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America’s Top Trainer Says It’s Time To Reject 'Skinny' And Get Strong

By , by Bruce Corwin, SparkPeople Staff
As part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, SparkPeople’s award-winning fitness expert, Nicole Nichols, is opening up about her own struggles with disordered eating.

SparkPeople’s fitness expert "Coach Nicole" is passionate about changing the image of “fit and healthy.” Named America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch by the American Council on Exercise and Life Fitness in 2011, Nicole soon after celebrated the launch of her newest DVD, 28-Day Boot Camp. In addition to teaching Spinning and Pilates, she runs half-marathons, practices yoga weekly, and strength trains regularly. At 29, she’s proud to be a role model for those aspiring to take control of their health—without letting the scale and fitness take control of them.

What sets Nicole apart from many other fitness experts is her "real life, real people" attitude. She believes that the images we see every day of models, actors and personal trainers set an unattainable standard, one that she hopes she and her DVDs are changing.

Nicole is the happiest and healthiest she’s ever been, but she’s quick to say she’s not at her thinnest—and that’s just fine by her. Thin is not a synonym for healthy, she says, and skinny is not the same as strong. In college, she wasn’t yet convinced. Nicole spent hours in the gym and maintained a strict diet, as a way to emulate the models and trainers she saw in the media. Nicole was chiseled, but she was also suffering from an eating disorder.

Nicole recovered, and since then, she has focused on making fitness more about how she feels inside and performs as an athlete rather than what size pants she wears. Recently, I asked Nicole to share her views on how to set healthy goals for your body and whether personal training is changing for the better, as a way to draw attention to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Do you think most people set unrealistic standards for themselves when they start to work out and try to lose weight? 
I think we compare ourselves too much to other people. We want our bodies to look like someone else's, whether that's realistic or not. It sets us up for failure. Rather than aspiring to attain someone else's physique, focus on your own strengths and what's healthy and realistic for you.
I spent a long time trying to look like the thin, toned, "tiny" bodies that I saw in magazines. I got there—I dropped body fat, gained muscle, and got compliments left and right on how great I looked. But as it turned out, I actually had an eating disorder. Trying to mold my body into something that it wasn't was unhealthy, unrealistic and unsustainable. It took hours of exercise every day and a restrictive diet that gave me no pleasure from food and left me constantly hungry.  Since then I've recovered, returned to a normal, healthy, natural size for my body and regained a healthy relationship with fitness, food, and the scale.
What type of standard for physique do you advocate to the people you teach?

I don't advocate any type of physique. In fact, I try not to talk much about burning calories, trimming inches or how any particular exercise may change one's body. I believe people can be fit and healthy at any size. I also think it's healthier for our self-esteem, for our minds and bodies to view exercise not as a way to "change" ourselves, but as a tool to improve our overall health. It can be motivating to aim for a healthy weight at a safe pace.  But regardless of what the scale says or how your body is shaped, if you are exercising, you are doing a lot of good for your body.
How do people react to that message?

People who follow my videos and blogs really seem to love and embrace this view of exercise. They are everyday people (just like I am) who are trying to have a life but still be healthy—without spending hours exercising or living in the gym. They realize that small amounts of fitness add up and that fitness is about feeling good—not just looking good.
You teach on the topics of body image and self-acceptance.  Beyond telling people to set realistic goals, what are the other themes you touch on?
I try to spread a message of loving your body enough to take care of it and treat it with respect. Respect isn't torturing your body or starving yourself or punishing yourself in the gym. Respect comes from moderation in food, enjoying your food, being realistic in what you expect your body to achieve or look like, and exercising a healthy amount without going overboard.
Does it matter what your personal trainer looks like?
You can't judge a trainer's experience, expertise, effectiveness or motivational power by their body alone. Not every person can achieve an ultra-ripped or very toned or thin physique we imagine an ideal trainer should have—and how a person's body looks isn't necessarily a reflection of how strong, fit or healthy they really are. In addition, many people who have that "ideal" physique are doing a lot of unhealthy things to reach and achieve it.  Many trainers I know subscribe to way-too-intense fitness regimens and super-restrictive diets that border on eating and exercise disorders in order to look the way they do, so it's not necessarily something to emulate.
In fact, having a trainer who looks more like you—and less like an ideal—is often more motivating.  Studies have shown that seeing ripped trainers and models in magazines and on workout videos often discouraged and de-motivated people trying to get in shape.
Is the standard for what a personal trainer needs to look like changing?
I take the fact that I was honored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Life Fitness as sign that our industry is evolving by making room for trainers (like me) who don't have a "perfect" or ripped physique, but can still serve as healthy role models and help others achieve fitness at any size. And it's making room for a less intimidating and more nurturing and encouraging style than what has been the norm, which is essential when most of America is overweight and out of shape, In my new DVD SparkPeople: 28 Day Boot Camp, I specifically casted trainers who had healthy, realistic bodies that would make everyone exercising with us at home feel right in place.  I think there are signs of gradual shift in that direction across the industry, and I think it's a step in the right direction for healthy living.
Are you more motivated by seeing a ripped personal trainer or one with a more attainable physique?  Have you ever suffered from an eating disorder?  How did you overcome it?  

