5 Fitness Phrases I Never Use

(and what I say instead)

My clients know that I am picky about language – it is not uncommon for me to gently redirect or even help them specifically rephrase something while on a call. Words are powerful, and there are certain buzzy words or catchphrases from fitness/diet culture that I absolutely do not let fly. While we tend to think of language as a reflection of our beliefs, the truth is that the influence flows both ways – the way we speak can also affect how we think and feel, as well as our values. Ultimately, reframing language to categorize fitness and nutrition as self-care (instead of self-punishment) is essential. Because of this, here are 5 fitness phrases that I never use:

Problem Areas with Nicknames

I never name them. In my philosophy, the nicknames are not helpful, because they tend to draw more attention to them and increase body dissatisfaction. When a client complains about a specific body area (usually accompanied by a harsh nickname), I immediately stop the conversation and invite them to reframe their language.

Unfortunately, this is a big part of mainstream diet and weight loss culture – over-focusing on specific physical traits that don’t conform to our standards of beauty (the question is, “whose standards of beauty?”). When we buy into this, all we’re doing is putting our bodies under a magnifying glass, and losing perspective.

I educate clients on the fact that all bodies are different, and that we tend to have a genetic blueprint for body shape and how/where fat is stored (and where it comes off the most easily). We have the healthiest relationship with our bodies when we do these three things:

  • Accept our natural desire to be aesthetically attractive, as well as our natural disappointment when we don’t conform
  • Examine our perceptions and influences to understand the pressures we put on ourselves
  • Embrace a more health- and function-oriented attitude towards our bodies

When we don’t identify parts of our body as needing to be fixed, reduced, or eliminated, we automatically adopt a more accepting, natural, self-caring body image. Let’s get the focus off “problem” areas, and zoom out to the big picture.

“Calorie Burning” or “Fat Burning” Workouts

I help clients understand energy balance – that we lose weight when we are in a calorie deficit, and we lose more fat when we are strength training and defending against muscle loss while in a deficit.

I also educate clients on the purpose of different types of workouts:

  • Resistance training builds strength and muscle
  • Cardio builds heart health and endurance
  • General activity (walking, etc.) is a key part of physical and mental health, and is also an unsung hero for fat loss

All exercise burns calories and plays a role in body composition, but using your watch to help you calculate how many calories you burned is a mistake. There is no type of training that will make you look more or less feminine or attractive, and there is no type of workout that opens up a magical vortex of fat loss. Developing a healthier relationship with exercise is a form of self-care, because we stop using exercise to beat ourselves up, make ourselves more worthy, or sort of Photoshop ourselves, and instead see it as a way to grow and evolve.

“Cheat Meals” or “Cheat Days”

These meals (or days) are a gray area. For some people, “cheat day” might be code for being more relaxed around their food intake, or not tracking calories. For many, many more people, however, a “cheat day” or a “cheat meal” means bingeing and acting out with food.

I don’t use this language around food for two reasons:

  • I never think that bingeing is a form of self-love or self-care
  • I also because I philosophically reject the concept that a healthy lifestyle means being “on a plan”

This language tends to cultivate all-or-nothing thinking. A healthy lifestyle, in fact, is characterized by flexibility – you shouldn’t need a “cheat day” from something that is sustainable and livable.

A truly healthy lifestyle that is self-caring and realistic should be robust enough to adjust to enjoying a meal out, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, going on a vacation, or even relishing a piece of candy that your child offers you.

In reality, if you don’t call something a “cheat meal” and it’s just a meal, you are more likely to enjoy yourself, be aware of your appetite and fullness, and not uncomfortably overindulge. This is true self-care – feeling good before, during, and after your eating.

“Clean Eating”

Or, more generally, grouping foods into “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “good” or “bad.” When we class foods into not into food groups (like carbs, protein, or fat) but instead assign moral values to them (good or bad), we make ourselves vulnerable to shame when we perceive that we’ve gone off-plan. “Eating clean” is not self-care.

Plus, words like “healthy” or “clean” offer very little meaning, and have absolutely no context. What do we even mean when we say “healthy”? For some of my newer clients, they’ve been eating extremely “healthy” but have been struggling with their weight. When you throw into the mix the fact that we tend to perceive prettier foods as healthier, you can also see how we get mixed up.

There are so many other specific, meaningful words and phrases that we can use to identify the qualities that we want to emphasize in our diets, and these principles cut through food marketing and diet culture. With my clients, I focus on phrases like “high-protein,” “high-fiber,” “balanced,” “filling” “satiating,” or even “hitting targets.” When it comes to weight loss, we can speak specifically about calorie deficits, and how certain types of food help us feel more satisfied on fewer calories. When it comes to recognizing why some foods are so easy to overeat, we can identify exactly why this happens – “hyperpalatable.” We are especially vulnerable to hyperpalatable food cues when we’re tired, stressed, underfed, understimulated, or experiencing negative emotions.

It is immensely helpful to talk about food with specific, non-judgmental language, rather than assigning moral values – this can often lend an emotional charge to foods that they simply don’t deserve. Besides, if you think a food is “bad,” how do you feel about yourself if you keep going back to that “bad” food over and over again? Self-care means adopting more neutral attitudes toward food, being more specific about your nutrition and behavior goals, and being more flexible when things don’t go according to plan.

“Off-track” / “On-Track”

Because I use a one-meal-at-a-time approach, I don’t see my clients as being “on track” or “off track.”

If you happen to have a meal that doesn’t hit your nutrition targets in the way that you would normally like, you can relax because the opportunity to hit reset is likely only 3-5 hours away when you eat again.

The truth is, there is no “track” – there is no train of healthy living that is going to speed away when you fall off. Nothing is racing away from you, out of your control – you have the ability to hit refresh just by waiting until you are hungry again, and making another best effort at a self-caring, balanced meal that meets your needs.

When you adopt “off-track/on-track” language, you give yourself permission to take unnecessarily long pauses in your healthy lifestyle, introducing a start-and-stop mindset that is extremely unhelpful for long-term progress and maintenance. As soon as you identify that you’re “off-track,” you’re more likely to stay off-track longer. But we have more control than we think. We are not always in control of life circumstances, but we can often exercise self-care and agency in unexpected ways.

When we change our language, we change our beliefs. When we stop and question the assumptions that we make (which we have inherited from a sometimes-toxic diet and weight loss culture), we have more power over our outcomes. When we make a habit of reframing our automatic words and phrases, we put ourselves in the driver’s seat of our healthy lifestyle journey.

What phrases have you started (or stopped) using, which help you to reframe fitness and nutrition in a more self-caring, sustainable way?

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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