BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change. The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.
Jeanette DePatie (A.K.A. The Fat Chick) is a plus-sized, certified fitness instructor and personal trainer who has helped thousands of people who haven’t worked out in a while (or ever) learn to love their bodies and love exercise again. She is author of the best-selling book and DVD, “The Fat Chick Works Out!” and she offers training programs (including her Dance To It iOS App) and workouts on her website at: TheFatChick.com. Jeanette is co-creator of the forum at http://www.FitFatties.com with Ragen Chastain and the Hot Flash Mob movement with Dr. Eve Agee athttp://www.HotFlashmob.com.
Ms. DePatie has been interviewed many times on television, radio and in print by many important organizations including “The Katie Couric Show,” NPR, “The Dr. Drew Show,” Fox, CBS and ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, and Women’s Health. You can learn more about Jeanette at: http://www.thefatchick.com.
Making Fitness About Fun, Not About Weight Stigma
“Suck in your gut! Don’t wimp out! Do five more reps! Keep this up and you’ll lose that tummy and firm your booty!”
Go to any gym in the country and you are likely to hear some, if not all of the phrases listed above. As gym goers we are taught to expect these phrases. And unfortunately, as gym instructors, personal trainers and physical therapists we are not taught to avoid them and these phrases are emblematic of how we as instructors are failing to help our students build positive, lifelong relationships with fitness.
Let me start by saying that I have experienced some unbelievably bad personal training and exercise instruction in the past. It’s a miracle I didn’t get hurt worse than I did (although I bear some permanent scars). And it’s a miracle I didn’t give up on exercise altogether (although I spent several years avoiding exercise).
I had one personal trainer in particular who decided not only would he do whatever it took to make me thin, he would also hold me up as the poster child for the success of his services. At our very first session, he started me out with a maximal exertion test without telling me that is what he was doing. Even though he knew I had been sedentary, he got me up on that treadmill, cranked up the elevation, cranked up the speed and told me to keep going until the treadmill stopped. He looked away from my red, panting face to flirt with some pretty girls and tried to solicit some other gym members to join his training services. He glanced up occasionally and offered a firm command to keep at it, carefully ignoring my pained expression and labored breathing. And I finished the test. All of it. And since he wasn’t privy to my post workout vomiting and two day full-body ache, he counted it as a success.
Twice a week for several months, I subjected myself to this torture. He constantly berated me for not doing enough. He quizzed me endlessly about what I ate. He wasn’t interested when I told him about my pain or my exhaustion. He didn’t want to know about mornings when I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoes or lift my arms to wash my hair. He just knew that I wasn’t losing weight fast enough and was seriously in danger of robbing him of the before/after case study he thought he needed to move his coaching practice to the next level.
After a few months, I not only stopped seeing him, but also stopped exercising altogether. The cost was just too high. The constant pain and exhaustion made it extremely difficult to keep up with the rest of my schedule as a full time student with a nearly full-time job on the side. And, to put it bluntly, it sucked. It was boring, frustrating and not at all fun.
So often fat exercisers are led to believe that fitness activities are a justifiable punishment for not having a body that is socially, acceptably skinny. Many fat exercisers who complain are labeled as whiners. Gyms actively discourage participants who don’t fit the “corporate image” of the facility. And instructors sigh and roll their eyes as they label fat exercisers as non-compliant.
Luckily, at some point down the road I learned that fitness doesn’t need to be this way. Exercise instructors can learn to respect their students both as the main experts of their own bodies and as adult human beings who should be treated with decency and kindness. Exercise students of all sizes can learn to stop seeing their bodies as enemies that must be conquered and start seeing their bodies as the beautiful, powerful, wondrous and unique miracles that they really are. Exercise students can learn to listen to their bodies and learn to distinguish between aches and pains, between fatigue and dangerous overwork and between progress towards fitness and progress towards disabling injuries. And exercise instructors can use their expertise and creativity to create individualized fitness programs that are totally and ridiculously fun.