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MISSA526 1/21/2020
I'm nowhere near my skinniest weight, but I had 2 eating disorders and an exercise disorder then. Now I'm 5' and weigh 115 pounds approx. My weight has a range of 3 pounds up or down. I would like to say I feel healthier but I now have many chronic illnesses. But I am happier and more relaxed. No foods are off limits. I eat healthy 80% of the time, somewhat healthy 10% of the time, and treat myself 10% of the time. I've maintained this weight range for over a year. Now I need to start exercising despite the pain. If I can get over disordered eating and exercise and go up to 188 pounds, then lose 75 pounds in about 3 years, I have faith that anyone can. If you're struggling feel free to add me and drop me a message. Oh, I'm 38 by the way. Report
GRALAN 1/2/2020
I have enjoyed Nicole's workouts so I was pleased to find this article. I must say that personally I do judge a trainer and/or expert in fitness by how they look and speak. If being on the radical fringe of exercise is the norm for them, I know I will not trust what they say or do. I will not make exercise and shaping my body a religion.
Thanks Nicole for all you do, have done and will do for the rest of us. Report
ETHELMERZ 12/20/2019
How are you doing, coach Nicole, it has been years since anything new from you was on here....hope you are ok. Report
KHALIA2 11/24/2019
Thanks Coach Nicole! Great Info! Report
MRPEABODY 8/27/2019
Good reading, thank you! Report
DJ4HEALTH 6/8/2019
agree, and just because you are skinny does not make you healthy Report
BABY_GIRL69 6/4/2019
100% I'm in like Flynn on this one!!!! Report
Since having retina surgery I am no longer allowed to lift weights. I miss is very much. So if you can lift, you should be thankful. Report
Thanks for the information. Report
Right on !! Strength keep you going. Thanks for this article. Report
No, I'm not inspired by instructors who are physically ripped and thin. I am more inspired by instructors who look toned and healthy. I can relate better to real people who live in a real world! Report
Thanks Coach Nicole! Report
Thank you Coach Nicole for being an inspiration! Report
Thanks so much. Report
Coach Nicole makes me feel happy and positive about myself and my thoughts about health and fitness. I love forget about skinny and GET STRONG!! The truth is strong is what I really want. It becomes more important as I age especially to prevent injuries and increase my ability to remain able to care for myself.
I also appreciate her approach to exercise. I can complete her videos and always feel stronger and like I am successful.

I love Nicole's focus on "overall health"! Not at all us can achieve great beauty, but we CAN have great health . . the best we can be under our individual circumstances. Nicole is the prettiest thing I've seen all day! She's pretty on the inside too. Report
I agree. Have seen too many ultra thin chicks, sitting at a bar, drinking and whining that they want French fries....... Report
Great article! Thank you for writing this Coach! Report
I agree with this Report
I agree, skinny doesn't mean fit Report
I have problems with trainers who think you need huge weight loss to be in the right track to getting a healthy. so my coach would need to look like a normal healthy person. and the ones you see on the TV ads or like the coaches in the biggest Looser who look so disappointed when team members have small weight losses. I am training for a 12 K run in May the other members on the team are much faster than i am and most of the time time are waiting for me to finish the course. They are cheering me on and telling what a good job I am doing. and say at least you are out here working on your training. I often wonder what the trainers in the Biggest looser would think i feel they would be disappointed that it took me 1 hour 3 minutes to do the 3 miles plus the ab work the trainer added after each mile. I like coach Nicole's view point healthy is better than skinny. thanks for the helpful information
i Like the how Coach Nicole the fact she feels that a strong core and healthy life style is important as to being skinny. for several seasons i enjoyed watching the Biggest looser and even picked the one i wanted to win. Report
As an almost certified personal trainer @ 55 years of age, when I open for business, my message will be: strong is better than skinny. six packs are overrated, but a strong core is important. Practice good eating habits, improve your cardio fitness and develop an active and involved lifestyle. Coach Nicole is right. I'm a follower. Report
How much a trainers motivates me depends very much on their personality, not so much on their body type. (Although I admit that I'd love to see some trainers on the chubby site simply to get the message across that being so doesn't mean you can't dance, or do yoga, or swim. I don't believe you have to be slim to be a trainer.)

