Why Tough Love Is Not the Answer to Meeting Your Health Goals

Being shamed by a health pro, or practicing negative self-talk isn’t doing your motivation any favors. Here’s how empathetic, honest dialogue can be truly empowering.

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Nearly a decade into its television run, The Biggest Loser aired an episode titled “Tough Love.” The aptly named hour of competition included body-shaming comments and tactics that had made the show controversial, to say the least. In an effort to “motivate” contestants to lose weight throughout the series, the show’s coaches were seen pushing competitors to the point of vomiting during workouts and hurling F-bombs when they didn’t complete the entire workout. 

The trainers' use of a stern, disciplinarian approach to promote behavior change wasn’t totally novel, instead representing the no-excuses culture of the fitness world in the early 2000s. And according to experts in the health and wellness space, many folks are still dealing with this demoralizing criticism masquerading as motivation today.

Tough love isn’t the most effective way to hold someone accountable; it’s often a cold form of communication accompanied by intimidating actions that some coaches have categorized as verbal abuse. Plus, it can do more than just “hurt your feelings.” The way health and wellness experts communicate can have a significant impact on client or patient outcomes, research shows. A 2018 paper from Northwestern University found that women who participated in “function-focused” classes (which featured motivational phrases such as, “Look how strong you’re getting!”) versus “appearance-focused” classes (which included instructor comments such as, “Blast that cellulite!”) felt better about their bodies after working out. 

So, why is the traditional concept of tough love so toxic — and what actually works when it comes to achieving health goals?

Why Language Matters In Wellness Spaces

The communication style and language that your trainer, physical therapist, or registered dietitian uses to motivate you matters. This idea is clear when considering the impact of body shaming and fatphobia on the well-being of folks in marginalized bodies. In fact, weight stigma in health care (defined as “discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight”) can actually trigger an increased risk of mood and anxiety disorders, as well as an avoidance of exercise, essentially having the opposite effect than was intended, according to a 2020 study on the importance of language within health-care systems. 

“As humans, we communicate in a myriad of ways and we derive meaning from communication,” says Alyssa Mass, L.M.F.T., a licensed marital and family therapist in La Jolla, California. “Clients need support to feel motivated in doing hard work. Words matter; how we communicate to one another matters. Whether it’s a parent, a teacher, or a coach — telling someone they’re awful doesn’t breed motivation.”

A 2018 paper that examined relational theory (a therapy framework based on the notion that strong, fulfilling relationships are critical to emotional well-being) within coach-athlete relationships backs up Mass’ point. “Those who reported experiencing unconditional positive regard from their coaches also reported higher levels of confidence, passion for the sport, and persistence through challenges,” says Mass. “Those who experienced the opposite reported lowered confidence, decreased enjoyment in sport over time, and burnout. Relationships are important, and the type of relationship is key to success.” Translation: Health-care providers communicating with harsh, callous language may ultimately hurt their client’s or patient’s motivation more than if they engaged in empathetic, supportive dialogue. 

When Tough Love Becomes Toxic

Although tough love has long been a cornerstone of the wellness industry, times have thankfully begun to change, and pros are making strides to meet people where they are in their ever-evolving wellness journey. Nowadays, stern motivational techniques are used strategically and sparingly, says Natalie Kollars, an Exos Performance Specialist who has trained Asia Durr, Demi Lovato, and Nick Jonas, among others. “Performance coaches don’t use tough-love tactics year-round for every client they come in contact with,” she says. “Similarly, NFL offenses don’t use the same plays over and over again until they win the game. Instead, they pick and choose when to implement the right play for the right moment, and the same goes for utilizing tough love in the wellness space.” For example, athletes may need extra motivation at certain points in the season to push their physical limits, which may call for some more intense coaching styles. 

It’s not necessarily that the concept of tough love is inherently detrimental; it’s the way this motivation tactic is often implemented that leads to trouble, according to experts. “The misconception of tough love is that people think it means scolding,” says Carl Daikeler, the CEO of The Beachbody Company. In reality, tough love that’s nontoxic involves being honest with people about whether their actions are aligning with their goals — and pointing out those discrepancies when things get off track, according to Daikeler. “When someone says they want to improve their health but aren’t willing to cut back on soda, addressing that contradiction is tough love,” he explains. “When someone joins a group for accountability to work out five days a week for three weeks but misses every other day, a supportive accountability group will inject some tough love into the situation to help that person align their actions with their goals.” 

By Daikeler’s definition, that might mean pulling that person aside to have a frank conversation about their absence — but not with the intention of punishing or humiliating them. “The problem is when tough love makes the goal more important than everything,” he says. “That’s when it can be destructive because life is unpredictable and there needs to be room for empathy — tough love without empathy can ultimately crush motivation and do more damage than good.”

