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Can fit2fat2fit empathize with unfit2fit2unfit?

Imagine setting out to gain weight and lose fitness. I’ve done the lose-gain yo-yo loads of times. But never on purpose.

Personal trainer Drew Manning was as buff as buff gets. In May 2011 he made a decision to stop exercising and stop eating smartly for six months. He wanted to get out of shape so he could better understand the struggles of some of his clients. He documents his journey from fit to fat and back to fit again on his blog, Fit2Fat2Fit. Recently he published a book about it. Drew gained 70 pounds and lost much of his physical fitness in six months. Six months later he’d returned to his previous level of uber-fitness and low body fat.

My question: how well would this venture help him to empathize with clients who struggle to make long-term changes in both fitness and fat percentage? My guess: not so well. Here’s why.

First let’s remember that fat and fit are not polar opposites. As we know, people can be overweight (by BMI and even body fat percentage standards) and still be fit on other measures.

Drew is different from the clients he’s trying to understand. His “yo-yo” is the opposite of theirs. Most people who struggle with weight and fitness go from unfit to fit to unfit, not the other way around. And the real challenge is long-term maintenance. This makes sense because, over time, people gravitate back towards old habits. Face it, permanent lifestyle changes are tough to make.

But Drew’s “old” habits are the habits of a super-fit, lean, muscle machine. He already eats right and gets plenty of exercise. He could get back to his original state of fitness with relative ease because he just had to re-adopt a lifestyle that he’d already internalized. But the clients he’s trying to relate to have to stay vigilant to retain the new habits. That’s harder to do than to revert to old patterns.

If you watch some of the amusing “food challenges” Drew videotaped on his website—like eating a one pound bacon cheese burger, bacon cheese fries, and a hot fudge brownie sundae with a large coke—he has a lot of trouble meeting them. He hates brownies and chocolate. Salt and grease “get to him,” which is why he found the KFC challenge so difficult. Drew is more in tune with his body than many of his clients might be.

Many yo-yo dieters can’t easily detect their hunger signals. They have difficulty knowing when they’re hungry and when to stop eating. They can’t tell when they’re full until they’re ready to burst. That’s why some people can eat a whole tub of ice cream or down an entire bag of cookies. They don’t realize it until the spoon hits the bottom or their hand reaches into an empty bag.

But in his food challenges, Drew reluctantly stuffs down more food. He knows he’s eaten more than he’s comfortable eating. If not for the challenge, he would stop way before the end of a dozen donuts or a bucket of fried chicken. His default setting is to eat reasonable portions of healthy food.

Drew started off very fit, with high quality muscle. That gave him an advantage. True, he had some health issues by the end (high cholesterol, a fatty and enlarged liver, compromised kidney functioning, to name a few). But while gaining 70 pounds he didn’t at the same time lose all of his muscle. Most of his struggling clients will start with far less muscle. Their road will be more difficult.

And it’s worth pointing out that if Drew works with women, especially older women, they just don’t change as quickly or easily as men. My husband and I started personal training at the same time last March. Within seven months, he’s lost about 20 pounds and looks fitter, leaner, and younger.

I dare say I’ve worked harder. But after seven months my weight has dropped by about five pounds and my body fat percentage feels like it’s not budging (maybe it’s changed a bit). When we went back to our regular yoga class after the summer, our teacher raved at how awesome Renald looked (and he does look great). His friends are always saying things to him about how much younger and fitter and leaner he looks (he does). Me—not so much.

I’m not trying to be negative about Drew’s story. It’s fascinating and Drew comes across as a sincere, likeable guy. He knows his stuff and freely shares printable food plans and workout plans on his website.

I’m just not convinced that fit2fat2fit can help Drew really know what it’s like to walk in the another’s shoes because he walked in the opposite direction.

Thanks to reader Daphne Gray-Grant for drawing Drew’s challenge to my attention.

5 thoughts on “Can fit2fat2fit empathize with unfit2fit2unfit?

  1. Great post. Completely agree that his project shows us very little about the challenges his clients face. Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10354959) documents how very few people successfully lose weight and keep it off and those who do do it by essentially staying in ‘diet mode’ for most of their lives. They continue to track food, count calories, and remain single mindedly focused on their weight. It’s grim. I’ve often thought, as someone who’s lost and regained more than 50-70 lbs twice in my life that if I had to be like those ‘successful’ long term skinny people I’m not sure I’d do it! And well, I haven’t.

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    1. I liked this post, too. I agree that Drew likely STILL doesn’t really understand the challenges his clients face. And not just because he’s had a lifetime of exercise. I think his body type lends itself to be being fit and losing weight. (If it didn’t, how could he have lost 70 pounds in six months and regained his fitness so quickly?)

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      1. Dr. Bernstein, and long hours in the gym. For a guy who is already used to exercising and has (or can regain) a high metabolism – the combination of the two would make this no problem.

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  2. This is all very interesting to me, especially since I have recently lost a ton of weight (without losing much muscle – yay!), and am very close to beginning the arduous task of maintaining that weight loss (oh, brother…). I gain weight easily, but with the proper instruction (and dedication) I am able to lose weight quickly. “Maintaining”, however, is for healthy balanced people, and I’d really like to become one of those people (although my standard joke is: “Healthy balanced people….what’s wrong with them anyway?”) I know that the next two years are crucial. I’m going to have to keep vigilant, resist dessert (and especially those crunchy type of cheesies, which makes convenience stores dangerous indeed), and continue to see a dietician, especially given the long hours I spend in the gym (don’t want to faint). The thing is: It’s all about “attitude”. I have at least some of the compensatory extremist outlook which I recognize in certain others. (Hi, Sam) Accordingly, a successful strategy for me is to adopt a “Come Hell or high water, it will be done” attitude, and rely on a certain type of inner strength I luckily (or perhaps unluckily) have, in order to offset what sometimes feels like a really quite natural de-evolution from human to slug. So, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it (at least for now).

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  3. Good luck with the maintenance. It is THE challenge. And I agree: the only thing convenience stores have going for them is convenience. Other than that they are dangerous places! Now: off to the gym!

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