In my fifteen years as an exercise instructor, I have learned several techniques to create a positive environment for exercisers of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. I’ve helped thousands of people learn to love their bodies and love exercise again. I have come past my own horrible experiences with exercise and trainers more determined than ever to help people build a lifelong, loving relationship with physical fitness.
It begins with empowerment. I try to start every class reminding the student or students that this is their time. This is their session or their class. And I remind them that they are in charge of their own bodies. I can recommend and demonstrate exercises. I can suggest things that I think might help them. But I am not in their bodies and I don’t know how they feel unless they tell me. At the beginning of the class I prompt them, “remember when you were little and you ran to tell your mom ‘It hurts when I do this!’? What did your Mom say?” “Don’t do that!” they shout. And I confirm for them that if something hurts they just shouldn’t do it.
At the beginning of each class I try to give a few simple “fallback steps” like marching in place or doing a step touch that the students can do if they find a particular move painful, frustrating or confusing. I encourage the students to keep a chair nearby if they need to rest and remind them to work at their own pace. I even tell the students that I expect them to all look different as they exercise. I tell them that if they all look exactly the same, I will feel like a failure as a teacher. I tell them that I fully expect them to do the exercises in their own way. And when a student grabs a chair or modifies a movement, I praise them for engaging in good self-care.
And I refuse to allow fat talk of any kind in my classes. I talk about moves in terms of building strength, stamina or coordination. I talk about improving balance and ability to tackle activities of daily living. And if a student says something about how they hate their thighs or butt or tummy, I stop the class right then and ask the student to apologize to their body for saying mean things. I ask them to thank their body for the amazing things it does for them. And then we move right along.
I am deeply committed to helping every student feel like a success every time they exercise. I feel we have all learned so many ways to fail at exercise. But every time a student shows up to work out, every time they exercise in a sustainable way that allows them to work out again tomorrow, I count it as a success.
One of the most challenging parts of helping students feel successful as exercisers is to help them set reasonable expectations from their exercise programs. Magazine articles, infomercials and countless other sources have sought to convince exercisers that exercise will completely transform the appearance of their bodies. They are told they will have six-pack abs and super model thighs and encouraged to believe that these visual markers constitute success. There is no question that encouraging people to harbor completely unrealistic expectations when it comes to the way exercise will transform their physical appearance is good for business. Billions of dollars worth of books, DVDs, boot camps, pieces of equipment and fitness programs are sold on this premise. But dramatic physical transformation is either fleeting or impossible for a large percentage of the population. And when exercisers fail to see dramatic changes in their physical appearance, they often work harder and faster than is appropriate for their body, resulting in pain, dropout or injury. Exercisers are taught to believe that their inability to look like a fitness magazine cover model is a physical and moral failing on their part, rather than the inevitable result of being sold a lie about what fitness can really do for them. And the sad part is that many students who are actually achieving huge gains in wellness and functional fitness, quit exercising altogether when they fail to achieve the physical transformation demonstrated in the before/after pictures in the promotional material.
So I consider setting reasonable expectations to be a very important part of my job as a fitness teacher. I encourage students to find their own personal markers of success. I ask them how they are feeling and how they are sleeping. I ask them if certain tasks in their daily lives are becoming easier. I help them recognize, understand and appreciate the benefits they are seeing in their own lives so they stay encouraged to keep at it another day, another week or another year.
And I focus a tremendous amount of energy on helping make exercise programs fun. Because exercise is a reward we give to our bodies for being wonderful. Exercise is something we do out of love for ourselves. “Exercise is like sex!” I shout. “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right!” There are only so many hours in a day. Eventually we all have to decide between a workout or an hour sitting in sweat pants watching TV. If exercise is boring, painful or not fun, TV and stretchy pants will win out every single time.
In short, I help students of all sizes stop seeing exercise as a painful, frustrating and boring punishment they have to do because their bodies don’t look good enough and start seeing exercise as an empowering, life-giving and fun thing they can choose to do because their bodies are awesome. And when I can help a student, any student, begin to make that transformation, I count that as a major win.