June 22, 2011

Getting Fit for the Fitness Center?

Of course, there are "special" classes
for "plus sized" people..but why do
we need fitness segregation? Why
can't we integrate everyone into
one class? As a fitness leader, I
know it can be done...but is there
a motivation to do it?
This morning, as I was perusing my Twitter account (healthyreallife - no this is not a pathetic attempt at a plug..I'm just sayin'), I came across an article on CBC about an obese man who made a deal with someone to clean their pool if he could use it for exercise. He wanted to avoid the looks, comments, sneers offered by the other swimmers in the public pool. After finding such an opportunity, he promptly lost 10 pounds...go figure.

Through my own research and professional experience, I have met many overweight / obese individuals who avoided the gym, recreation center, and pool because of their belief that one must be fit to attend a fitness center. Pretty sad, eh? I mean, I know where this belief comes from, I have witnessed it first hand. Let me paint the picture for you as I recall my experiences as a personal trainer working with a woman who was clinically obese (approximately 400 - 450 pounds). The sweetest person you will ever meet told me story after story of her life as an obese woman....and it wasn't pretty. In fact, it had me in tears almost every time.  The saddest part of it all was her complacency and ability to build a wall thick enough to "protect" her from the meanness (if that's a word) of strangers.

As a spin instructor for over 14 years, I
never saw a person this size take part
in a class. Would you? The seat is the
size of a pea.
At first, it was the stares and rude remarks that would come from passing cars as we walked down the street (as she was trying so hard to get healthy).  I would be beside myself wanting to run after the jerks and she would shrug it off saying it happens all the time; she has gotten used to it. Then it was the stories of people actually coming up to her in the grocery store and taking food items out of her basket while stating that she doesn't need any of it. Yup...no word of a lie. Life, for my client, was full of mean remarks and fat jokes (never mind the looks in the gym while she negotiated a machine that was built for someone many sizes smaller).  Although she knew that if she didn't loose weight her kidneys were going to go and she was going to loose her eyesight, the fear and anxiety she felt walking into such an environment was worse.
In fact, after I began working with obese clientele (my favorite clientele in the world I might add) I realized that the fitness center is constructed for the fit. The machines were built for a certain body size (with little tiny bums), they were spaced apart to accommodate for a certain body size (little tiny hips), the posters and charts detailing how to stretch were only for those without extra body fat getting in the way (even a quadriceps stretch was impossible for someone with larger thighs). The clothes sold at the gym were only for sizes fit and fitter, and finally, the people exercising were predominately experienced exercisers who wore the usual form fitting clothing (not to mention those who would growl at anyone who didn't follow the protocol of the gym - like wiping down the equipment or resting between sets - that would scare any novice away). The entire make-up and culture of a fitness center caters to the fit. Interestingly, in the states, a brilliant woman had the idea of creating a gym that catered to larger people......they went into receivership shortly after. 

This picture makes me sad. Although
the message is balance related, it
represents the power and expertise
lies in the hands of the thin.  It
just makes me uncomfortable.
How many others share the same experiences and fears?  As I sit here putting myself in her position, it breaks my heart that our society doesn't offer this population a safe place to get healthy. Even in the doctor's office, they are met with judgement and lectures about what they must do. There was a study examining the socialization of kinesiology students as they complete their degree program and found that, in general, we are a judgemental bunch. We tend to judge those unfit and fat negatively and, in turn, this judgement is picked up by our clients through our words and non verbals. So I don't blame the guy in the CBC article for wanting to find his own personal pool. All the power to him! I couldn't imagine having to walk into a fitness center as an obese person, never mind a public pool. 

You go girlfriend!
It has always been my vision and goal in life to create a facility that is safe, respectful, friendly, supportive, and (above all) fun for those individuals that carry more fat than others. My equipment, services, classes, and even the pictures on the walls and magazines in the cardioroom will be geared towards health at any size. We will offer safe, effective, fun, enjoyable, and judgement free programming that won't have such titles as "body sculpt" or "butts and abs" (that not only suggest that we have problem areas, but negates the message of health). All exercise equipment will be comfortable not matter what your size and if we sell exercise clothing, it will be only for the larger members (the small, medium, and large people can buy their gear anywhere). If I could just find that women's number in the states.....