In the context of certain well-established relationships (think: a physician, dietitian, or trainer working with a client they’ve known for years), a more stern coaching style could be appropriate at specific times, explains Kollars. While the “intensity” might look different in every relationship, it may include delivering information or feedback that’s difficult to hear — but not cruel, ruthless, or off-topic. “Coaches shouldn’t verbally [or otherwise] force their athletes or clients to ‘push through the pain’ in order to get the results they want — that is a sign that your body is telling you something is off and needs to be addressed,” says Kollars. And most importantly, that intense approach shouldn’t be the only motivational tactic, and it certainly shouldn’t be used with all clients, she adds. 

How ‘Tough Love’ Can Actually Hurt Motivation

For the folks bearing the brunt, troubling tough-love tactics can have potentially detrimental effects — something Shauna Harrison, Ph.D., who has 25 years of experience as a yoga teacher, group fitness instructor, and expert in public health, says she’s seen first-hand. “Tough love very obviously makes people feel like they have to listen [to their coaches],” she says. “People who are newer or who very much look up to their instructors don't want to disappoint them. [So they] are much more likely to push themselves past a point where it's healthy for them, meaning they could get injured or they could just not feel great about themselves.” 

When coaches, doctors, or other wellness experts use words (think: “no pain, no gain”) or actions (think: prescribing dangerously low-calorie diets) to consistently belittle their clients or patients, Daikeler believes this is laying the groundwork for potential disaster. “Tough love is particularly destructive when it’s weaponized to criticize a person rather than positively align their actions with their goals,” he says. “A trainer can think they are giving their client [motivational] tough love, when in fact what they are doing is reinforcing a low self-image.” It’s also important to note that some people — such as those more prone to developing or who are recovering from eating disorders and/or certain forms of mental illness — may be particularly vulnerable and negatively impacted by toxic motivational tactics.  

This heartless criticism also fails to be motivational in the absence of compassion and connection, according to Harrison. “I think people lean too hard into ‘tough’ and don't give enough ‘love,’” she says. “The job of trainers is to get you to move your body in ways that you wouldn't necessarily do on your own.” But Harrison believes that without a healthy dose of empathy and emotional awareness, harsh feedback — even if well-intended — can not only fall flat but even pull up past trauma in some cases. 

There are also real physical risks to being on the receiving end of this harsh motivational technique. In fact, the highly critical, shaming tactics used on The Biggest Loser “go against the recommendations for safe, healthy, and maintained weight loss,” according to a paper published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. And due to the measures implemented on the show, “two of the contestants were hospitalized because of multiple joint injuries, hypotension, and kidney dysfunction that forced them to leave the competition” (not to mention the revelations of eating disorders among contestants that surfaced), according to the journal.

The Power of Gentle Encouragement 

In recent months, Daikeler says he’s noticed a distinct shift in the way clients prefer to receive coaching. “Particularly in the post-pandemic environment, people are tired of being told what to do — I know I am,” he says. “So any trainer or program spouting that kind of tough love is punching on a raw nerve and is more likely to alienate the client than help them.” Rather than encouraging clients to cultivate a “success at all costs” mindset, Daikeler and his team are focused on helping people find consistency and joy in the experience of movement in the name of motivation, he says. “That’s the broader, more humane, long-term view than the cliché of tough love that would just say, ‘I don’t care what you’re feeling — do the workout.’”

For Mass, the long-term success of motivational strategies comes down to having an authentic connection with a patient or client. “If someone is screaming, ‘no pain, no gain,’ or ‘you've got to earn your dinner,’ maybe that's effective in one class,” says Mass. “But does that student come back? Does that create a sustainable pattern for someone? What we see in the research is that it doesn't.” Instead, Mass urges wellness experts to create relationships and invest the time necessary to get to know how to motivate clients and patients in an effective, yet non-abrasive way.

In addition to motivating clients through education, data, and metrics, Kollars believes harnessing the power of community and competition can go a long way in terms of inspiration. “A meaningful relationship between coach and client — and between client and other clients — creates trust and accountability, both of which are key to staying on track and having a sense of purpose with what you are doing,” she says. 

The Takeaway

The fitness industry is moving in a more mindful direction, according to Daikeler — away from old-school tough-love techniques and toward a more integrated, holistic, personalized motivational approach that centers around each client’s unique physical, mental, and emotional needs. “An effective approach [to motivation] requires being proactive about keeping your important goals in mind, knowing why they are important, acknowledging every victory while staying on track, and giving yourself room for life to happen without labeling it ‘failure,’” he says. “The job of coaches is to synthesize those considerations into an approach that’s proven to work best for the long term.”  

Even if you consider yourself someone who needs to be pushed toward the gym or in the direction of healthier food options, receiving cruel or condescending coaching probably won’t help you achieve your goals. At best, you might be motivated to follow those directives for one workout or one grocery shopping trip but not driven enough to follow them over the long run. At worst, you might risk injury or long-term psychological fallout. 

Simply put, there are plenty of more positive, effective ways to motivate healthy behaviors than the harsh ‘tough love’ approach, according to Kollars. And she encourages anyone seeking guidance in the wellness world to get to know what works for them. “People don't necessarily need to have their asses kicked to work out,” she says. “What they need is consistency, a coach they believe in, and a sustainable training program that is intentional and progressive in nature.”

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