Physical Therapists' Ways of Talking About Overweight and Obesity: Clinical Implications

Phys Ther. 2016 Jun;96(6):865-75. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20150286. Epub 2015 Dec 4.


Background: How people think and talk about weight is important because it can influence their behavior toward people who are overweight. One study has shown that physical therapists have negative attitudes toward people who are overweight. However, how this finding translates into clinical practice is not well understood. Investigating physical therapists' ways of thinking and speaking about overweight and obesity in the context of their work can provide insight into this underresearched area.

Objectives: The purpose of this study was to investigate physical therapists' ways of talking about overweight individuals and discuss clinical implications.

Design: An interpretive qualitative design was used.

Methods: The research team used discourse analysis, a type of inductive qualitative methodology, to guide data collection and analysis. The data came from 6 focus groups of 4 to 6 physical therapists in Queensland, Australia, who discussed weight in a physical therapy environment. Participants (N=27) represented a variety of physical therapy subdisciplines.

Results: Data analysis identified 4 main weight discourses (ways of thinking and speaking about weight). Participants described patients who are overweight as little affected by stigma and difficult to treat. Furthermore, participants portrayed weight as having simple causes and being important in physical therapy. Alternate weight discourses were less frequent in these data.

Conclusions: The results indicated that some physical therapists' understandings of weight might lead to negative interactions with patients who are overweight. The findings suggest physical therapists require more nuanced understandings of: how patients who are overweight might feel in a physical therapy setting, the complexity of causes of weight, and possible benefits and disadvantages of introducing weight-management discussions with patients. Therefore, education should encourage complex understandings of working with patients of all sizes, including knowledge of weight stigma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / prevention & control
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Overweight / etiology
  • Overweight / prevention & control
  • Overweight / psychology
  • Physical Therapists / psychology*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Qualitative Research
  • Queensland
  • Social Stigma
  • Young Adult