To conclude, I do believe that people in the health and fitness professions have good hearts and are doing what they do for the love of good health and fitness (but still, the image of a cheerleader comes to mind). Unfortunately, our tactics do nothing to motivate those who would benefit the most from the services we offer. It is time to drop the judgement and "just say no" to mean-spirited people when we witness their behaviour in the street (or in the grocery store) so we may truly support everyone in their quest for a healthier life....cause let's face it, we all want to feel good (and look good) and we all want to be treated with respect (a friendly smile and "hello" is always good too).

This scares many people let alone the
obese person (wearing a tissue) walking
barefoot towards it being followed by
a guy in a white coat carrying a clip-
board and a pen...
The so called "obesity epidemic" isn't going to dissipate any time soon and perhaps it may be that over 50% of our North American population is overweight / obese sometime in the future.  What will it take to reexamine our beliefs and attitudes about the body and not reward some for "controlling" their diet and exercising daily while chastising others for their sloth and gluttony. As you know, if you have read any of my other posts, controlling diet and daily exercise does not a healthy lifestyle make.

So there ya go, my post for today. I don't think I will ever forget my client as long as I live and always wonder what happened to her. For those of you reading this, who have experienced this type of judgement first hand, or the frustration of trying to find something to wear that is attractive and comfortable (when all you have to choose from is some shapeless sack designed by people who obviously never lived a day in a larger frame - I mean come on....capped sleeves?????) or who felt a twinge of guilt or embarrassment buying ice cream at the store, I'm sorry. I'm sorry we (the collective we) can't see past the body composition.

That's all I got.


  1. You should open that gym Kathi and I will be in it EVERY day (except Saturday and Sunday)!

  2. Believe me, N...
    I WILL open that gym and I will hold you to that. I also agree with you n the Saturday and Sunday thing...
    Thanks so much for the comment!


  3. Thanks for sharing. I'm a new reader and I love your blog. I have always loved exercising, but I'm still a big girl---lots of good German stock in this body!! I lost 60 lbs. in college, where it seemed everyone was trying to lose the freshman 15! Then I got married, had a baby, took on a highly stressful job, and found myself right back with those 60 lbs. Ugh. For the past 4 years I've been trying to lose it on my own; now my husband has decided he wants to get healthy, too. YES!!! He realized he could either pay for a gym membership now or pay much more for medicine later. I honestly don't look like I weigh as much as I do because I'm tall--5'10". But I've always been the heaviest of my friends. I'm rambling.

    My point was this--even though I'm overweight, and probably borderline obese, (or maybe I am and don't want to admit it!) I can still "comfortably" fit on all the machines. Very few places in my gym do I have trouble squeezing through. However, I do know what it's like to watch the teeny-tiny girls and overly buff men strut through the gymand then just feel simply horrible after a kick-butt workout. Thanks for recognizing those of us who are trying and do have extra weight getting in the way.

  4. Hi Jamie;
    What an amazing comment! Thank you so much for sharing your story and congrats on the exercise thing. It sounds like you are very healthy (no matter what size you are).

    I wish the fitness center wasn't full of those types of bodies you mentioned (not to mention the grunting that comes out of them at times) but they are. I guess it is all about what you find comfy or not.

    Please remember that no matter what your size, you are healthy and fit. I am not ignoring the fact that we all want to look great but ultimately your husband is right...pay for a membership now or medical costs later (can I use that ?).

    Thanks for reading and please feel free to pass the site address along to your friends!

    Very sincerely,

  5. Yes, please use it! We also want to set a good example for our son. We have nieces and nephews who are obese at their ages (5 and 14, just to name 2). My husband's family has a strong history of heart disease, diabetes, etc. We are hoping we are stopping that trend NOW!

  6. Kathi, what an amazing article and just expressed my dislike for going to the "gym" or "fitness club". I have been overweight most of my life since about age 14, yet always wanted to be fit and healthy. I have made so many attempts at group activities which included swim lessons at ISC which were most humiliating due to fellow workers able to watch.
    (that was only in my mind, they really were not interested in seeing me swim) Now I am 63 years old and have been through quite a year, now we are on the road to weightloss and fitness once again. I will start with just daily walks, and increase as my recovery will allow, but this time I WILL have success. I so enjoy your writings and hope you keep it up. You are such a supportive and understanding person!
    Thanks again Kathi,

  7. Hi Joyce;
    Great to hear from you! Thank you so much for your kind comment and your story. I am sorry you relate to my article so much but I think many other do so too.
    Your plan to walk is brilliant! Just start slowly and if you stick with the same thing for one month, add a little more. Every month can be your marker and within a year, you will be so amazed at what you can achieve.
    You WILL have success....you sound like you are ready!
    All the best.