The best trainers I ever had were the ones who have have such an energy and sense of humor that it's pure fun just watching them and working with them. Some wereliterally ripped, look impossibly slim and elegant, some had a more "realistic" body.

What puts me off is other stuff - someone who responds to a question with "welllll, I can't explain that for just one student in the class" when most of the time one asking means another six not knowing either and too shy to ask. Or someone who just strikes me as vain and seems to be more interested in looking perfect while doing the moves than in the students understanding them. (Saw that in both male and female trainers.)

Super-sexed-up exercise outfits (tight, tiny, and with a thong somewhere) are a bit annoying for me, but that's really my own problem - everyone's allowed to wear what they want. Report
Nicole, you are a wonderful role model, an inspiration to anyone striving for a healthier lifestyle, and you are beautiful inside and out! Your message is one we should all embrace. You are my fitness hero! Report
I have had a problem several times in my life of being right on the edge of anorexia. I haven't crossed the line, but I've gotten so thin that people have had to tell me to eat. Once I go into diet mode, it's hard for me to stop. I admire Coach Nicole for speaking about her eating disorder and now being more concerned about being healthy than being thin. There's another trainer I've seen touted by SP members who really turns me off. She's skinny and she seems to lord it over her assistants. I much prefer Coach Nicole. Report
I've never had "weight" issues, but rather have tried to trim the "loose" baby belly and actually tried to gain muscle and size in my arms and legs. I hate when I tell people I'm on a healthy diet, because they associate it with losing weight. I get the "you look great, you don't need to lose anything." yeh, well I feel like crap and I'm tired all the time and I have high blood pressue! I don't need to lose weight, but I really need to get healthy. When I've been at my best, my clothing size was larger and I felt strong and lean -- the best feeling in the world!
I am not more motivated by seeing a ripped personal trainer than one with a more attainable physique. In fact, I'd give up on the videos with ripped trainers. It's very intimidating, and I'd reason that I can't do those workouts because my body isn't their's. I workout with Nicole's videos everyday. I LOVE THEM! I have never suffered from an eating disorder, but it's something I've considered doing in middle school to lose weight. Knowing that Nicole went through it makes me so sad! It's disgusting how much we're pushed to be skinny! Report
I agree, great blog! I am fit and healthy at size 16, going on 14. I do love myself the way I am. I've been in maintenance for 2 years now and continue my exercise as before. I'm more healthy and fit now at 45, than any other time in my life. I've never maintained this long either. Size 14 is the bottom line for me, and I have no desire to get to the 140 the charts say I should be. I think skinny is unhealthy and totally unattractive. It also disturbs me greatly that Sparkers no matter what size and weight, feel like they should go from 300 to 130 or140 when they begin. I read this all of the time, and it is disturbing that people feel like they need to be at such a weight. That society makes us all feel like we should. If only people could love and accept what is right for them! Report
You ROCK Coach Nicole. Your workouts are killer and I love them. Report
"I believe people can be fit and healthy at any size."

Thank you. I believe this too. Sometimes it's hard to be on Sparkpeople and see the constant attention paid to losing weight and getting thinner. I know there's a lot about a healthy lifestyle generally, but so much of it implies that healthy = weighing less. That simply isn't necessarily true. Report
I agree whole heartedly with you, probably because of my religious belief that we are temples of God, made in His Image and Likeness. Our society has lost so much in the past 40 or so years. Especially respect for another's life which means there is no respect or care for another person, only ME, MYSELF, AND I. If we could get back our care and concern for each other, perhaps we would be more inclined to be aware of our body and what it is for each of us. You are doing a great job of helping others! Thank you for your concern for others. Report
So glad to have found you, Coach Nicole! What a marvel! Report
Hi Coach Nicole
I've read all the other comments and it took me a while to come back to give you mine because even though I agree with what you are saying,deep down, if I want to be honest, it is just not enough to feel healthy and not be slimmer.
I know I should be happy I can now run 10k races when I was not able to run more than a few minutes 2 y. ago. I eat well most of the time, I have lost about 15 pounds last year. But my hope is to loose more this year because I am too ''round'' still.
I am now in my fifties and my tummy and my waist are fuller than they were 3-4 years back for the same weight. My body does not show all the effort I put into healthy habits.
I've been on diets most of my adult life, nothing drastic in the past 10 y.
I've always been looking for ways to be active that fit with my busy schedule. I was out biking at night when my kids were young, I would walk during my breaks at work, tried all sorts of classes at the gym. I did manage to be about 10 pounds lighter than today, About 140 for a 5'4 height and was able to wear size 6. I know it still adds up to a BMI higher than recommended but I looked like my friends that were more like 130 pounds.
I'm more active today than I ever was. I appreciate my ability to run , I never before was that much in shape and I eat small amount of any food without any guilt.
But how much exercise a day will I have to maintain my actual weight and maybe loose another 10?
People around me at work are surprised when I say I can run 10k.
And it is not just about what people think about me when they see me. It's about getting older and seeing my body loose some of it's tone even with exercise.
I look at people in their 60's and most seem to gain weight or look heavier and hoping I won't get that way.
I want to look and feel beautiful and a plumper middle section doesn't make me feel that no matter if I know I am in shape.
SORRY. I know I should feel that way but when I look in the mirror, I am not that happy. Report
YAY Coach Nicole! Who is beautiful ! Report
Coach Nicole - thank you so much for posting this. it takes ALOT of courage to bring up the things that you struggled with in the past but it also makes you more real. Lots of people can look up to you and know that they too can achieve balance.

