motivates me, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

I suspect body image motivates many people who seek out a personal trainer, and in spite of my own experience (or perhaps because of it) that’s something that concerns me. Health and fitness are directly tied to quality of life, mental health, illness, and physical ability, and well worth a financial investment to improve or maintain–but appearance is a lousy measuring stick for fitness, for a lot of reasons.

Too many people think they should look like underwear models and people on magazine covers. In recent years, it’s come into the popular awareness how many such photos are retouched, “Photoshopped,” not only to adjust lighting and clean up blemishes, but distort human anatomy to impossible physical proportions. What’s less talked about is the lengths to which models go before they even step in front of that camera–lengths that are often at odds with health and fitness.

For starters, there’s the diet and fitness regimen, which may in itself be dangerous. The combination of low calorie intake and high intensity exercise that some (not all, I will point out) models impose on themselves can cause malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, especially over extended periods of time. “Clean eating,” the recent trend that floods Instagram with photos of carefully-arranged fruit slices, is reportedly leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies in some people who take it to an extreme. Professional models often employ nutritionists and dietitians, as well as personal trainers, to keep an eye on their intake and help avoid serious problems–but that’s only where the trouble begins.

Both fashion and fitness models regularly and routinely dehydrate themselves to dangerous levels in advance of a photo shoot or competition. Dehydration tightens skin so that muscles “pop,” but depriving the body of water is one of the fastest ways to cause serious health risks, up to and including death–much more dangerous than depriving the body of food, which is also common. Models I’ve known talk about the so-called model diet: Diet Coke and cotton balls, which can’t be digested and contain no calories, but fill the stomach to prevent hunger pains. The potential dangers of the “cotton ball diet” are well documented, and yet I’ve heard first-hand stories of photo shoots where cotton balls are left like popcorn in bowls on the craft services table.

My intention here is not to pick on models, some of whom are committed to health and simply rely on good genes and an active lifestyle to maintain their appearance. The point is to illustrate that beauty, by magazine-cover standards, is not automatically an indicator of health.

Clearly, I understand the drive to look a certain way, and as I’ve already said, I feel better about myself and more confident when I like the way I look. But there are much better ways to measure health.

Even some medical standards are less than ideal. Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a fair place to start, but as a simple calculation of body weight vs. height, it fails to account for factors like muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness level. It’s true that studies indicate health risks associated with BMIs above 25, and especially above 30, but it’s also true that some individuals can be in terrific physical condition and still have a high BMI or even a high body fat percentage. That’s just how genetics work.

I am absolutely of the opinion that every person should be happy with who they are, and accept themselves as they are–or at least try. When I work with a client, it’s vitally important to me that the client set their own goals. If your goal is to change your body composition and appearance, I would ask you to really consider why. Are you concerned about your health, or athletic performance? Are you trying to fit into some particular clothing? Do you want to look different for yourself, or are you doing something you think society wants you to do?

I can tell you, you’ll always be happier–and more motivated–doing something for yourself than doing it because you think you have to. Which also means you’ll see better results.

Take a look at that photo on the left. That’s me, a transformation I completed over the course of six months. My key was having motivation that kept me disciplined, and seeing results that made me feel good. I’ll admit, like everyone I can be very critical of myself, and I still see plenty of things in that “after” photo that I’d like to change. But I feel much better, both mentally and physically, I’m more confident in myself, and while I may not be on the cover of any fitness magazines, I’m happy with who I am.

That’s where I’d like you to find yourself.

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