Thank you for bring up the growing trend of a more realistic image of trainers. i want to be a trainer simply because I love people and want to help someone just like me reclaim their health but have always felt a certain amount of embarassment in declaring it because I do not possess the stereotypical male trainer physique, ripped, six-pack, big arms etc... im just a regular guy that found himself and is now on the road to a healthy, balanced life. Report
Thanks for giving us something to think about...

Becca315 Report
Still, I would like my fitness trainer to look healthy and fit. An overweight fitness trainer is not authentic to me - where is the walk of the talk then? Report
You go Coach Nicole! I may not rock a bikini but these legs can carry me on a half marathon. Report
I think you're beautiful, Coach Nicole, and I would much rather have a personal trainer that advocates realistic healthy living that restrictive obsessive/compulsive dieting and exercise disorders. Report
Go you Coach Nicole!
I'm guilty of judging myself by other people all the time. Since I'm a college student surrounded by beautiful girls with their ideal shapes, I'm constantly thinking " I can't wait until I look like that" even though it might not even be possible for my body shape. What matters is I'm happy, healthy, fit, powerful, and empowered. My biggest thing right now is trying to get into the normal BMI category of at least 25 but preferably 23, though I'm not going to sacrifice any muscle mass to do so. I want to be strong and powerful when I get there :D Report
I admire Coach Nicole and like her video and vlogs. I wonder if she's ever carried around extra weight or tried to workout with lots of extra pounds in her way so she can understand what its like to do the moves she shows. Report
Coach Nicole is a very smart woman!!!!! She hit the nail right on the head in that we need to be healthy and not necessarily "skinny". I'm still working toward that philosophy after 50 years of trying and not succeeding to be skinny. At least now I'm healthy and feel much better about myself. Report
Great post! I've heard the slogan "Strong is the new skinny." Sometimes I've seen that with pictures of body building muscle-people whom I can't relate to. If you define "strong" as balanced, comfortable with oneself, healthy and fit then I think it works! Thanks Nicole for being a role model for a truly "strong" person! Report
Thank you for the article . I have done the skinny thing in my 20's and I achieved it through very unhealthy dieting . Now at 57 I am heavier but stronger and I love it. No more comparing myself to others , just trying to live a healthy lifestyle and get stronger with each year. Thank you , thank you , thank you!! Report
I can't say that I don't want to lose 10-15 lbs of fat this year, but I also want to build muscle and have definition in my legs and arms. I've been skinny fat and though that is my "size" goal, I want a stronger body. Report
Amen to all of the above! I was raised by a mom (whom I love dearly) who judges everyone on their looks. Thankfully, I have broken that cycle in my home and in my mind. I take low impact (that's an oxymoron) classes and none of the instructors are ripped. Just last night I mentioned the name of one of the instructors and mom commented that her workouts obviously hadn't worked for her. Not true! She's got knowledge, endurance, plays great music and makes me know that I CAN do it! Report
My reward for reaching my next goal is to actually buy your bootcamp DVD. I'm continuously thinking though that I should get the DVD and then reward myself for completing it. You are a great rolemodel and my favorite trainer to workout with. Thank you! Report
I appreciated this article. I have no desire to be skinny. I want to be healthy and fit and strong. I do want a firm, curvy body. Thanks for saying these things. Report
I loved and needed this. I spend so much time worrying about comparing myself to everyone else rather than just focusing on my own success and being happy with myself. This really drove the point home for me. Thanks! Report
I love Coah Nicole.
I love the way she teaches exercise on all her video's.
I love her 28 day boot-camp dvd. I'm making her my own personal trainer even though we have never met in life.
I love how she always states that "You are more then just a number". Now I understand where this is coming from. Never knew that she had a eating disorder. I just liked her because I think she looks great, and really knows what she's doing!
WTG Nicole for being such a inspiration to so many!
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